"West Memphis Three" freed after 18 years

Three men convicted of killing three 8-year-old Cub Scouts and dumping their bodies in an Arkansas ditch changed their pleas Friday, resolving a yearslong effort to win their freedom.

The West Memphis 3: From left, Jason Baldwin, Damien Echols and Jessie Misskelley Jr.

JONESBORO, Ark. (CBS/AP) -- Three men convicted of killing three 8-year-old Cub Scouts and dumping their bodies in an Arkansas ditch changed their pleas Friday, resolving a yearslong effort to win their freedom.

Under a plea bargain, Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley were being freed immediately. The families of Steve Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore were notified about the pact ahead of time but were not asked to approve it.

The defendants, known by their supporters as the West Memphis Three, agreed to a legal maneuver that lets them maintain their innocence while acknowledging prosecutors have enough evidence against them. They were credited with time served, and Echols is being freed from Arkansas' death row. They were placed on 10 years' probation and if they re-offend they could be sent back to prison for 21 years, Prosecutor Scott Ellington said.

"I believe this case is closed," Ellington said.

The May 5, 1993, killings were particularly gruesome. The three boys were found nude and hogtied. Branch and Moore drowned in about 2 feet of water; Byers bled to death and his genitals were mutilated and partially removed.

Because Echols wore black and listened to heavy metal music, investigators believed the murders were part of a satanic ritual, reports 48 Hours correspondent Erin Moriarty. (Watch 48 Hours' report on the "West Memphis Three" below.)

Police had few leads until receiving a tip that Echols had been seen mud-covered the night the boys disappeared. The big break came when Misskelley unexpectedly confessed and implicated Baldwin and Echols in the killings.

"Then they tied them up, tied their hands up," Misskelley said in the statement to police, parts of which were tape-recorded. After describing sodomizing and other violence, he went on: "And I saw it and turned around and looked, and then I took off running. I went home, then they called me and asked me, `How come I didn't stay? I told them, I just couldn't."'

Misskelley later recanted, and defense lawyers said the then-17-year-old got several parts of the story incorrect. An autopsy said there was no definite evidence of sexual assault. Miskelley had said the older boys abducted the Scouts in the morning, when they had actually been in school all day.

The three men had won new hearings from the Arkansas Supreme Court in November, more than 15 years after they went to prison despite little physical evidence linking them to the crime scene. Their attorneys pointed to new DNA evidence that they say would have helped exonerate the three men.

The scene was lively at the court Friday, with hundreds of people — spectators, reporters, supporters — filling the hallway outside the courtroom.

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 cause of the three men was championed by several celebrities, including Vedder and actor Johnny Depp.

Byers' adoptive father, John Mark Byers, said he believes Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley are innocent. He said prosecutors told him that they planned to reach a no-contest plea on Thursday.

"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."

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