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ANDERSON COOPER 360 DEGREES

Moammar Gadhafi's Last Stand?; West Memphis Three Freed

Aired August 19, 2011 - 22:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Good evening, everyone. It's 10:00 here on the East Coast.

We begin tonight with breaking news. Libya's Moammar Gadhafi on the brink of defeat, which is good to hear, but possibly also planning a big final offensive against Libyan civilians, which could be downright chilling, the prospect of an unpredictable, perhaps even mentally unstable dictator lashing out.

CNN's Barbara Starr broke the story. One U.S. official telling her -- quote -- "He could be planning for a last stand," another saying it could put civilians in the crosshairs.

But both officials say they just don't know what form a final offensive might take.

Recent NATO airstrikes are clearly upping the ante. Our people there are telling us they are under way again tonight loud explosions being heard in Tripoli within the past hour. Opposition forces telling us they're making use of the air attacks to try to make progress on the ground. Those forces now in the middle of a major push on Zawiyah, the key port city on Tripoli's force step. Fierce artillery fire could be heard today.

Opposition fighters there telling our Sara Sidner they could be moving on the capital within a matter of days. Now, that could just be optimistic talk on their part.

Meantime, the opposition says a former Libyan prime minister has defected, fleeing Tripoli with his family. No sign his former boss Moammar Gadhafi is going anywhere and that's the potential problem, a potentially very violent and bloody problem.

Joining us, Sara Sidner with opposition forces, also Matthew Chance in Tripoli and from Aspen Colorado, Retired General and NATO Supreme Allied Commander Wesley Clark, and CNN national security adviser Fran Townsend.

So, Sara, you've been with the opposition forces, how close are they to Tripoli and how much trouble is Gadhafi in right now?

SARA SIDNER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Anderson, they're just 30 miles from Tripoli. We're talking about nothing, basically. But what we are seeing in the city of Zawiyah, which is very strategically important, there is some oil refinery that the rebels now have a hold up. They give us a tour of the refinery and it's in perfect condition. It's one of the only functioning refineries left in the country. And for them, it's very important that they're able to cut off that oil supply to Tripoli.

So they're very happy about that, and they say they have now gotten control of 80 percent, 80 percent of the city, but they're still battling it out in 20 percent of the city.

We heard heavy, heavy fire, gunfire, murders, and artillery rounds going on to just 20 percent of in the city. But they feel they are going to end this thing in the next day or so, and then they tell us they plan on pushing forward to Tripoli, which is just about a 40- minute drive away.

COOPER: So are they in control of Zawiyah?

SIDNER: They're not in complete control. I mean we were in the middle of the firefight today. We got so close and suddenly we found ourselves having to run out of the area because of all of the mortars that were coming in and the shelling that was happening. We made it out safely. The firefight was continuing to go on throughout the day. So 20 percent of that city is still being battled over.

But they did take control of 80 percent of the city, and you can see that. The city is mostly abandoned, but there are still a few residents around who have decided to stick it out. And what you're seeing is rebel tanks, tanks they have taken from Gadhafi forces they're now using against Gadhafi forces in that city.

COOPER: Matthew Chance, you're in Tripoli. What's it like there right now? I mean does it feel like a city preparing for the worst?

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, it feels like a city which is under pretty intensive airstrikes by the NATO warplanes that have been circling the skies above Tripoli for the past several hours, particularly, but over the past several days as well, we've seen an intensification of the strikes.

And also, I think when you speak to the residents in the city, a sense that they're very much under siege. The fact that Zawiyah has you know for the most part, fallen to the rebels and the road to the west out of Tripoli into Tunisia has been cut off by that military action.

It's had a big psychological impact on the people here. Their escape route has been cut off, and they really have sort of taken on this siege mentality. It's been compounded by the fact that we're hearing you know airstrikes every couple of minutes now, perhaps every half an hour or so, in the Libyan capital, Anderson.

COOPER: General Clark, if Gadhafi does make his last stand in Tripoli, doesn't try to escape somewhere else or flee or give up, knowing what we know about him, his military capabilities and the potential for urban fighting, what could a last stand there look like?

GEN. WESLEY CLARK, FORMER NATO COMMANDER: Well, if he has disciplined forces and ammunition, it could be ugly there. And it could go on for days, just like the fighting in Misrata went on for days and days and days.

But my guess is that that's unlikely to happen. I think if Gadhafi goes into Tripoli and pulls in there, an soon as it starts to go against him, they're going to be struggling for a way out. Once he goes into Tripoli, there's no other than just saying, OK, we surrender, we lay down our arms and give some kind of a political solution. He's lost his bargaining position by going into Tripoli. So my guess is, A., he's not going in, and B., if he does, that it's not going to end up in a Misrata-like, months long combat.

