PEARL, Mississippi (Reuters) - Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour on Friday freed two sisters from life sentences in jail for an $11 armed robbery on condition that one donate a kidney to the other.
The sisters, Gladys and Jamie Scott, smiled and waved as they emerged from Central Mississippi Correctional Facility after 16 years in prison, a Reuters witness said.
"It's been a long, hard road but we made it. There were times when we wanted to give up but I told my sister ... 'we're going to make it, we're coming up out of here, we're not going to die (in jail),'" Gladys Scott later told a news conference.
Barbour, who is considering whether to run for president in 2012, suspended their sentences on condition that Gladys Scott, 36, donate a kidney to her sister, Jamie, 38, in an operation that should be performed urgently.
Gladys said she was a willing donor for Jamie, who requires dialysis, and said she hoped and prayed she was a good medical match.
The sisters were convicted of robbing at gunpoint two men driving them to a nightclub in Forest, in northern Mississippi, in 1993. They had no prior criminal record. Each was sentenced to two life terms.
On Friday, both protested their innocence and said they would work to support other women in the prison who had no voice or outside support. Crowds came from as far afield as Canada to witness their release.
"We are not bitter. We never would have made it through 16 years behind bars if we were full of hate," Gladys Scott said in Jackson, the state capital.
The case has drawn national attention and protest and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People president Benjamin Jealous said the civil rights group was pressing for a pardon for the sisters.
The NAACP argues that the women's role in the crime was exaggerated and says their race -- they are African American -- played a role in their sentencing.
"Since this punishment far exceeds the crime it is proof that our judges have too much discretion and they let bias enter their decisions on sentencing," said NAACP state president Derrick Johnson in an interview.
The women, who were eligible for parole in 2014, are due to move to Pensacola, Florida, where their mother and children live, their attorney Chokwe Lumumba said.
For months at a time while in jail, the women were unable to see or speak to one another because they were separated, he said.
Barbour, chairman of the Republican Governor's Association, said this week one reason for his decision to order the sisters' release was that Jamie Scott's kidney dialysis and treatment was a financial burden on the state.
Michael Shapiro, chief of organ transplantation at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey, has criticized the decision to impose a condition for the release as unethical and possibly illegal.
It was important that an individual not be coerced into a transplant and there were also medical questions surrounding compatibility, Shapiro said in an interview.
Editing by Matthew Bigg and Greg McCune