West Memphis Three Set Free

In Arkansas Friday, three men convicted of killing several young Cub Scouts and dumping their bodies in a ditch changed their pleas. It resolves a years-long effort to win their freedom after evidence showed they didn't commit the crimes.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host: And I'm Melissa Block. Three Arkansas men are free today after serving 18 years behind bars. They were convicted of the brutal murders of three 8-year-old boys. Thousands of their supporters, including celebrities, helped keep the case in the spotlight. As Kelly MacNeil of member station KUAR reports, the men were allowed a new plea after some recent DNA testing.

KELLY MACNEIL: The men known as the West Memphis Three entered a crowded press conference this morning looking stunned. After an 18-year fight, it was hard for them to believe they were free. One of the three, Damien Echols, was on death row facing execution.

DAMIEN ECHOLS: You know, you kind of have to take into consideration that I spent almost the past decade in absolute solitary confinement, so I'm not used to being around anyone, much less this many people. It's kind of overwhelming.

MACNEIL: Echols and his co-defendants, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, were teens when they were convicted of brutally killing and mutilating three 8-year-old Cub Scouts before dumping their bodies in a ditch. The boys were from the town of West Memphis. Prosecutors in 1994 said satanic rituals were involved. One of the three confessed. An HBO documentary on the case implied that prosecutors had been overzealous, and that Echols was just interested in Goth music and dark rituals. Capi Peck is one of their supporters.

CAPI PECK: It's big. It's emotional. I'm trying to keep it together here. But it's - yeah, it's an awesome day.

MACNEIL: All three had been pushing for a new trial, citing DNA from the crime scene that didn't match theirs. Prosecutors today agreed to a plea deal that allows the men to maintain their innocence. Under the deal, they were only sentenced to time served. Prosecutor Scott Ellington says the state still contends all three are guilty but says a new trial carried significant risks.

SCOTT ELLINGTON: I mean, we would do the best we could to put on the evidence, but most likely, these defendants, the state believes, could very easily have been acquitted in a new trial because of the death of witnesses, the different witnesses have changed their minds, evidence have just gotten stale.

MACNEIL: The father of one of the victims believes the defendants are innocent and has pushed for their release. Another victim's father disagrees and was upset by the plea deal. A bystander in the courtroom shouted out baby killers during the proceedings. All three men say they'll work to prove their innocence. For NPR News, I'm Kelly MacNeil in Jonesboro.

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