COOPER: Fran, if Gadhafi makes a stand in Tripoli, what do you think it would look like? Do you think he has those loyal organized forces? Or do you think as many have hoped for all along, his inner circle might turn on him in the final push?

FRAN TOWNSEND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Yes. Anderson, I think what's most likely is, those forces that remain around him will melt away. And in fact, I think something that I learned from a very senior Western European intelligence official is indication that Gadhafi is preparing for the last stand.

We had heard reports that he was had some plan to flee to Tunisia and this senior intelligence official with firsthand knowledge said to me, no, that's not right. This is the women and sons who were seeking permission to land the plane in Tunisia.

Why a plane? Because rebel forces have that western border, they couldn't travel by land. Tunisia denied that permission to bring a plane in with his family. I think he wants his family out because he's prepared to have that last stand, to have that battle there and to die there. He said, you know, he will become a martyr and let his blood flow on Libyan soil, and I think that's in his mind if he's got to go, that's his plan.

COOPER: Sara, in terms of the opposition forces, I mean, for so long they were completely disorganized. We talked about this the other night. You said they have made some improvements, but in terms of I mean how much of a disciplined fighting force do they have? Do we know what percentage of the forces is actually having actual training, have actual experience? And in a fight in a city would be able to fight effectively if it came to that?

SIDNER: Yes, it's a really hard question to answer, but a very good question, Anderson. I can tell you from what we have seen over the few months that we've been in, inside of this country, what we've seen is there was continuing, and is continuing to be training. And so there is something like a boot camp, I guess you could say, in places like Benghazi and here in the western mountains where people who have never held a gun before will go.

They will get intensive training over, for example, a week or two weeks' time. But because the force isn't that big, what you're seeing is sometimes people coming in that have very little knowledge of how to deal with this. Never mind strategically trying to figure out what the right thing to do is. Just like you mention, when you talk about urban warfare, I mean you really need to be trained. It's one of the most dangerous kinds of warfare that there is. Because something could be just around the corner and you really have to be trained for these things and have the right equipment. And I can't say that they do, but I can tell you this.

When we asked them, look, are you planning to push into Tripoli, and if so, what is the plan? Is there a plan that has been set out for coordination for al of these different groups and brigades that are coming in? And the answer was, well, with he have a plan, and I said what is it? He said, well, we have a plan, sort of. So if that is what's going on, this will be a very difficult fight. And if Gadhafi decides he really wants to make a last stand, this could get really, really bloody, Anderson.

COOPER: Right. Of course, the other question is, how many forces loyal to the opposition may still be in Tripoli laying low in the event that opposition forces did enter Tripoli whether they would be joined by people who are actually living there?

A lot we don't know.

Matthew Chance, appreciate it. Stay safe.

Sara Sidner as well.

General Clark, thank you.

Fran Townsend.

Let us know what do you think? We're on Facebook. Follow me on Twitter @AndersonCooper. I will be tweeting tonight as well.

Up next, a deadly day on the streets of Syria, how many days have we said this now? But it has been another deadly day. Government forces targeting protesters. Top Syrian diplomat telling us, no, no, they're actually protecting protesters.

We're "Keeping Them Honest."

Later, three young men convicted of killing three second graders, the crime drew national attention and so the developments today, West Memphis Three they have been known as. All three men are out of prison today. One was on death row. Were they wrongly convicted or wrongly freed? Crime and punishment, the West Memphis tonight.

First, let's check in with Isha Sesay -- Isha.

ISHA SESAY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Anderson, you have to see it to believe it, and even then, a baby in a stroller in the back of a pickup. And wait until you hear what the babysitter said about it. That and much more when "360" continues.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) COOPER: Well, Syria today stepped up its campaign to kill anyone who speaks up against the Assad dictatorship. How else can you describe the killing of more than 2,000 people so far and at least 23 today alone?

In a moment you'll hear from a top Syrian diplomat who says security forces are there to protect protesters, not mow them down with gunfire. He says we have it all wrong that the world has it all wrong."We're "Keeping Them Honest" tonight."

The best possible way with firsthand account of someone who says Syrian authorities are hunting us like animals. He spent the day, though, not in hiding, but in this. Experienced this today just as you see it here, wave after wave of gunfire directed at people chanting "God is great," and throwing rocks, shouting "takfir," unbeliever, the people targeting them.

