ATLANTA — The three men known as the "West Memphis 3," who have been imprisoned for 18 years for a notorious 1993 child-murder case, have won their freedom in an Arkansas courtroom after new evidence arose casting doubt on their original convictions.
In an agreement with prosecutors, the three men — Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley and Jason Baldwin — pleaded guilty to the murders of three 8-year-old boys in May 1993, but are able to claim they are innocent, an arrangement known as an "Alford plea."
The three men were released Friday after serving sentences of 18 years plus credit for time served.
"Today's proceeding allows the defendants the freedom of speech to say they are innocent, but the fact is, they just plead guilty," Scott Ellington, district prosecuting attorney for Craighead County, Ark., said in a prepared statement.
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The case of the West Memphis 3 — teenagers when arrested — became a cause celebre in music and Hollywood circles as questions emerged about their trial, in which prosecutors argued that the suspects, who favored black clothing and heavy metal music, murdered the boys as part of a satanic ritual.
At one point, Misskelley confessed to police that he, Echols and Baldwin had attacked, raped and murdered the second-graders. Supporters said the confession was false and coerced, and noted that Misskelley is mentally disabled.
Since then, the Arkansas Supreme Court determined that DNA evidence found at the scene "conclusively excluded" the three, and attorneys for the men had asked for a new hearing to consider new evidence.
Henry Rollins, the former singer of the punk band Black Flag, was among those who rallied support for the Memphis 3, releasing a benefit album to aid their defense.
Rollins, in an e-mail to the Los Angeles Times on Friday, said that the news had made him "literally dizzy."
"I am happy for the guys but so much has been lost," said Rollins, who is on tour in Scotland. "Three boys were killed. In my opinion, the wrong people were incarcerated and the person or persons who did it are still out there, alive or dead, still not brought to justice."
Echols said he and the others would keep working to clear their names. The men, who were teenagers when they were convicted, have spent half their lives in prison.
Asked by reporters about his plans, Baldwin replied, "Live my life the best I can and enjoy every moment of it."