JONESBORO, Ark., Aug. 19 (UPI) -- Three men known as the "West Memphis Three" were released from prison in Arkansas after entering guilty pleas in the 1993 deaths of three 8-year-old Cub Scouts.
Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin pleaded guilty in a Jonesboro, Ark., courtroom Friday to three counts of first-degree murder, while Jessie Misskelley pleaded guilty to one count of first-degree murder and two counts of second-degree murder, the (Memphis) Commercial Appeal reported. The men were given credit for time served and a 10-year suspended sentence, the newspaper said.
The guilty pleas were entered in accordance with a law allowing defendants to maintain their innocence while entering guilty pleas.
During a news conference after the court session, Echols said he had been imprisoned "for a crime I did not commit" and said he and the others were convicted based on ghost stories, rumor and innuendo, the Commercial Appeal reported.
Just before Circuit Judge David Laser ordered their release, Steve Branch, the father of one of the victims, yelled out, "If you go through with this, you're going to open Pandora's Box. ... You're wrong, your honor. You can stop it right now before you do it." Law enforcement officers immediately escorted Branch from the courtroom.
Before the hearing, Branch told reporters, "They said a deal had been made or is about to be made for ... the animals that killed my son [to] probably be released. I don't know what kind of deal they made … now you can get some movie stars and a little bit of money behind you and you can walk free for killing somebody."
Several celebrities, including actor Johnny Depp and Dixie Chicks singer Natalie Maines, rallied support in helping clear the three.
"It makes me scared, because this could happen to any of us," Maines said.
Echols was on death row for his role in the killings; Misskelley and Baldwin were serving life sentences. All have proclaimed their innocence.
"I know that if Echols walks out, I know he'll have one major question on his mind," Branch said. "And I've got the answer for that question. Nowhere on Earth."
DNA evidence in 2007 linked Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of victim Steven Branch, to the crime scene.
"The DNA testing has a certain magic to it," said Max Brantley, senior editor of the Arkansas Times. "The DNA testing, I think it is important to remember, does not exonerate these defendants. But there is no DNA evidence that puts them at the scene. And with the exception of one confession, the case is circumstantial."