LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – Three men imprisoned for nearly two decades for the brutal murders of three 8-year-old boys in eastern Arkansas could be released from custody as early as Friday if a deal with prosecutors goes as planned, victims' relatives and a person familiar with the case told The Associated Press.
A tentative deal would include a legal maneuver allowing the men to maintain their innocence claim while admitting that prosecutors likely have enough evidence to win a conviction, the person familiar with the case said. That person spoke on the condition of anonymity because of a gag order barring parties in the case from speaking publicly about it.
"It's a highly technical way to put an end to judicial proceedings in the case," the person told the AP.
Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley and Jason Baldwin were convicted in 1994 of killing Steve Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore a year earlier and leaving their naked bodies in a ditch in West Memphis, Ark. Echols was sentenced to death. Misskelley and Baldwin were ordered to spend the rest of their lives in prison.
Defense attorneys, along with celebrities and legal experts, have long said the men were wrongly convicted. The three men, known to supporters as the West Memphis Three, won new hearings from the Arkansas Supreme Court in November, more than 15 years after they went to prison despite little physical evidence linking them to the crime scene. Their attorneys point to new DNA evidence that they say should help exonerate the three men.
The support for the West Memphis Three reaches some of the victims' relatives who have questioned whether the right people were behind bars.
Byers' adoptive father, John Mark Byers, said he believes Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley are innocent. He said prosecutors told him that they planned to reach a no-contest plea on Thursday.
"There's certainly no justice for the three men that's been in prison or my son and his two friends," Byers said. "To me, this is just a cop-out from the state for not wanting to admit that they made a mistake."
Prosecuting Attorney Scott Ellington declined to comment, as did defense attorneys and a spokesman for the state's attorney general. They all cited a gag order issued by the judge overseeing the case.
Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley were slated to appear in court for an evidentiary hearing in December. But on Thursday, Craighead County Circuit Judge David Laser announced that the men would be in court on Friday. He declined to release any further details about the hearing.
But the person familiar with the case said that the earlier verdicts would likely be set aside in order to go ahead with the tentative agreement. In what's called an Alford plea, they would agree that prosecutors have a solid amount of evidence against them -- likely enough to win a conviction.
Normally, when defendants plead guilty in criminal cases, they admit that they've done the crime in question. But in an Alford plea, defendants are allowed to insist they're innocent, says Kay Levine, a former prosecutor who now teaches criminal law and criminal procedure at Emory University in Atlanta. She is not involved with the Arkansas case.
"It's not an insane strategy decision," Levine said. But, she added: "It's incredibly troubling to us as a free society that people would plead guilty to something that they actually did not do."
Some judges find the legal maneuver offense, Levine says, because they see no reason someone would not contest to a crime that they didn't commit. But most prosecutors would take the agreement, she said.
"The prosecutors still get the deal that they have already struck," she said.
Department of Correction spokeswoman Dina Tyler said the men were transferred from Arkansas prisons, along with their possessions, on Thursday, ahead of Friday's hearing in Jonesboro. They're being held in a county jail there until their court appearance.