Jonesboro, Arkansas (CNN) -- Three men convicted in the 1993 murders of three boys in West Memphis, Arkansas, were ordered released after entering new pleas following a court hearing, prosecutor Scott Ellington said Friday.
Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley Jr. and Jason Baldwin pleaded guilty and were sentenced to 18 years in prison with credit for time served, a prosecutor said. They were to be released on Friday.
The three entered what is known as an Alford plea, which allows a defendant to maintain innocence while simultaneously acknowledging that the state has evidence to convict, Ellington said.
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 the mens' supporters.
While 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 that would have been difficult to prosecute after so many years. The trio was likely to win the right to new trials later this year.
"This is an appropriate resolution to this case at this time," Ellington told reporters. "Only time will tell as to whether this was a right decision on my part."
Echols said in a news conference after his release Friday that he will continue to work to clear his name.
Baldwin said he initially opposed the deal worked out between the men's attorneys and prosecutors. "This was not justice," he said.
The case drew national attention, with actor Johnny Depp and singers Eddie Vedder and Natalie Maines trying to rally support for the men's release. Vedder and Maines were at the courthouse on Friday, according to CNN affiliate WMC-TV.
John Mark Byers, whose son Christopher Byers was one of the three victims, said he believes the three men are innocent. He said releasing them without exonerating them of the crime is an outrage