West Memphis Three Freed After 18 Years in Weird Plea Deal

Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley Jr., the so-called "West Memphis Three" who were wrongly convicted in 1994 of child murder in West Memphis, Arkansas, and whose case became a cause celebre, were freed this morning.

The three men—two of whom were serving life sentences and one of whom was on death row—originally pleaded not guilty and have always maintained their innocence in the face of a prosecution that offered no physical evidence and was based largely on the fact that Eccols had dabbled in witchcraft. Their cause was taken up by the likes of Eddie Vedder, Johnny Depp, and Natalie Manes, and they were the subject of a documentary, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, that explored the holes in their case.

After newly analyzed DNA evidence failed to link the men to the murders, they were on the verge of getting a new trial. Instead of going through that, prosecutors cut a deal, allowing the men to offer what's called an Alford plea—which is basically a way of saying "I'm not guilty, but you'll probably get a conviction anyway"—in exchange for their freedom. It's unclear whether the deal leaves them room to sue for prosecutorial misconduct or false imprisonment; attorney Max Kennerly argues here that an Alford plea shouldn't bar them from pursuing the prosecutors or cops who put them away.

It's a good thing these men will finally be free, but this deal reeks. Either they horrendously murdered three children, or they didn't. Either they deserve to die in prison, or they don't. For the prosecution to come up with this wink-and-a-nod, face-saving deal that lets them walk without acknowledging the vast miscarriage of justice that put them in prison in the first place is a perverse dodge. If they don't deserve to be in prison, whoever put them there does.