Update (12:57 p.m. EDT): The three have pleaded guilty to a lessor charge that will allow them to leave prison with credit for time served, according to the northwest Akansas news site NWA Online.

A surprise hearing on Friday is expected to free three men who have been in an Arkansas prison for nearly 20 years after they were convicted of killing three 8-year-old boys in 1993. Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, Jr., the so-called West Memphis Three, were convicted largely on the strength of a confession by Misskelley, which he gave after a 12-hour police interrogation, The New York Times reported Friday. Echols was sentenced to death, the other two to life in prison. The details of the confession differed from the facts of the crime, in which the bodies of the three boys were found mutilated, their hands bound, The Times reported. Since their conviction, the Memphis Three have argued their innocence, gaining national attention as a cause célèbre after the 1996 HBO documentary Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills. The Times has the details of Friday's potential deal:

The deal being discussed would not technically result in a full exoneration; some of the convictions would stand, though the men would not admit guilt. Should Mr. Echols be freed, it would be the highest profile release of a death row inmate in recent memory.

The deal comes five months before a scheduled hearing as to whether the men should be granted a new trial in light of DNA evidence that surfaced in the past few years. None of their DNA has been found in tests of evidence at the scene. The Arkansas Supreme Court ordered the new hearing in November, giving new life to efforts to exonerate the three men.

Author Mara Levertitt writes on the Free the West Memphis Three Web site that the three have been taken from their prison cells with all their belongings, "which is unusual and suggests that they are not expected back. This is the first time all three have left prison together."