he end, if it can be called that, came all of a sudden.
After nearly two decades in prison for the murder of three young boys, Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr., commonly known as the West Memphis Three, stood up in a courtroom here on Friday, proclaimed their innocence even as they pleaded guilty, and, minutes later, walked out as free men.
The freeing of Mr. Echols, 36, was the highest-profile release of a death row inmate in recent memory.
Mr. Baldwin, 34, and Mr. Misskelley, 36, had been serving life sentences.
In keeping with the tenor of this case since its first horrific hours, the circumstances of the release were bizarre, divisive and bewildering even to some of those who were directly involved.
Under the terms of a deal reached with prosecutors, Mr. Echols, Mr. Baldwin and Mr. Misskelley leave as men who maintain their innocence yet who pleaded guilty to murder, as men whom the state still consider to be child killers but whom the state deemed safe enough to set free.
Despite a half-hour of esoteric legal procedure, the courtroom was charged with raw feeling, and several of the relatives of the victims were ejected for their outbursts. One told the judge he was opening a Pandora’s box in allowing this deal; another shouted that the defendants were murderers and baby-killers.
The hearing was something of a reunion, with reporters, former defense lawyers, family members and observers who have followed the case for two decades coming together possibly for the last time. Families joyously anticipating homecomings sat next to long-grieving fathers contemplating a dreaded turn of events they had not thought possible days earlier.