JONESBORO, Ark. -- Three men convicted in the nightmarish slayings of three Cub Scouts 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 had persisted for years and threatened to force prosecutors to put on a second trial next year.
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 that had raised questions about DNA and key witnesses.
The men 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," Jessie Misskelley said.
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.
Since the original convictions, two of the victims' families have joined forces with the defense, declaring that the men are innocent, he added.
Echols said he and the others would keep working to fully clear their names. The men, who were teenagers when they were convicted, have spent half their lives in prison.
Asked by reporters about his plans, Jason Baldwin replied, "Live my life the best I can and enjoy every moment of it."
The killings were particularly ghastly. The boys -- Steve Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore -- disappeared in May 1993 and were found naked and hogtied, and rumors of satanism roiled the community in the weeks following their deaths.
Branch and Moore drowned in about 2 feet of water; Byers bled to death, and his genitals had been mutilated and partially removed.