The three men, known as the West Memphis Three, entered what are known as Alford pleas, which allows defendants to plead guilty but maintain their innocence.
According to The New York Times, a judge accepted the pleas and declared that Damien Echols, 36, Jason Baldwin, 34, and Jessie Misskelley Jr., 36, had served the time for their crime. Each man also received a 10-year suspended sentence. All three had been in prison since 1993.
The father of one of the murdered boys stood up near the end of the hearing to urge the judge not to accept the deal, The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reports.
"You're wrong your honor," Steve Branch, father of Stevie Branch, said before deputies escorted him out. "You can stop this right now before you do it."
In a news conference after the hearing, Baldwin said he had not initially wanted to take the plea, but he did so because Echols — who was on death row — "had it so much worse," according to the Democrat-Gazette. Baldwin and Misskelley had been serving life sentences.
Echols thanked Baldwin during the news conference and then the pair stood up, embracing each other as cameras flashed and supporters applauded.
"He did want to keep fighting, he didn't want to take this deal in the beginning," Echols said. "I recognize and acknowledge that he did do it almost entirely for me."
For his part, Echols said the three would still try to clear their names completely.
"It's not perfect by any means," he said, of the plea deal. "But at least it brings closure to some areas and some aspects. We can still bring up new evidence and we can still continue the investigations we've been doing. We can still try to clear our names. The only difference is now we can do it from the outside instead of having to sit in prison and do it."
In May 1993, the mutilated bodies of Steve Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore were found in a drainage ditch in a wooded area of West Memphis, according to the Times. The grotesque nature of the crime led to a theory about satanic cult activity. Investigators began focusing on Echols, "a troubled yet gifted teenager who practiced Wicca." In an effort to learn more about Echols, police interrogated Misskelley, who is borderline mentally retarded, for almost 12 hours. Misskelley confessed to the murders, and implicated the other two men. And though Misskelley's confession did not match up with several parts of what police knew about the crime, all three were tried and convicted.
But the story did not end there. From the Times:
An award-winning documentary, “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills,” was released after their convictions, bringing them national attention. Benefit concerts were held, books were written, a follow-up documentary was made and the men’s supporters continued to pursue their freedom. Many residents of West Memphis resented the presumption that outsiders knew the details of the horrific case better than they did. But in recent years some, though not all, of the victims’ families have begun to doubt the guilt of the three men.
The Democrat-Gazette reports that Pearl Jam lead singer Eddie Vedder and Dixie Chicks singer Natalie Maines were among those present in the courtroom on Friday, to show their support for the West Memphis Three.