Last November, the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled that there was enough evidence to call a hearing to determine whether to have a new trial. The hearing was scheduled for this coming December.
But it was less than three weeks ago that lawyers representing Mr. Echols began working on a deal to offer to prosecutors that would free the men.
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.
The three men did just that, standing in court and quietly proclaiming their innocence but at the same time pleading guilty to charges of first- and second-degree murder. The judge then sentenced them to 18 years and 78 days, the amount of time they had served, and also levied a suspended sentence of 10 years.
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.
Despite the new DNA evidence, Mr. Ellington declared the case closed, a necessary — if, to some, troubling — stance if the state is to continue to hold that the right men were convicted.