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PHILADELPHIA (AP) _ Prosecutors dropped all charges Wednesday against four men accused in a crackhouse massacre that killed seven, but left themselves the option of rearresting the men later.

After weeks of delays amid reports that the wrong men were in custody, prosecutors announced this week that they needed more time to investigate new evidence that surfaced in a separate case.

Defense lawyers say police ignored another man's confession in the Dec. 28, 2000, shootings that also left three injured.

Common Pleas Judge Gregory E. Smith said he ``applauded'' the prosecutors' action.

``The only thing you could do is reinvestigate this matter,'' he said.

It was unclear if the defendants would be released; three of them have charges pending in separate cases. The judge ordered the defendants to stay away from 143 witnesses who had been prepared to testify and said a gag order would remain in effect.

Defense attorney Nino Tinari said he was pleased with the decision.

``Justice finally will be served, no matter where it (the investigation) goes,'' Tinari said.

The families of the victims and the defendants, who had gotten involved in a courthouse brawl during a hearing weeks earlier, were let out of the courtroom separately.

Jermel Lewis, 25, Quiante Perrin, 20, Hezekiah Thomas, 25, and Sacon Youk, 21, were charged in the mass slaying.

Several victims' relatives denounced prosecutors for dropping the charges.

Veronica Conyers, mother of one of the victims, screamed at reporters outside the courthouse, saying she believed the true killers were being let go because of news reports about weaknesses in the prosecution's case.

``You all messed it up,'' she said.

Survivors of the shootings said a group of masked men stormed into a rowhouse that had been taken over by squatters, herded its 10 occupants into a room, ordered them to lie face-down on the floor and opened fire.

The prosecutors' case was partly based on a confession by Lewis in which he allegedly said the four committed the murders to wipe out a rival group of drug dealers. Lewis later said his statement was coerced and that he was innocent.

Defense lawyers say police ignored a confession by another neighborhood resident, Shihean Black. Arrested weeks after the massacre, Black was carrying a gun that ballistics tests showed had been used in the massacre, police said.

Black twice confessed to being present for the killings as a lookout, but twice recanted, saying he had gotten the gun from someone else. Police discounted his statements and have not charged Black, who is serving time in prison on an unrelated charge.