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Freed 'West Memphis Three' enjoy family, food, technology

By the CNN Wire Staff
Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley Jr. and Jason Baldwin served 18 years in prison.
Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley Jr. and Jason Baldwin served 18 years in prison.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The "West Memphis 3" go free after entering new pleas in a 1993 murder case
  • Two go to a rooftop party, enjoy new freedom
  • They were convicted of killing three West Memphis second-graders in 1993
  • Not everyone is convinced they are innocent
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(CNN) -- Jason Baldwin paused Saturday on his first morning of freedom in 18 years to share a revelation he gleaned in prison while serving a life sentence.

The "West Memphis Three" member recalled telling inmates he had figured out the secret of life.

"What is it?" they asked.

"I said, 'Enjoy it. Enjoy it,'" Baldwin told CNN Memphis affiliate WMC.

And enjoy it he did Friday and Saturday. Baldwin, Damien Echols and Jessie Misskelley Jr. -- freed Friday in Arkansas after a complicated plea arrangement -- spent time with family, friends and supporters.

Echols and Baldwin saw the sunset Friday from the rooftop of the Madison Hotel in Memphis, across the Mississippi River from West Memphis, Arkansas. Supporters Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam and Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks joined the party.

The three men, who served 18 years in prison following their convictions in a 1993 triple-slaying in West Memphis, walked free Friday to cheers from a supportive crowd after entering rarely used pleas in which they maintained their innocence but acknowledged that prosecutors have evidence to convict them.

They had been imprisoned for the slayings of second-graders Steven Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore.

The boys' bodies were mutilated and left in a ditch, hogtied with their own shoelaces. Prosecutors argued that the defendants, teenagers at the time, were driven by satanic ritual and that Echols, sentenced to death, had been the ringleader. Baldwin and Misskelley received life sentences.

West Memphis Three: Free and guilty too?
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Attorney Stephen Braga, who represented Echols, said his newly freed client and Baldwin were fascinated by new foods, cell phones and other technology Friday.

"It was if you could see two little 5-year-old kids at their first Christmas," Braga told CBS' "Early Show" Saturday. "The idea you could take pictures with an iPhone totally blew them away."

Misskelley spent Friday night with his family near West Memphis.

CNN affiliate WREG said Echols, who met his wife while serving time, and Baldwin left Saturday for undisclosed locations to enjoy seclusion.

Echols and Baldwin entered what is known as an Alford plea on three counts of first-degree murder. Misskelley entered similar pleas to one count of first-degree murder and two counts of second-degree murder.

Craighead County Circuit Judge David Laser sentenced the three to the 18 years already served and imposed a 10-year suspended sentence -- meaning they could be returned to jail if they violate the law.

"I don't think that it will make the pain go away to the victims' families. I don't think it will make the pain go away to the defendant families," Laser said, adding it was nevertheless the best for all involved.

Critics of the case against the men argued that no direct evidence tied the three to the murders and that a knife recovered from a lake near the home of one of the men could not have caused the boys' wounds. More recent DNA testing also demonstrated no links, according to the men's supporters.

Baldwin said he didn't initially want to accept the deal.

"This was not justice," he said, adding that he dropped his opposition to pave the way for Echols' release from death row.

"I have now spent half my life on death row," Echols said in a statement released Saturday. "It is a torturous environment that no human being should have to endure, and it needed to end. I am innocent, as are Jason and Jessie, but I made this decision because I did not want to spend another day of my life behind those bars."

While prosecuting attorney Scott Ellington said the pleas entered Friday validate the decision of jurors who sent the men to prison, it also spares Arkansas the possibility of a retrial, which would have been difficult to prosecute after so many years, or a potential civil lawsuit by the men. The trio had been on course to win the right to new trials later this year.

Ellington said he believes the pleas resolve the case.

"I have no reason to believe there was anyone else involved in the homicide of these three children but the three defendants who pled guilty today," he said. But he said the state could file charges against others if new evidence emerges implicating someone else in the case.

John Mark Byers, whose stepson Christopher Byers was one of the three victims, said he believes the three men are innocent and releasing them without exonerating them of the crime is an outrage.

"They're innocent. They did not kill my son," Byers said before the hearing.

The father of another of the victims, Steven Branch, also blasted the decision, but for another reason.

"I don't know what kind of deal they worked up," Steve Branch told CNN affiliate WMC-TV before the hearing. "Now you can get some movie stars and a little bit of money behind you, and you can walk free for killing somebody."

Baldwin, who said he prays for the victims' families, told WMC Saturday he hopes to return to school.

"Right now, I am floating on the hands of people who love and care for me, people trying to get my feet under me and everything," he said. "I'm just trusting God to take care of me."

Braga credited new DNA evidence, a new hearing and a new judge as instrumental to Friday's proceedings.

The attorney claims the three freed men and supporters will push to see that the real killer eventually is found.

"He's still out there," Braga told CBS. "The right guys have been set free."

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