Syrian state TV tells another story clearly at odds with the video. It says armed men open fire on Friday worshipers and peacekeeping forces and who were arrested. That's been the standard story, that protesters are armed Sunni Muslim fanatics, say the government. Outsiders, terrorists, remnants of America's presence in Iraq. The people look to be ordinary Syrians and the protesters themselves say that's what they are. The only weapons you see and you rarely see them anywhere, are stones. The weaponry you hear belongs to Syrian authorities.

In other new video also posted today taken today shows where the so-called Protectors are actually doing to people. The beating is not unusual. We've seen people clubbed, people stuffed into the trunks of cars. We've seen victims of all ages gunned down, murdered, some of them only children. Like this little girl, 2 years old, shot through the eye, shot down as she and her family were reportedly trying to flee a neighborhood under attack by government forces.

As always what you see here cannot be independently verified. We're not allowed to see it for ourselves. Every day, though, fresh evidence arrives, posted on you tube by people risking their freedom and their lives to document what they are seeing, what they are experiencing.

Again, the Syrian government has a very different explanation for what you just saw and what we've all been seeing for months now. Last night we played a portion of my interview with Bashar Ja'afari, Syria's ambassador to the United Nations, more now of that conversation.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BASHAR JA'AFARI, SYRIAN AMBASSADOR TO THE UNITED NATIONS: A government allowed peaceful demonstrations to take to the street and they are protected by the police policies.

COOPER: Sir, that's not true. You know that's not true. You're a very educated man. You simply know that is not true.

JA'AFARI: No, no, no, no, no.

COOPER: When people are asking for children to be released, you're telling me they weren't fired upon? They weren't killed?

JA'AFARI: You don't know all the faces of the story, Anderson.

COOPER: First of all, because you're not allowing us in. You're not allowing reporters to actually go to the front lines and see this. You're restricting reporters. So it's a little disingenuous to say you don't know the truth when you're not allowing the international community to see the truth.

JA'AFARI: Anderson, this is wrong too, we've allowed three delegations, big delegations of journalists and reporters to enter --

COOPER: Oh, come on.

JA'AFARI: -- into the country.

COOPER: Right. And you control them very carefully.

JA'AFARI: We don't control anybody. We are there to protect them from the armed groups.

COOPER: Sir, I reported in Damascus and I had a minder with me who watched everything I did and every single person I talked to. And that was in the time when you didn't allegedly have armed groups going around. So, I mean to say you're allowing free rein for reporters is simply not true.

JA'AFARI: Anderson, you are biased and taking side and you shouldn't do that because you are a --

COOPER: I have got to say, I just think what you're saying you have not offered any proof.

JA'AFARI: This is not the truth. This is not the truth. I'm afraid this is not the truth. You are reporting what somebody told you. This shouldn't be done on CNN.

COOPER: Sir, I'm reporting what I have seen with my own eyes and I have seen children with their penises cut off. I have seen their broken, battered bodies and I have seen protesters trying to get the dead bodies and wounded bodies of their friends and colleagues and family members and complete strangers. And I have seen people getting shot at while they're trying to retrieve bodies.

JA'AFARI: You wouldn't be more than sorry than us seeing these victims. They are our own people.

COOPER: Is there anything that you would say that your government has done wrong in the last five months in terms of how they have dealt with your own citizens?

JA'AFARI: You know what? In all military and police operations, all over the world, it happens that sometimes there are some mistakes. And the president himself acknowledged that there were some mistakes at the beginning.

Because we were not prepared, I mean our forces of police, were not prepared for such an unexpected situation. So some people may have made some mistakes, Anderson, we're not talking about the peaceful demonstrators. The peaceful demonstrations are tolerating in Syria according to the law.

COOPER: But Sir, that's not true. That's not true.

JA'AFARI: This is your opinion. This is your opinion.

COOPER: I talked, I have talked too many, and I have talked to protesters. I have talked to protesters and human rights activists inside Syria who say this is not true. A woman whose husband was arrested and kidnapped, taken away, and held for weeks and weeks without her having any knowledge of what happened to him. I talked to these people.

JA'AFARI: You may have talked to one or three or ten or 100. But Syria is 23 millions. You would have to be more objective, more genuine in your approach and analyzing what's going on in Syria.

But please, here the Syrian official point of view also. I'm not saying you shouldn't listen to the other side. Continue listening to the other side, but please reflect the Syrian official point of view and here I'm telling you, we have had 500 officers and soldiers killed so far. Plus, of course, almost 1,000 civilian lives gunned. --

COOPER: The U.N. says actually about 2,000 civilians have been killed by your government. About 2,000 and thousands more have been -- are being held in detention.

