JONESBORO, Ark. — Sentenced to die for the terrifying slayings of three Cub Scouts, Damien Echols once came within three weeks of being executed.
Released Friday under an unusual plea deal after more than two decades on death row, Echols has co-defendant Jason Baldwin to thank for his freedom — and his life.
Echols, Baldwin and Jesse Misskelley were permitted to plead guilty to murder in exchange for time served, ending a long-running legal battle that had raised questions about DNA and key witnesses — and attracted support from celebrities such as Eddie Vedder.
Although the deal also allowed Baldwin to go free, he was reluctant to accept it. He said he finally did so to save Echols' life. Echols was the only one of the so-called West Memphis Three on death row, and in 1994 he came within three weeks of being executed.
"That's not justice, no matter how you look at it," Baldwin said. "They're not out there trying to find who really murdered those boys."
The case was so gruesome it raised suspicions that the three 8-year-old boys had been sacrificed in a Satanic ritual. But doubts about the evidence against Echols, Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley had persisted for years and threatened to force prosecutors to put on a second trial in 2012.
The men entered their pleas under a legal provision that allowed them to maintain their innocence while acknowledging that prosecutors had enough evidence to convict them.
Echols said he knew Baldwin wanted to keep fighting.
"He didn't want to take this deal in the beginning. I recognize and acknowledge that he did do it almost entirely for me," Echols said at a news conference.
The two men then hugged, drawing applause from their supporters and lawyers.
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.
However, he said he never considered any plea bargain that would throw out the verdicts of two juries.
"Today's proceeding allows the defendants the freedom of speech to say they are innocent, but the fact is, they just pled guilty," Ellington said.
Since the original jury convictions, two of the victims' families have joined forces with the defense, declaring that the men are innocent, he added.
The victims' families were notified about the pact ahead of time but were not asked to approve it.
Echols said he and the others would keep working to clear their names. The men, who were teenagers when they were convicted, have spent half their lives in prison.
By entering guilty pleas, the three have lost any right to file a lawsuit against the state.
"I can't say that wasn't part of my thinking in resolving this case," Ellington said.
In the courtroom, the father of one of the victims spoke out shortly after the men entered their pleas.
"Your honor, if you go through with this, you're going to open Pandora's box," Steve Branch protested before deputies led him away. "You're wrong, your honor. You can stop this right now before you do it."
All three men were placed on 10 years' unsupervised probation. If they get in trouble again, they could be sent back to prison for 21 years, Ellington said.
Circuit Judge David Laser acknowledged the case was complex and that families on both sides had suffered. He said Friday's deal would serve justice "the best we can."
"I don't think it will make the pain go away," Laser said.
One person yelled "Baby killers" as the three left the courtroom.
Afterward, Misskelley acknowledged there are people who think the men are guilty and may want to seek some kind of revenge or retribution.
"I'm concerned," Misskelley said. "Even when you're in prison, it goes on every day. You have to worry about your own safety. It don't matter what the crime is."
The killings were particularly ghastly. The boys — Steve Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore — were found naked and hogtied in May 1993, and rumors of Satanism roiled the community of 30,000 people across the Mississippi River from Memphis, Tenn.
Branch and Moore drowned in a drainage ditch in about 2 feet of water; Byers bled to death, and his genitals were mutilated and partially removed.
Police had few leads until receiving a tip that Echols had been seen covered in mud on the night of the boys' disappearance. The big break came when Misskelley unexpectedly confessed and implicated the other two, describing sodomy and other violence.
Misskelley, then 17, later recanted, and defense lawyers said he got several parts of the story incorrect. An autopsy found there was no definite evidence of sexual assault. Misskelley had said the older boys abducted the Scouts in the morning, when they had actually been in school all day.
Misskelley was tried separately and sentenced to life in prison plus 40 years. He refused to testify against the others, and his confession was not used as evidence. Baldwin got life without parole.
Last fall, the Arkansas Supreme Court ordered a new hearing for the three and asked a judge to consider allegations of juror misconduct and whether new DNA science could aid the men or uphold the convictions.
A 1996 HBO documentary titled "Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills" drew the attention of celebrities including Vedder and Natalie Maines, lead singer of the Dixie Chicks. Joined by other stars, they helped fund a legal team that sought a new trial.
On Friday, Echols' wife, Lorri, sat in the front row of the crowded courtroom next to the Pearl Jam frontman. Vedder put his arm around her during the proceedings.
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