LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – The man with the power to grant pardons in Arkansas said Tuesday he doesn't plan to issue them in the "West Memphis Three" case unless evidence shows someone else was to blame for the murders of three Cub Scouts nearly two decades ago.
Gov. Mike Beebe said he doesn't consider pardons until all sentences are completed. The three men who were convicted — Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley — have 10 years of what amounts to unsupervised probation after being released from custody Friday. Beebe's term will expire long before then.
"They still have, as I understand it, a sentence to be completed," Beebe told reporters before speaking at an economic development conference in Little Rock. Beebe later added that he wouldn't consider pardons for the three "unless there was compelling evidence that somebody else was responsible."
Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley have long said they didn't kill the three boys in 1993. After an HBO documentary detailed their case in 1996, the men known as the "West Memphis Three" garnered celebrity support and hefty donations to fund expensive DNA testing and private investigators. Now, following their release last week, supporters of the three say they hope to find evidence that will clear their names.
But prosecutor Scott Ellington says he doesn't expect they'll find proof of another person involved in the killings.
"The state believes that this case is concluded by the convictions of the three individuals who committed these heinous murders back in 1993," Ellington said.
One of Echols' attorneys, Dennis Riordan, said that even though the three men were freed, they are determined to clear their names.
"Because they did not commit the crimes, obviously someone else did, and it is their intention as well as the intention of their lawyers to obtain and present either the courts, Gov. Beebe, or his successor, precisely the kind of evidence that will justify a full pardon based on a finding of actual innocence," Riordan told The Associated Press by phone from San Francisco.
The bodies of three 8-year-old boys — Michael Moore, Steve Branch and Christopher Byers — were found in a West Memphis ditch, naked and hogtied, in May 1993. Police had no leads until they received a tip that Echols had been seen covered in mud on the night of the boys' disappearance. The big break came when Misskelley unexpectedly confessed and implicated the other two, describing sodomy and other violence.
Misskelley, then 17, later recanted, and defense lawyers said he got several parts of the story wrong.
But the three were convicted. Misskelley was sentenced to life in prison plus 40 years, Baldwin got life without parole and Echols was slated to die.
Doubts about the evidence against the trio threatened to force prosecutors to put on a new trial, which Ellington said would be "practically impossible" to win nearly two decades later.
All three were freed Friday following a swiftly arranged plea deal. Their original convictions were set aside and the men pleaded guilty to lesser charges in exchange for sentences of the 18 years they'd already served. As part of a rare legal maneuver called an Alford plea, the men were allowed to maintain their claims of innocence.
Beebe said he was surprised by the deal, but would not say whether he agreed with the arrangement.
"I don't have all the facts they had. I wasn't involved in the facts they had, so I'm not going to second guess," he said.
Before the three were released, Beebe had dismissed the idea of pardoning them or commuting their sentences. In 2007, he said their supporters would be better served seeking their freedom through the courts, rather than his office.
Associated Press writer Tim Jacobs in Chicago contributed to this report.
Andrew DeMillo can be reached at http://twitter.com/ademillo. Jeannie Nuss can be reached at http://twitter.com/jeannienuss.