JONESBORO, Ark. — Three men convicted in the nightmarish slayings of three 8-year-old Cub Scouts in 1993 went free Friday, nearly two decades after they were sent to prison in a case so gruesome it raised suspicions the children had been sacrificed in a satanic ritual.
Doubts about the evidence against the trio, who were teenagers when they were convicted, had persisted for years and threatened to force prosecutors to put on a second trial in 2012 in light of DNA evidence that surfaced in the past few years.
Instead, the so-called West Memphis Three were permitted to plead guilty to murder in exchange for time served, ending a long-running legal battle.
The men — Damien Echols, 36, Jason Baldwin, 34, and Jessie Misskelley Jr., 36 — entered the pleas under a legal provision that allowed them to maintain their innocence while acknowledging that prosecutors had enough evidence to convict them.
"Although I am innocent, this plea is in my best interest," Misskelley said.
Echols had been on Arkansas' death row and in 1994 came within three weeks of execution. On Friday he accused prosecutors of using innuendo and faulty evidence to convict them.
Prosecutor Scott Ellington said it would be "practically impossible" to put on a proper trial after 18 years. The mother of a witness who testified about Echols' confession has publicly questioned her daughter's truthfulness. And a crime lab employee who collected fiber evidence at two of the defendants' homes has died.
"I believe this case is closed, and there are no other individuals involved," Ellington said.
The killings were particularly ghastly. The boys — Steve Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore — were found naked and hogtied, and rumors of satanism roiled the community of 30,000 people across the Mississippi River from Memphis.
Echols said he and the others would keep working to clear their names.
Asked by reporters about his plans, Baldwin replied: "Live my life the best I can and enjoy every moment of it."