Jonesboro, Ark. - The end, if it can be called that, came all of a sudden.
After nearly two decades in prison for the murder of three young boys, Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr., commonly known as the West Memphis Three, stood up in a courtroom here on Friday, proclaimed their innocence even as they pleaded guilty, and, minutes later, walked out as free men.
The freeing of Mr. Echols, 36, was the highest-profile release of a death row inmate in recent memory. Mr. Baldwin, 34, and Mr. Misskelley, 36, had been serving life sentences.
In keeping with the tenor of this case since its first horrific hours, the circumstances of the release were bizarre, divisive and bewildering even to some of those who were directly involved.
Under the terms of a deal 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 considers to be child killers but whom the state deemed safe enough to set free.
Despite a half-hour of esoteric legal procedure, the courtroom was charged with raw feeling, and 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.
The hearing was something of a reunion, with reporters, former defense lawyers, family members and observers who have followed the case for two decades coming together possibly for the last time. Families joyously anticipating homecomings sat next to long-grieving fathers contemplating a dreaded turn of events they had not thought possible days earlier.
At a news conference afterward, surrounded by lawyers and treated as celebrities by their army of supporters, including the singer Eddie Vedder and members of the Dixie Chicks, the men seemed, above all, exhausted.
“I’m just tired,” Mr. Echols said. “This has been going on for 18 years.”
It was May 1993 when the nude bodies of three 8-year-old boys, Christopher Byers, Stevie Branch and Michael Moore, were found in a drainage canal in Robin Hood Hills, a wooded area in the poor Arkansas town of West Memphis. The bodies appeared to have been mutilated, and their hands were tied to their feet.
The grotesque nature of the murders, coming in the midst of a nationwide concern about satanic cult activity, especially among teenagers, led investigators from the West Memphis Police Department to focus on Mr. Echols, a troubled yet gifted 18-year-old who wore all black, listened to heavy metal music and considered himself a Wiccan. Efforts to learn more about him through a woman cooperating with the police led to Mr. Misskelley, a 17-year-old acquaintance of Mr. Echols’s.
After a nearly 12-hour police interrogation, Mr. Misskelley confessed to the murders and implicated Mr. Echols and Mr. Baldwin, who was 16 at the time, though his confession diverged in significant details, like the time of the murders, with the facts known by the police. Mr. Misskelley later recanted, but on the strength of that confession he was convicted in February 1994.
Mr. Echols and Mr. Baldwin soon after were convicted of three counts of capital murder in a separate trial in Jonesboro, where the proceedings had been moved because of extensive publicity in West Memphis. The convictions were largely based on the testimony of witnesses who said they heard the teenagers talk of the murders, and on the prosecution’s argument that the defendants had been motivated as members of a satanic cult. Mr. Misskelley’s confession was not admitted at their trial, though recently a former lawyer for that jury’s foreman filed an affidavit saying that the foreman, determined to convict, had brought the confession up in deliberations to sway undecided jurors.
While many were convinced of the guilt of Mr. Echols, the alleged ringleader, others were immediately skeptical, believing he was singled out for being an outsider in a small town.
An award-winning documentary, “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills,” was released after their convictions, bringing them national attention.
Benefit concerts were held, books were written, a follow-up documentary was made and a movement to free the “West Memphis Three” grew in size and intensity, drawing those intrigued by the case and those who saw a kinship with the men at the heart of it.
“I was kind of going through the same clothing style: long hair, dark clothes,” said Mecinda Smith, 30, one of the hundreds of supporters who had come to the courthouse, holding posters and wearing “Free the WM3” T-shirts.
“We were just trying to stand out and be different,” said Ms. Smith, who was 12 when the murders took place.
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.
“It just goes to show you that he’s been manipulating,” said Steve Branch, the father of one of the victims, referring to Mr. Echols. Mr. Branch was among those ejected for an outburst at the hearing. “As far as I’m concerned, he was going to pay for killing my son.”
But even some of the victims’ families began to doubt the men’s guilt, including Stevie Branch’s mother, Pamela Hobbs, and John Mark Byers, the father of Chris Byers. Both attended the hearing. “Three young men have had 18 years of their lives taken away,” said Mr. Byers, who appeared in the original documentary profanely condemning the men. “To see them get out and have a normal life is a blessing from God.”
Over the years, appeals failed, as did post-conviction hearings, but the case got new life in 2007 when defense lawyers representing Mr. Echols reported that new forensic tests of evidence at the crime scene turned up no genetic material belonging to any of the men — and even turned up some belonging to Stevie Branch’s stepfather, Terry Hobbs. Mr. Hobbs was at the hearing, too.
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 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 prosecuting attorney, Scott Ellington, said in an interview that the state still considered the men guilty and that, new DNA findings notwithstanding, he knew of no current suspects.
“We don’t think that there is anybody else,” Mr. Ellington said, declaring the case closed.
Asked how he could free murderers if he believed they were guilty, he acknowledged that the three would likely be acquitted if a new trial were held, given the prominent lawyers now representing them, the fact that evidence has decayed or disappeared over time and the death or change of heart of several witnesses. He also expressed concern that if the men were exonerated at trial, they could sue the state, possibly for millions.
“I believe that with all the circumstances that were facing the state in this case, this resolution is one that is palatable and I think that after a period of time it will be acceptable to the public as the right thing,” Mr. Ellington said.
Not all of the three welcomed the deal. During the 1994 trial, prosecutors offered to reduce Mr. Baldwin’s sentence if he pleaded guilty and testified against Mr. Echols. He refused then and initially resisted this deal, insisting as a matter of principle that he would not plead guilty to something he did not do.
But, he said, his refusing this deal would have meant Mr. Echols stayed on death row.
“This was not justice,” he said of the deal. “However, they’re trying to kill Damien.”
The lawyers for the men said they would continue to pursue full exoneration. Other than that, none of the men said they had any immediate plans.