JA'AFARI: This is wrong. This is wrong, Anderson. This is wrong. The same way I am denying here with categorically unequivocally that our warships shelled the Palestinian camps in Latakia or our tanks --

COOPER: Would you allow the international Red Cross to examine your prisons to go into your prisons? I have heard many protesters whose loved ones get injured or shot, they can't go to hospitals because your security forces are inside the hospitals and will arrest anybody who's taken in.

JA'AFARI: This is another lie, Anderson. This is wrong.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: Well, if that's a lie, it means virtually everyone, except the Assad regime itself, is lying. The U.N. is lying, Amnesty International lying, Human Rights Watch lying, all liars.

The state department, U.S., Britain, France, the E.U., Turkey, Saudi Arabia, is it possible? Anything's possible. Is it likely? You can ask yourself that.

Then having seen what you have seen tonight and night after night, ask yourself if your own eyes are lying too. Are they lying about this?

While the ambassador enjoys his diplomatic posting in New York and dissented who we're calling Alexander to protect his identity, is in Damascus seeing it all up-close. He was in these crowds today as security forces opened fire. We spoke shortly afterward.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: So Alexander, what happened today after you attended Friday prayers? What did you see?

ALEXANDER, DAMASCUS RESIDENT (via telephone): We were in midtown area in central Damascus and protests actually erupted inside the mosque, which is in the midtown area, at least 2,000 to 2,500 people took part in the protests that left the mosque.

But just as we were coming out of the mosque and pouring into the main street, suddenly the gunfire started. It was coming from different directions, really, but we did see the shooting coming from a certain direction where there were security forces, and basically armed men in plain clothes. They were taking cover behind some transport buses.

And the protesters actually defied them. What we did the second it started was we started running away, but then we realized some people stood still and actually got in a rock fight with the people who were armed and shooting at them.

COOPER: The Syrian ambassador to the United Nations told me that the government of Syria, the regime in Syria is actually protecting peaceful protesters. That they're not shooting at them, they're not killing them. They're protecting them. Have you, was that the case today? Has that ever been the case in any protest you have seen?

ALEXANDER: That wasn't the case today, and that's not that's never been the case. That's just total nonsense. What the government is actually doing to these people protesters is they're cracking down on them. They're chasing them down in the streets, hunting them like animals. They're detaining them and then torturing them for days on end.

These peace people leave the security branches, frightened to death, not able to take to the street again because of what they have done to them. they have humiliated them. they have killed people in the streets. they have killed women. they have killed children just to stop the protest movement.

And everything that's happening now in it Syria is obvious, anyone who comes and sees can see for themselves. They're basically slaughtering are the protest movement and not allowing anyone to take part in these protests.

COOPER: Alexander, why is it that you are doing this? Why is it so important for you to go out in the streets, to stand up, to use your voice, and to call for change? Why is it important for you to risk your life to demonstrate and also to talk to us? ALEXANDER: Well, it's been 41 years that Syria has witnessed this fascist regime that just treats people like dirt and the Syrian people want change. The Syrian people want a different sort of life, a democratic life where people respect each other.

And that's what happened on the 15th of March in Syria, when people took to the streets they decided that they will not take this anymore. And that's why this has happened. And I actually do my part by talking to international media. Because I know we have to bridge that. I know that people outside the country have to see what's happening. These are peaceful people simple people who that just want their universal right to have a democratic country where all civilians respect each other.

COOPER: Alexander, stay safe. Thank you for talking to us.

ALEXANDER: Thank you. Thank you.

COOPER: Still ahead: an American woman missing for weeks in Aruba now, but the prime suspect in the disappearance of Robyn Gardner is just beginning to talk. The new details of what he's sharing with police and a glimpse of his life behind bar.

Also a gruesome crime revisited, the West Memphis Three convicted just when they were teenagers, you may remember the case, for the brutal murders of three little boys in Arkansas. Today after nearly two decades behind bars, they walked free.

Why they were released and the startling reaction from one victim's father when we continue.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: In "Crime & Punishment" tonight: the mystery in Aruba.

After days of silence, suspect Gary Giordano is offering new details about his vacation with this woman, Robyn Gardner, the 35- year-old who vanished from the island on August 2.

Now, Giordano was arrested three days later. His story was that Gardner vanished while the two were snorkeling in rough waters. Fearing for his own life, he says he simply lost track of her and suddenly she was gone. Police say it doesn't ad up. The seas were calm that day, they say, and what about those travel insurance policies he bought just before their trip?

One for him one for her, each valued at $1. 5 million. That is harder to explain. Here with the latest in Martin Savage. He joins us from Aruba.

