After spending nearly two decades behind bars, Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley Jr., aka The West Memphis Three, were released from prison Friday afternoon.
The three men maintain their innocence but plead guilty entering Alford pleas as state prosecutor Scott Ellington said “I strongly believe that the interests of justice have been served today.”
In 2010, the Arkansas Supreme Court ordered a new hearing for the defendants and asked a judge to consider allegations of juror misconduct and whether new DNA evidence could aid the men or uphold the convictions.
“I further believe it would be practically impossible to put on a proper case against the defendants in this particular case after eighteen years of extended litigation,” Ellington said. “Even if the State were to prevail in a new trial, sentences could be different and the appeals process would begin all over again.
“These defendants have spent roughly half of their lives in prison. I pray that during this time they have been rehabilitated.
“I have spoken with members of the victims’ families and I can tell you they are still suffering the loss of their little boys. Neither this nor any other proceeding can bring those children back.
“The legal tangle that has become known as the West Memphis Three case is finished.”
The Craighead County Courthouse in Arkansas was packed with family, friends and staunch supporters among them Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder and Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks.
Vedder and Maines have been outspoken supporters of the WM3 advocating their release for several years after viewing Joe Berlinger’s 1996 documentary Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, sparking public outcry. Maines gave a speech on the steps of the Arkansas Supreme Court making reference to Terry Hobbs (one of the victim’s stepfather), which brought about a civil suit.
The movie marked the first time Metallica allowed their music to be used in a film as director Berlinger told MTV, “Metallica is part and parcel to this story. The band is very proud of their association with the Paradise Lost movie.”
Both Vedder and Maines appeared at Voices for Justice: A Rally in Support of the West Memphis Three in Little Rock as recent as last year.
Berlinger told MTV that actor Johnny Depp reached out to him about the West Memphis Three in 1996, several months after the first Paradise Lost documentary premiered at Sundance.
“He e-mailed me, and we had several lengthy phone conversations. He’s been a supporter and he’s spoken with Damien. I’ve gotten an e-mail from Johnny probably once or twice a year since ’96 wanting updates on the case. He was one of the first people to say, ‘These guys aren’t still in prison, are they?’ He was blown away by the movie when it first came out, and he couldn’t believe that nothing had changed.”
Other artists lending their time to the cause include Ozzy Osbourne who donated autographed copies of I Am Ozzy to raise money for the defense fund and Henry Rollins who engineered the 2002 benefit CD Rise Above: 24 Black Flag Songs to Benefit the West Memphis Three featuring Keith Morris, Chuck Dukowski, Kira Roessler, Iggy Pop, Lemmy Kilmister, Cedric Bixler-Zavala, Exene Cervenka, Tom Araya, Ice-T, Mike Patton, Ryan Adams, and members of Rancid.
In 2010, Vedder spoke with talk show host Larry King saying, “It took years of educating myself and reading and even helping funding new discoveries that allowed me to have what now I feel is 100 percent belief in their innocence. Now we’ve really got more evidence, and now with conviction we can say without a doubt these young man don’t deserve to be [in prison.]”
Russell Simmons tweeted “If the West Memphis Three is not just another wake-up call in our failing criminal justice system, then I am not sure what is.”
Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory will premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival and then air on HBO in January 2012. Meanwhile Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills will air Monday, Aug 29 and Paradise Lost 2: Revelations will run Tuesday, Aug. 30.
Upon the men’s release, Berlinger said, “What greater gift to a filmmaker than to see their work actually having real world impact.”
Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley are now free, but in the eyes of the law are convicted murderers who have served sufficient time in prison according to state officials. They can never be tried again for the murders. As convicts, they are unable to seek restitution for their time spent in prison or profit from works about the case. However, all three have the right to clear their names by bringing new evidence to court.