After serving over 18 years in prison for the murders of three boys in West Memphis, Ark., Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley -- or the "West Memphis 3," as they're more widely known -- have found their lives dictated by loopholes.
A loophole in Arkansas state law allowed the three men to plead guilty to the murders, while at the same time maintaining their innocence -- part of their head-scratching "Alford Plea" deal that ultimately set them free. And another loophole gave them the opportunity to meet in New York City on Monday at the HBO headquarters for a screening of "Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory," the third installment of a milestone documentary series about the controversy surrounding their case.
An Arkansas judge had to provide special permission for them to appear together, since the initial terms of their plea dictated that Echols and Baldwin could associate only with one another, while Misskelley could only associate with felons in his immediate family.
The emotional impact of their reunion was palpable. Only three months ago, Echols was still sentenced to death, and Baldwin and Misskelley were looking at a life in prison, despite new DNA evidence that proved none of the men were present at the original scene of the crime. At an earlier screening, as part of the New York Film Festival, filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky said it was deeply troubling that it took 18 years, millions of dollars and "three well-funded documentaries" to make a dent in the case.
The audience at the Monday reunion screening included close family members, lawyers, a few key witnesses, heads of WM3.org -- the nonprofit group dedicated to their release -- and the filmmakers and producers who have spent almost two decades entrenched in the case. At a Q&A following the film, many celebrated the series' directors for their dedication.
"If they wouldn’t have been there in the beginning," Echols said, "Then there's every chance the case would have just sank into obscurity, and people would have forgotten about it."
Echols, who gained unwanted attention during the initial trial in 1993 for his jet black hair and "goth" style of clothing, was dressed onstage in black shirt, black pants, and round sunglasses. Though his hair was shorter and he'd aged 18 years, his appearance hadn't changed all that much.
Baldwin, who always seemed the shy and achingly sincere foil to Echols' dark, brooding rock star in the films, wore a tucked in plaid shirt and fitted jeans, and kept repeating how excited he was to be living his new life.
He lives in Seattle now, and said he'd just seen his first rock concert. At one point he pulled out his wallet and took out his new driver's permit.
"I haven't actually driven yet," Baldwin said, laughing. "Some friends of mine have assured me I'll be enrolling in a driving school next week, but I don't know if any one's brave enough to let me drive their car."
Echols' wife, Lorri Davis, an architect and outspoken supporter whom Echols married while he was still in prison, had moved to Little Rock to be closer to him. The two have since relocated to New York.
Echols said he was trying to savor his "firsts" as much as possible, and joked that the first movie he saw as a free man was the "horrendous" Fright Night remake. His first meal was a Black Angus hamburger, and he'd just gotten back from his first trip to Disneyland. After being in solitary confinement for 10 years, he said, he had to get used to "being around people" again.
Misskelley was the only non-participant. A few minutes into the Q&A, he began whispering to someone in the front row, and then abruptly stood up and excused himself. Sinofsky kissed his forehead as he left the stage.
The newest film brought up new allegations against Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of one of the murdered boys, but both Echols and Baldwin were hesitant to accuse anyone without proper evidence.
"I find it real difficult to point the finger of suspicion at anyone after what we've been through," Baldwin said.
Echols agreed. After spending 18 years of his life on death row, he said he tries not to think about Terry Hobbs at all.
"That's the sort of thing that could drive you insane."
Berlinger explained that he and Sinofsky originally intended to go to West Memphis and make a film about "guilty teenagers," when in fact it turned out to be the opposite case. The films instead became a commentary on the nature of human fallibility. How can there be a death penalty in America, Berlinger asked, when we are never a hundred percent sure that we've made the right decisions?
"Execution is final," Baldwin added. "There's no redo button. Murder is murder no matter who does it, even if you do it under the guise of the state. Even the guys who were guilty of crimes they committed -- they're still people."
Echols and Baldwin both hope that the state will officially exonerate them one day soon and they can finally clear their names. As for a fourth film in the "Paradise Lost" series, Sheila Nevins, the head of HBO Documentary Films and an early champion of the films, said that if there is a story left to be told, the filmmakers will be allowed to tell it.
Nevins finally asked Baldwin and Echols, after all they'd been through, if they believed people were ultimately "good."
"Yes, people are good," Baldwin said. "Look at everybody here today. We can't let the actions of a few bad people tarnish what we see around us."
Echols, however, wasn't quite sure.
"I think that's far too big a conclusion for me to come to," he said. "Ask me in 50 years."
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