Martin, just after Robyn Gardner disappeared, Giordano cooperated with police, but once they arrested him, he went silent. Apparently now he's talking again. What's he saying?

MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, that's right. A couple days ago authorities said he wasn't cooperating and wasn't talking. Now he is talking. Only sort of, because here's the way authorities describe it.

He's picking and choosing what answers he wants to give. If they're going over new questions, new material, he gives them an answer. But if they're going back over old stuff, he just says, you know what? I have answered that before. They say that that's his tactic to try to avoid their tactic, which of course police like to ask you to repeat your story over several days to see if there are any inconsistencies.

He's apparently figured that out and that's why he's saying, you know, I already answered that. I also asked him, what's his attitude during these interrogations, and the police simply used one word, belligerent -- Anderson.

COOPER: What's the latest on the travel insurance policies? Giordano, who did he list as his beneficiary and do we know who was listed as her beneficiary?

SAVIDGE: Well, for the first time authorities are now admitting there are two policies, one for him, one for her, both $1. 5 million each. We know for the documents that CNN obtained that Gary Giordano named his mother as the beneficiary.

When it comes to Robyn Gardner as to who the beneficiary is there, they won't say. We don't know there has been some speculation. At this point, though, we did have a conversation with American express, and they said you know what? You can't just take out a policy on somebody else and list yourself as the beneficiary.

They would in fact say Robyn would have to sign a document that says, yes, I make Gary Giordano my beneficiary. Now, did she do that? Could she have been fooled into doing that? We're still digging on that one, Anderson.

COOPER: He's been in jail two weeks now. Do we know where he's being held and what his conditions are like?

SAVIDGE: Well, he's at the prison, KIA prison, and what's interesting about that is authorities say he's living a lot better than he was stock in the local jail. Apparently it's a much bigger room he's in, 33 by 33 feet.

Now, he's got to share it with two other men, but at least he gets to move around during the day. He gets to interact with other prisoners, which he never had the opportunity to do. He's got visiting days twice a week, although authorities say nobody has visited him.

He does not have access to the media. So, that's where he is for the time being.

COOPER: And, I mean, obviously it's possible that he's telling the truth, that this is all some terrible tragedy.

SAVIDGE: And that's exactly right. I mean, and it probably hasn't been said enough, that, yes, he could be telling the truth. However, there are three things that are sort of stacked against him. Two of which are his own doing. Number one, he did take out a hefty insurance policy on a woman who's now missing and he did it just days before she vanished.

Number two, his track record when it comes to dealing with other women and the accusations they've made against him is -- well, not very good. And number three, this is Aruba. The island where six years ago Natalee Holloway vanished without a trace, and many Americans still believe that case was bungled.

And so, the last thing Aruban authorities want is to be perceived as being soft on another missing American case. However, you know, that said, a lot of legal experts on the island say unless they come up with something better than just an insurance policy, in two weeks, it is quite possible that Gary Giordano will go home free.

COOPER: Interesting. Martin Savidge, appreciate it. Thanks.

Still ahead tonight, the three men convicted in the infamous West Memphis Three murder case nearly two decades ago are out of prison tonight. A complicated legal proceeding set them free. We're going to have the full story ahead.

Let's check in with Isha with the 360 news and business bulletin -- Isha.

SESAY: Anderson, Wall Street ends an awful week with another awful day. The Dow Jones tumbled 173 points, losing 1.6 percent of its value. The NASDAQ and the S&P 500 recorded steep declines as well, all due to fears about the U.S. economy and Europe's debt crisis.

A court hearing today over a lawsuit filed by the trustee appointed to recover billions of dollars from Bernard Madoff's Ponzi scheme. The trustee is suing the owners of the New York Mets for $1 billion, claiming they invested with Madoff and turned a blind eye to his scheme. They argue they knew nothing about it.

And a 61-year-old lifeguard is suing the New York State Parks Department for age discrimination because it won't let him wear Lycra shorts that stretch to his knees. He's required to wear boxers, briefs or board shorts, but doesn't feel that clothing is appropriate for a man of his age.

Anderson, he says the older you get you should show less skin.

COOPER: Hmm. But he likes the Lycra.

SESAY: He likes the Lycra. They're called jammers.

COOPER: Really?

SESAY: Apparently so.

COOPER: I did not know that. Before we get to tonight's shot, a note about French actor Gerard Depardieu, we put him on the "Ridiculist" this week for peeing publicly on board an airplane.

A friend who is traveling with him says Depardieu has prostate problems and was trying to discretely pee into a bottle and is humiliated by the whole thing, but others passenger said he was drunk.

When I was reading the "Ridiculist" about Depardieu, I lost my composure and started laughing. That gave Stephen Colbert yet another reason to take me to task on our ever growing feud his Comedy Central show.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: This has actually never happened to me. I'll see this on YouTube. All right.

STEPHEN COLBERT, COMEDIAN: I am shocked. I am shocked at this behavior from the award-winning journalist who stays poised while reporting during a hurricane, visiting an earthquake-ravaged hellscape, fending off rioters in Tahrir Square, being attacked by a hypocrite and riding his surf board through space.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: He's very funny.

SESAY: Anderson Cooper, what are you going to do about it?

COOPER: I haven't heard that one before. I never heard that one growing up. He didn't discover pooper scooper. That was big in the '70s when I was about seven or --

SESAY: Take the fight to Colbert. That's what I say.

COOPER: It's on.

SESAY: Team Cooper, we're ready.

COOPER: I don't know how I'm going to respond, but I'll get him.

SESAY: OK. I've got your back.

COOPER: Thank you. Appreciate that.

Still ahead, serious stuff, a stunning reversal in the West Memphis Three case. Teens convicted in the brutal slaying of three second grader nearly two decades ago suddenly been released despite admitting their guilt back then. A look at the rare legal deal that set them free.

And a new twist in the tragedy of the Indiana State Fair. Saturday's stage collapse claims yet another victim. More when we continue.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: "Crime and Punishment" tonight, a big development in the so-called West Memphis Three murder case. Three young men who were convicted of murdering three 8-year-old boys from West Memphis, Arkansas back in 1993 walked out of prison this afternoon.

How they got out involves a tricky legal maneuver, which I'll explain, but first some background on the case. Eighteen years ago, you may remember, the bodies of three second graders were found in a watery ditch, mutilated, hog tied with their own shoelaces.

Three men, teenagers at the time from left to right on the screen, Jason Baldwin, Damien Echols and Jessie Misskelley, Jr. were convicted and sent to prison. Baldwin and Misskelley were sentenced to life. Echols was sentence to death.

There were always been questions about the convictions, however.

Supporters of the three men have long argued that no direct evidence linked them ever to the murders.

Now to the rare legal deal that set them free. It's known as the Alford plea, which means while they claim they're innocent they acknowledge the state has evidence to convict them.

A judge sentenced them to the 18 years they've already served and released them. Here's what Jason Baldwin said after he was released.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JASON BALDWIN, CONVICTED IN "WEST MEMPHIS 3" CASE: This was not justice. You know? In the beginning we told nothing, but the truth, that we were innocent and they sent us to prison for the rest of our lives here. The only thing the state would do is to say, hey, we'll let you go only if you admit guilt. And that's not justice no matter how you look at it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: Our CNN's Deborah Feyerick investigated the case leading up to today's plea deal and even spoke to Damien Echols during his incarceration.

Here's her report.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): West Memphis, Arkansas, 1994. An awkward looking teenager with coal black hair and a far away gaze stands trial, accused of killing three 8-year-old boys. Best friends, badly beaten, hog tied and hidden in the watery bayou in the woods where they played.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The first verdict reads as follows.

FEYERICK: At trial, prosecutors call it a satanic cult, a demonic ritual, fuel the town's blood lust with descriptions of sexual torture and mutilation.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We the jury find Damien Echols guilty of capital murder in the death of Stevie Branch.

FEYERICK: Damien Echols was sentenced to die by lethal injection. His two friends and accused co-conspirators, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, got life in prison. In part because of the confession by Misskelley, defense lawyers say not only was riddled with inconsistencies but was coerced.

Fast forward to today, and now many in the small Midwestern town, including parents of two of the three victims, have the uneasy feeling the verdicts may have been wrong. One is John Mark Buyers, haunted by his son Christopher's death.

(on camera): If I'd met you in may of 1993, how convinced would you have been of the guilt of the three teenagers?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: One hundred percent.

FEYERICK: So now, do you believe that the three men in prison are guilty?

JOHN MARK BYERS, FATHER OF CHRISTOPHER BYERS: No, ma'am. They're 100 percent innocent. We needed someone to hate to survive because our child was dead.

FEYERICK (voice-over): We meet Damien Echols at the super max prison, an hour's drive south of Little Rock. His hair is still coal black, but now his gaze is sharp.

(on camera): You were asked at the trial, did you kill Christopher Byers. Your answer then was --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, absolutely not.

FEYERICK: Your answer now is?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, absolutely not.

FEYERICK: Michael Moore.

DAMIEN ECHOLS, SERVED 18 YEARS IN PRISON: No, absolutely not. Even though it's been 20 years, you don't get used to being asked that. That's the kind of thing that screws with your head for the rest of your life. To have people, to constantly have to answer that question or constantly have people asking you that. It's like being kicked in the stomach over and over and over again.

FEYERICK: Those sterile images of the little boys down by the creek, how did those images affect you?

ECHOLS: I didn't see those all the way up until I was -- it was during the trial. So it was still sort of abstract to me. They were just names. That's when it really hit me and -- it does something to you when you see something like that. It cracks you inside.

FEYERICK: After the boys were discovered here, police searched the area and yet they found no physical evidence linking Damien Echols and his two friends to the crime scene.

There was no DNA. No fingerprints. Nothing even suggesting a satanic ritual, which prosecutors say was the motive for the murders.

Why would police come to you? What was your alibi?

ECHOLS: I didn't fit in the town where I lived. I only dressed in black. I had, you know, pretty outrageous hairstyles. At the time that the police say the murders took place, I was actually on the phone with three different people.

The problem was the attorneys I had at the time, the public defenders, never even called them to the witness stand, never even asked them about this kind of stuff.

FEYERICK (voice-over): West Memphis prosecutors and police stand by their case. As to the parents of the third victim, who all believe the right people are in prison. For Damien Echols, life or death could come down to a single hair. Not his, but a strand found in the shoelaces used to tie up one of the boys.

DNA testing that did not exist two decades ago suggests the hair could belong to the stepfather of another victim, Stevie Branch. The stepfather, Terry Hobbs, has denied involvement. Police have closed the case, and did not consider him a suspect.

Also new, forensic evaluations for the defense that show cuts, gashes and sexual mutilation, which prosecutors said were signs of satanic ritual were likely inflicted by animals after the boys were killed.

(on camera): Is it just enough for you to be found innocent, or do you need for somebody to be found guilty?

ECHOLS: I guess I don't absolutely need it. I'll survive without them finally putting someone else on trial for this, but it would be a tremendous sense of closure for me. If they don't, then you're always going to have people looking at you, wondering. You know, who knows what. It's hard to describe.

FEYERICK: It's a loose end.

ECHOLS: Yes. It is.

FEYERICK: Deborah Feyerick, CNN, West Memphis, Arkansas.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: CNN's David Mattingly has also been following the case for a long time. He was in the courtroom today. He joins us from Jonesboro, Arkansas.

David, so these men had to plead guilty to crimes they say they didn't commit in order to go free. How does that work exactly, and can they now later try to get that reversed? DAVID MATTINGLY, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: What they can do now is walk out of that courtroom and proclaim their innocence. In order to do that, they had to admit to the state of Arkansas, yes, you have evidence that, if we go back to court, go back and try this again, you could possibly convict us with that information.

They had to admit that. The prosecutors take that as a guilty plea. So they can say we've got our killers, this is case closed. Well, the defense can also go out and say, well, they would never let these guys go if the state really thought they were guilty. You could look at it in a way as sort of a win-win that really doesn't make either side fully happy.

COOPER: Yes, clearly, not for the former defendants. They've been in jail now for 18 years. Why is this happening now? Why did it happen today?

MATTINGLY: It's been very slow coming. You've had a big groundswell of support that has just been building year after year after year -- people continually beating the drum saying that it was emotion and fear that convicted these three young men, and not the facts.

Over time, people have examined these facts and say that there was nothing really linking them to the victims, to the crime scene or to the crime itself. So the last thing that the court saw before today was a new round of DNA testing funded by supporters of the West Memphis Three.

That DNA testing didn't place them at the crime scene at all. So now the court had this dilemma here, the prosecution possibly not being able to win the case, if they go back for another trial and then the defense possibly not being able to protect their clients one more time for another round through court.

So they felt like this was the best deal that they could come up with, the way they have it now.

COOPER: I mean, I think everyone who was around during this time remembers, you know, Damien Echols, the way he looked and there was no much kind of emphasis on the photographs of him, and that he seemed different in that town.

You've interviewed him, what kind of a person is he?

MATTINGLY: Well, he is very intellectual. He seems very smart, very articulate, and a lot of people argue he has a certain charisma that's really elevated the profile of this case. If he was just the typical poor kid from Arkansas with no personality, he might have disappeared on death row and so would these two other young men.

But instead, there was something about him that fascinated people. They kept coming back, kept talking to him. This case stayed alive, and now he and those other two are free men, ready to start building a life that they wished they'd been able to do 18 years ago.

COOPER: David, I appreciate the reporting, then and now.

Still ahead, a Florida babysitter's unbelievably bad call. She strapped an infant into a stroller and took him on a joyride in the back of a pickup truck, and wait until you hear her excuse.

And New Yorkers, sexless and the city, why the city that never sleeps might as well. Tonight's "Ridiculist" when we continue.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SESAY: I'm Isha Sesay. Back to Anderson in a moment. First, a 360 bulletin.

A new tropical storm has form in the Caribbean. Tropical storm Harvey is expected to move across the coast of Belize tomorrow afternoon or night. According to the hurricane center, Harvey has maximum sustained winds of 50 miles per hour and is expected to strengthen before it reaches Belize.

In Afghanistan, new details on the suicide bombing we told you about last night. Five Taliban insurgents attacked the British council in Kabul early Friday, detonating explosives and waging a gun battle as British and Afghan forces tried to drive them out. At least eight people were killed.

An emotional day in Norway. The families of last month's shooting victims visited the crime scene, 69 people died on Utoya Island where hundreds of young people were gathered for summer camp.

A sixth person now dead following Saturday's stage collapse at the Indiana state fair. Twenty-two-year-old Jennifer Haskell died early this morning. The stage collapsed when the storm hit right before the band Sugarland was to take the stage.

And a Florida babysitter is charged with child neglect after she put an infant in a stroller in the bed of a pickup truck. Twenty- three-year-old Keona Davis said she didn't know it was wrong and, quote, "It's not like they give you a handbook or anything."

Now back to Anderson.

COOPER: Up next, they say if you can make it here you can make it anywhere. And tonight my hometown, New York City, made it, well, made its way on to our "Ridiculist." Find out why.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: Time for the "Ridiculist."

And tonight, we're adding my favorite city in the world, New York City. Because the list of America's most promiscuous cities is out and somehow, inexplicably, New York didn't manage to crack the top 10.

It seems those 8 million stories in the naked city may not be that naked after all. The dating website OKCupid compiled the list. Take a look, in it, number one, Portland, Oregon, most promiscuous. Then we have Seattle, Pittsburgh, really? Pittsburgh?

Miami, OK, you know, fine. It's warm, everyone is in a bathing suit all the time.

San Francisco, Dallas, San Bernardino, Denver, San Diego, a lot of California cities on the list and finally, Houston.

Hello, where's New York? If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere? I find it hard to believe that more people are making it in San Bernardino. This is just completely counterintuitive. New York is the city that doesn't sleep.

The conditions are right for the proverbial doing of the proverbial nasty. The bars stay open in the 4:00 in the morning. They give out New York City condoms for free. Derek Jeter lives here for crying out loud.

But there's someone else I'm thinking of who clearly should be making our casual sex numbers trend higher, Kathy Griffin -- she doesn't live here, but she visits a lot. If I've learned one thing when Kathy comes to New York City, she comes to get down.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: We're still like four minutes away. And we're going to be live all the way through, all the way through the New Year. They're playing all the traditional stuff we love. New York, New York -- what is going on?

KATHY GRIFFIN: I'm taking your clothes off.

COOPER: All right.

GRIFFIN: It's for America. I love America.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: Even watching that makes me sweat.

Pretty sure Kathy doesn't behave that way in Portland. What's up with Portland anyway? How did they get to be number one? Is "Gossip Girl" one of the most promiscuous shows ever set in Portland? No, that would be New York. Did they make "Sex and the City" in Portland? No, because no one would buy the concept of Samantha wearing a flannel shirt and working as a barista.

OK, clearly everything I know about Portland, I learned from Fred Armisen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Remember when people were content to be unambitious, sleep until 11:00, no patience whatsoever, maybe working a couple hours a week at a coffee shop.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes, I thought that died out a long time ago.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Not in Portland. Portland is where young people go to retire. Portland, all the hot girls wear glasses.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: New York -- I like Fred Armisen a lot. New York sort of has its own version of Portland, it's a magical place called Brooklyn. There are neighborhoods in Brooklyn where it's all young people in skinny jeans, ironic t-shirts, listening to pavement and guided by voices -- all right, the truth is I have no idea what the young kids are listening to. There are cool bands I know about from like 15 years ago.

My point is, that (INAUDIBLE) hipster six happening in Greenpoint alone should have put New York on the list. But we're good sports here so -- congratulations, Portland, way to go Pittsburgh. I'm still grasping the whole Pittsburgh thing.

And to my fellow New Yorkers, there's always next year.

Hey, that does it for "360." Thanks for watching. The CNN documentary "PRESUMED GUILTY: MURDER IN WEST MEMPHIS" starts now.