A panel of three judges has found two North Carolina men innocent of a murder to which they had once pleaded guilty.

The judges announced their decision Thursday in Asheville after nearly two weeks of testimony in the cases of Kenneth Kagonyera and Robert Wilcoxsin.

Both men had pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in the death of Walter Bowman of Fairview at his home in 2000. They claimed they agreed to the pleas to avoid the possibility of getting the death penalty or spending life behind bars.

In the late 1800s, North Carolina's favorite mountain retreat was home to a progressive African-American community that founded the Young Men's Institute. It remains the country's oldest free-standing African-American community center.