Defense Lawyer: 'West Memphis Three' Were Originally Convicted Because They Were 'Easy Targets'

DNA evidence feeds doubts about the three men's murder convictions.

ByABC News
August 19, 2011, 10:17 AM

Aug. 19, 2011 -- A defense attorney for the newly freed "West Memphis Three" said that the men were originally convicted because at the time they were "easy targets."

"They were convicted in a sort of speedy case back in 1993 -- part of a satanic panic in small town community," Stephen Braga, one of the defense attorneys for Damien Echols told "Nightline." "They were the unusual kids in town. ... They dressed in black. They listened to heavy metal music. They were goths before goths were fashionable, so they were easy targets."

The three men -- Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jesse Misskelley, Jr. -- who served 18 years for the 1993 deaths of three 8-year-old boys from West Memphis, Ark., and became a rallying cause among celebrities who doubted their guilt, were allowed to walk free today after the defense presented new DNA evidence that could challenge their convictions.

"I won't tell you it's a perfect resolution," Braga said. "It's the best possible resolution under the circumstances."

Echols was on death row.

"I'm just tired," Misskelley said at a news conference earlier today. "This has been going on for 18 years. It's been an absolute living hell."

"This was not justice," said Baldwin. "In the beginning we told nothing but the truth. We were innocent, and they sent us to prison for the rest of our lives."

A judge accepted a plea deal today that allowed the men to maintain their innocence while acknowledging that prosecutors have enough evidence to convict them. It's a rare arrangement known as an Alford plea.

"This is kind of a compromise," said ABC News legal analyst Dan Abrams. "This is both the defendants and prosecutor saying, 'We don't want to have another trial and it's time to set them free.' ... This is the defendant saying almost with a wink and a nod, 'Yeah, we'll plead guilty,' in quotes, but the reality is they're saying, 'We didn't do it.'"

In addition to the 18 years the men have already served, the judge ruled they will be on suspended sentences for 10 years -- not probation -- which could be revoked if they get into trouble.

"It is not perfect, by any means," Echols said at a news conference earlier today, adding, "We can still try to clear our names. The only difference is now we can do it from the outside."

But it is a legal maneuver that allows the men to leave prison for the first time in more than a dozen years. They have always maintained their innocence.

"This is not a technicality," Abrams said. "There were legitimate questions here about whether these three were responsible for the crime they were convicted of. ... The prosecutor wouldn't have released them if he thought he could get a conviction."

As far as prosecutor Scott Ellington is concerned, he said today, "The case is closed," despite his firm belief that the West Memphis Three are guilty.

"I have no reason to believe that there was anyone else involved in the homicide of those three children," other than those three defendants, he said.

The victims -- Christopher Byers, Steven Branch and James Michael Moore -- were found naked, beaten and hogtied in a drainage ditch. They had been sexually abused and one of the boys had been partially castrated. Echols, who was 19 at the time, was considered the mastermind and given the death penalty.

Baldwin, 16 at the time, and Misskelley, 17, were sentenced to life in prison, plus 40 years. The prosecution had claimed the murders were part of a satanic ritual. Police officers also extracted a confession from Misskelley, which was not admitted at trial. Misskelley, who is mentally challenged, retracted the confession within days.

The stepfather of one of the murdered boys was outside the Jonesboro, Ark., courthouse today angrily protesting the possible deal, but not for the reason one might expect. He's convinced of the innocence of the West Memphis Three and is passionately arguing that they should not have to make a deal with the state in order to go free.

He is also repeatedly naming the man he believes to be the real killer of the three boys.

Another father, Steve Branch, is angry, too. But he still believes the West Memphis Three are guilty and wonders why, if they pled no contest to the murders, they are being released.

The defense has named Terry Hobbs, who is a stepfather of one of the victims, as a potential new suspect. His DNA was matched to a hair found on the shoelaces used to tie the boys before they were dumped in a ditch. Hobbs, who was questioned early on, denies any involvement and has not been named as a suspect.

The judge had two motions in front of him. One motion alleging juror misconduct in the original case and the other dealing with DNA testing results that allegedly excluded all three men from the crime.

Echols, now 36, Baldwin, 34, and Misskelley, 36, have always maintained their innocence and the case has received considerable publicity, and recently some high-profile financial support.

In August 2010, a rally that featured the Dixie Chicks' Natalie Maines, actor Johnny Depp and Pearl Jam's lead singer Eddie Vedder was held in Little Rock, Ark., to raise funds.

"Three innocent people are losing years of their life on a wrongful conviction on a crime they didn't commit," Maines said at the rally. "It makes me scared. It could happen to any of us."

Two books and two HBO documentaries have been released about the case. YouTube videos, a support group called "Arkansas Take Action" and a website,, round out the media blitz.

The third installment of HBO's documentary series about the case, "Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory" is set to debut at the Toronto and New York film festivals in September. The producers had to rush to get to Arkansas for this hearing, and they are there to film and preparing to change the ending.

They had originally been dispatched in 1994 by HBO to the first trial to do a film about how young kids could have gone so wrong to the point of murdering three little boys. Only after observing the trial did they change the theme of the original film.

Echols' lead attorney, Donald Horgan, said ealier today that while it might appear as though celebrity support for the "West Memphis Three" sets the case apart, their story is all too common.

"For every group of defendants like these that ultimately get some attention paid to them, there are 100 who are innocent, who have no legal or financial support," Horgan said.

When the teens were convicted in 1993, he said, they had almost no money to pay for legal help and, as a result, were convicted of a crime they did not commit.