The men known as the "West Memphis Three," who served more than 18 years behind bars for the notorious 1993 murders of three young boys and became a cause celebre among actors and musicians who doubted their guilt, won their freedom Friday in an Arkansas courtroom after new evidence arose to potentially challenge their convictions.
Damien Echols and Jessie Misskelley, both 36, and Jason Baldwin, 34, pleaded guilty to first-degree murder charges but will be able to claim they are innocent, a rare arrangement known as an Alford plea.
"It's not perfect by any means," Echols said at a news conference after the hearing. "But at least it brings closure. We can still try to clear our names. The only difference is now we can do it from the outside."
Echols, the alleged ringleader, had been on death row. Baldwin and Misskelley were serving life sentences.
The gruesome slayings of the 8-year-old boys -- Christopher Byers, Steve Branch and Michael Moore -- terrified the small city of West Memphis, Ark., leading to rumors that a satanic cult was responsible.
After disappearing one afternoon in May 1993, the second-graders were found "naked, bound and in horrific condition, submerged in a creek in the woods," according to one court filing.
Later, the convicts' plight became an enduring issue among musicians and Hollywood actors who were concerned that the suspects, teenagers at the time, were persecuted for being different. Their black clothing and taste for heavy metal music had been presented by prosecutors as part of an argument that they were Satanists who had engaged in "an occult murder."
Singers Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks and Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, who had publicly called for a new trial, attended Friday's court hearing.
Scott Ellington, the prosecuting attorney in Jonesboro, Ark., said that with new revelations, it was likely the men would have received new trials and that it would have been "practically impossible" to put on a proper trial 18 years after the slayings.
He noted that two of the victims' families had also decided over time that the men were wrongly accused.
After the slayings, West Memphis police interviewed Misskelley, who told them he watched as Baldwin, then 16, and Echols, then 19, killed the boys.
The three were convicted in 1994 but have been behind bars since their arrests shortly after the killings, ultimately serving 17 years of their sentence.
Supporters said Misskelley's confession was false and coerced, and have noted that he is mentally disabled. He later recanted the confession.
More recently, attorneys for the men raised a number of other issues that would have likely been brought up in fresh trials. The Arkansas Supreme Court found that none of the recent DNA testing of material at the crime scene pointed to the convicted men. (There had been no such testing at the time of the trial.) The high court had ordered new hearings for December.