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West Memphis 3 released from prison

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JONESBORO, Ark. (AP) - Three men convicted of killing three 8-year-old Cub Scouts and dumping their bodies in an Arkansas ditch were freed from nearly two decades in prison Friday, after they agreed to plead guilty to secure the release of one of them from death row.

Under the plea bargain, Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley were being freed immediately. The boys' families 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 3, agreed to a legal maneuver that lets them maintain their innocence while acknowledging prosecutors have enough evidence against them.

"I am innocent of these charges but I am entering an Alford guilty plea," Echols told the judge. Baldwin and Miskelley also reasserted their innocence.

"Although I am innocent, this plea is in my best interest," Misskelley said.

The three 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 that it would be practically impossible after 18 years to put on a proper trial in this case," Ellington said.

"I believe this case is closed and there are no other individuals involved," he said.

Baldwin and Echols each pleaded guilty to three counts of first-degree murder. Misskelley pleaded guilty to one count of first-degree murder and two counts of second-degree murder. The Alford plea allows the men to maintain their claims of innocence.

After the hearings, Baldwin told reporters that he had been reluctant to plead guilty to crimes he maintains he didn't commit, but that they agreed to the deal because they had to get Echols off death row.

"That's not justice, however you look at it," he said.

Echols thanked Baldwin and called his release "overwhelming."

"It's not perfect," he said of the deal. "It's not perfect by any means. But it at least brings closure to some areas and some aspects."

He said the West Memphis Three would continue to work to clear their names.

Echols' wife, Lorri, sat in the front row of a crowded courtroom, next to Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder, who became a key supporter of the men after watching a pair of HBO documentaries about the case. Vedder put his arm around her during the proceedings.

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