The 'West Memphis Three' are freed, giving a documentary a new ending

August 19, 2011

Linda Holmes

(AP/Danny Johnston, File)
Damien Echols, one of The West Memphis Three in 2010.

Updated, 1:00 p.m.: The parties have announced that under a plea agreement, the "West Memphis Three" are being released from custody today.

This morning in Jonesboro, Ark., Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, known as the "West Memphis Three," are being released today after spending 18 years in prison for the 1993 murders of three young boys. Echols had been sentenced to death.

Under the arrangement worked out with prosecutors, the existing convictions were set aside in return for the agreement of all three to be charged again, to plead guilty, and to be sentenced to the time they had already served. In other words, they were not exonerated; they were convicted again, but under the new convictions, they serve no additional time in prison and get to go home. Among other things, this means they have no lawsuit against the state for wrongful conviction. They remain, in the eyes of the law, guilty, despite the fact that they maintain that, in fact, they are innocent. (This particular kind of guilty plea is called an Alford plea after the case where it was established; lots of information about Alford pleas is linked from here.)

The original convictions, based on a theory that Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley killed the three children as part of a Satanic ritual, were the subject of the 1996 HBO documentary Paradise Lost: The Child Murders At Robin Hood Hills and the 2000 follow-up Paradise Lost 2: Revelations. Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory is set to premiere at this year's Toronto International Film Festival. All three come from filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky.

The case is also the subject of the 2002 book Devil's Knot.

The first two documentaries — and presumably the third — argue that the three were wrongfully convicted primarily because they were, in a word, weird, and because of fears whipped up in the community by mentions of Satanism.

As the films tell the story, they were misfits in West Memphis, teenagers who listened to the wrong music and dressed the wrong way and made people intensely uncomfortable. Misskelley, a 17-year-old with a reported I.Q. of 72 when he was arrested, confessed to the police after a lengthy interrogation, only to almost immediately recant. The Supreme Court of Arkansas later called the confession, in which he admitted being present but primarily incriminated Echols and Baldwin, "virtually the only evidence" against Misskelley, and noted that it contained "a confusing amalgam of times and events" and "numerous inconsistencies," both internally and with the actual physical evidence in the case. The court nevertheless upheld his conviction.

That was in 1996.

The case has attracted widespread attention over the last 15 years or so, including high-profile support from celebrities including Eddie Vedder, Johnny Depp and Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks. Efforts to get a new trial had been unsuccessful, but the case has continued to churn along with the growth of DNA evidence.

This morning, Berlinger and Sinofsky were at the courthouse in Jonesboro awaiting the release of the three, because that documentary that's about to premiere is going to need a new ending, and a black screen with white letters giving the update is not going to do it. In an interview, they credited HBO's Sheila Nevins with spotting the story that eventually led to the documentaries being produced and shown on the network.

The activist documentary has a long history — the most famous true-crime example before now that's actually been credited for anyone being released from prison is probably Errol Morris' 1988 film The Thin Blue Line, which is frequently cited as contributing to the release of Randall Adams in 1989. But that case was widely discussed over the course of that year; this one has been the subject of benefit concerts, special reports, and massive online discussions for at least the last 15 years. There are still documentaries made about criminal defendants; there were several at Silverdocs this summer.

And with these defendants leaving custody after nearly 20 years, there will likely be even more.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio.