Eighteen years after they were sent to prison for the murders of three 8-year-old Cub Scouts in 1993, the men known as the West Memphis 3 were unexpectedly freed from jail Friday (August 19) when their lawyers reached an unusual deal with prosecutors.
With such celebrity supporters as [artist id="1006"]Pearl Jam[/artist] singer Eddie Vedder and the Dixie Chicks’ Natalie Maines on hand to watch the proceedings, Damien Echols (36), Jason Baldwin (34) and Jessie Misskelley Jr. (36) were set free thanks to a legal maneuver called an “Alford Plea” in which the three men pleaded guilty while still maintaining their innocence as they acknowledged that prosecutors had enough evidence to convict them.
“The gag order has been lifted, so now I can tell you, I’m sitting in a holding room at the courthouse about to see three men walk free!” Maines tweeted Friday afternoon. “Beautiful things went down in Arkansas today. Beautiful beautiful things … The WM3 will now and forever be the WMFree!”
The three, all teenagers at the time of their arrest, were convicted of the murders in what officials called a satanic ritual. But evidence later showed that their DNA did not match the DNA found at the crime scene. Their case became a cause célbre for a number of musicians and actors and spawned the 1996 documentary “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills” and the 2000 follow-up, “Paradise Lost 2: Revelations,” with a third film, “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory,” due to premiere at the Toronto International film festival in September.
It also inspired a 2000 benefit compilation called Free the West Memphis 3 that featured songs by Steve Earle, Tom Waits, X’s John Doe, the Supersuckers featuring Vedder and late Clash singer Joe Strummer.
The three were freed just months before a hearing to decide if recently discovered DNA evidence that did not place any of them at the scene of the crime should result in new trials.
According to TMZ, after their release on Friday, Nichols and Misskelley told reporters that they served 18 years for a crime they “did not commit.” While Baldwin initially declined to take the deal in favor of proving his innocence in court, he eventually changed his mind in order to save Nichols from death row.
In addition to Vedder and Maines, other celebrities fought on behalf of the three men, including Winona Ryder, Tom Waits and Johnny Depp, who appeared in an interview on CBS’ “48 Hours Mystery” last year in which he said he believed the men were innocent.
“Paradise Lost” filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky — who went on to make Metallica’s “Some Kind of Monster” — were in court on Friday as well to witness the men’s release. According to their spokesperson, the third chapter in the series will be air on HBO in January.
“Eighteen years and three films ago, we started this journey to document the terrible murders of three innocent boys and the subsequent circus that followed the arrests and convictions of Baldwin, Echols and Misskelly,” director/producer Berlinger said. “To see our work culminate in the righting of this tragic miscarriage of justice is more than a filmmaker could ask for.”