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West Memphis Three Freed from Jail 18 Years After Being Convicted Amid "Wave of Satanic Hysteria"

Speaking with the director of "Paradise Lost," about how skewed values and poor investigating kept three men in prison for nearly 20 years.

A trio of men convicted of brutally murdering three young boys in Arkansas in 1993 were released from prison Friday. Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, Jr. — otherwise known as the West Memphis Three — entered a rare plea deal in which they maintained their innocence, but pleaded guilty to murder, with the state of Arkansas recognizing them as child-killers safe enough to be set free. The men were convicted of the killings after an investigation largely fueled by unsubstantiated rumors of a Satanic ritual. In 2007, new forensic tests of evidence at the crime scene turned up no genetic material belonging to any of the men. We speak to filmmaker Joe Berlinger, co-director of the documentary covering the case, "Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills." The film sparked an international movement to "Free the West Memphis Three."


Guest: Joe Berlinger, an award-winning filmmaker, journalist and photographer. He’s the co-director of a documentary on the case called Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills. The film sparked an international movement to "Free the West Memphis Three." The third film in the series, Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, will cover the release of the men and will be released soon on HBO.

AMY GOODMAN: Members of the Dixie Chicks were there for this moment on Friday when three men, imprisoned for the 1993 satanic slayings of three eight-year-old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas, were freed, after nearly two decades of proclaiming their innocence. Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, Jr., accepted a bargain, known as an "Alford plea," in which they could continue to claim their innocence but plead guilty in exchange for an 18-year sentence and credit for time served. Prosecutors called it a closed case after the hastily called court hearing in Jonesboro, Arkansas. Two of the men had been sentenced to life. Echols was on death row. They were expected to be released Friday after the ruling in the Craighead County District Court in Jonesboro.

Pressure had mounted to free the three after they were convicted in 1994 of the murders of eight-year-old Cub Scouts Steven Branch, Christopher Byers and James Michael Moore. Police at the time called the murders "satanic" because the children’s naked bodies had been bound and mutilated. The West Memphis Three, teenagers at the time of the murders, maintained their innocence in the deaths of the boys in the Arkansas-Tennessee border town. Recent DNA tests did not link the men to the scene and showed the presence of others who have never been identified. Their cause was taken up by activist groups across the country, championed by celebrities like Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder and Dixie Chicks singer Natalie Maines, both of whom were in Jonesboro for the hearings.

Echols thanked Baldwin and Misskelley for agreeing to take the guilty plea so that he could get off death row. Baldwin said he was reluctant to take the plea but was convinced when he realized they could save Echols’ life.

JASON BALDWIN: I’m obviously ready to get out of prison. I want to be out, you know, deserve to be out. But I was ready to fight it in trial, in court, as much as possible. But he had it so much worse than I had it, you know, on death row, and it’s just insufferable to put a person through that, and for any more minutes.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Jason Baldwin, one of the West Memphis Three.

Friday’s move was a complicated legal proceeding that protects Arkansas from a potential lawsuit, should the men win a new trial, get acquitted, and seek to sue the state for wrongful imprisonment, prosecutors said. The plea means the defendants acknowledge officially the state has evidence against them but can continue to claim their innocence. The state added that it believes the defendants could easily have been acquitted in a new trial due to the deaths of witnesses, DNA tests, changing stories and stale evidence. If they were found guilty in a new trial, chances were high they would not have been convicted of capital murder and would have had lighter sentences.