UPDATE: After serving 17 years behind bars for the brutal murder of three children in eastern Arkansas, Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley Jr. and Jason Baldwin -- dubbed the "West Memphis Three" -- have been released from prison. (READ MORE)
JONESBORO, Ark. (Associated Press)-- Three men convicted of killing three 8-year-old Cub Scouts in Arkansas were set for a hearing Friday that could end with their release from custody after nearly two decades in prison.
The father of one of the victims and a person familiar with the case told The Associated Press that Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley would be offered a chance to change their pleas in the 1993 killings at West Memphis. Echols was sentenced to die for the brutal killings and Baldwin and Misskelley were sentenced to life terms. Misskelley initially confessed, but defense attorneys claim police took advantage of his low IQ.
A person who spoke on condition of anonymity because of a gag order in the case told the AP the tentative deal includes a legal maneuver that would let the men maintain their innocence while acknowledging prosecutors likely have enough evidence to convict them.
"It's a highly technical way to put an end to judicial proceedings in the case," the person told the AP.
Uniformed sheriff's deputies tried to sort through the chaos Friday as hundreds of people - spectators, reporters, supporters - filled the hallway outside the courtroom. Officials called for quiet among those waiting to attend the public hearing scheduled for later in the morning as a closed-door hearing began at 10 a.m.
Some in the crowd applauded as Lorri Davis, Damien Echols' wife, entered the courthouse. Pearl Jam front man Eddie Vedder also traveled to Jonesboro for the hearing.
The defendants, whose case and cause were taken up by celebrities following a pair of documentaries, are known collectively as the "West Memphis 3." They were convicted in 1994 of killing Steve Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore and leaving their naked bodies in a West Memphis ditch.
The Arkansas Supreme Court last year ordered new hearings for the three after defense attorneys said new DNA evidence could exonerate them. A courtroom date had been set for December, but Craighead County Circuit Judge David Laser scheduled a hearing for Friday without releasing details.
Byers' adoptive father, John Mark Byers, said he believes Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley are innocent. He said Thursday that prosecutors told him that they planned to reach a no-contest plea.
"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.
The person familiar with the case said that the earlier verdicts would likely be set aside and ultimately replaced with the negotiated pleas. In what's called an Alford plea, the three 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 offensive, 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.
Jeannie Nuss can be reached at http://twitter.com/jeannienuss