The men known as the West Memphis 3—Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley Jr., and Jason Baldwin—will all be released from prison today, after 18 years of incarceration following their controversial conviction for the 1993 murder of three boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. The case became an international cause célèbre thanks to filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, whose two Paradise Lost documentaries for HBO exposed a flimsy case based on no physical evidence and an attempt by prosecutors to paint the then-teenagers as some sort of Satanic cult, based solely on their love of heavy metal, Stephen King, and wearing black clothing.
Over the years, numerous celebrities have rallied around the West Memphis 3 calling for their release, ranging from Eddie Vedder and the Dixie Chicks’ Natalie Maines (both of whom were present at today’s hearing) to actors like Johnny Depp and even director Peter Jackson, who has revealed through Deadline today that he and his partner Fran Walsh have spent the last seven years or so playing a leading role in securing their freedom by paying their legal fees, as well as hiring the numerous private investigators and forensic experts who were responsible for uncovering new DNA evidence and witnesses that forced the reopening of the case.
As part of their release agreement, the West Memphis 3 were all forced to plead guilty—mostly so the state can avoid a messy retrial—and then sentenced to 18 years in prison, which was immediately wiped away with credit for time already served. Naturally, many of their supporters (including the father of one of the victims) are outraged to see that they weren’t exonerated completely. However, theirs is what is known as an Alford plea, which allows them to maintain their innocence publicly despite being technically convicted. That quest to clear their name will no doubt be furthered by the upcoming Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, for which Berlinger and Sinofsky just shot a new, happy ending today.