Under the terms of a deal reached with prosecutors, Mr. Echols, Mr. Baldwin and Mr. Misskelley leave as men who maintain their innocence yet who pleaded guilty to murder, as men whom the state still consider to be child killers but whom the state deemed safe enough to set free.Celebrities got involved. And there was an excellent documentary (which focused on the prejudice against teenagers who liked heavy metal music).
Despite a half-hour of esoteric legal procedure, the courtroom was charged with raw feeling. Several of the relatives of the victims were ejected for their outbursts. One told the judge he was opening a Pandora’s box in allowing this deal; another shouted that the defendants were murderers and baby-killers....
Many residents of West Memphis often resented, and still resent, the presumption that outsiders knew the details of the horrific case better than they did.
Under the seemingly contradictory deal, Judge David Laser vacated the previous convictions, including the capital murder convictions for Mr. Echols and Mr. Baldwin. After doing so, he ordered a new trial, something the prosecutors agreed to if the men would enter so-called Alford guilty pleas. These pleas allow people to maintain their innocence and admit frankly that they are pleading guilty because they consider it in their best interest.(You can read the Alford case here.)
The district prosecuting attorney, Scott Ellington, said afterward that the state still considered the men guilty. But he acknowledged they would probably be acquitted if a new trial were held, and he expressed concern that if the men were exonerated at the trial, they could sue the state, possibly for millions of dollars.So... the state is shielding itself from a big suit for damages. This way the prosecutor can avoid that lawsuit and also act as if there was no miscarriage of justice here. The 3 men are taking the deal, because it's in their interest too. They get out of prison (and in Echols's case, the death penalty), avoid further proceedings, and can go on to do something with the lives that have been shorn of an 18-year chunk of youth.
(I highly recommend the documentary: "Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills / Paradise Lost 2: Revelations.")