When three men walked out of prison in Jonesboro, Arkansas on Friday, they completed their own 18-year saga that started the night they were accused of murdering three 8-year-old boys, whose mutilated and hogtied bodies were found in a ditch the day after they went missing on May 5, 1993. They also ended the campaign by supporters, who have seen them as something akin to martyrs for the goth, punk, and heavy metal communities for almost as long as they have been in prison. Damien Echols (pictured) was sentenced to death, and Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley to life in prison.
After they were convicted on evidence that turned out to be questionable, the three, with their long mullets, heavy metal t-shirts, and petty criminal records, became symbols of the alienation and persecution felt by many disaffected teenagers. On Friday, that sentiment was obvious on Twitter as the men gained their freedom. "Us black-haired, nail-painted, Metallica-lovin people need to stick together," read the t-shirt of one supporter outside the courthouse, according to multiple reports on Twitter.
Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder, who has long supported the so-called West Memphis Three, was reportedly at the Craigshead County courthouse for the hearing on Friday, as was Dixie Chicks singer Natalie Maines, who tweeted "The gag order has been lifted, so now I can tell you, I'm sitting in a holding room at the courthouse about to see three men walk free!" Henry Rollins, singer for the now defunct punk band Black Flag, has also been a longtime supporter, and in 2002 produced a compilation album in support of the convicts that featured Iggy Pop, Chuck D, Ice T and Lemmy, from Motorhead, among others. On Friday, Rollins tweeted, "WEST MEMPHIS THREE. FIND OUT ALL YOU CAN. BIG DAY." Allegations that the West Memphis 3 suspects had killed the three boys during a satanic rite helped fan the public fury against them, and many in the rock and roll community saw them as victims of a society that sidelined those who followed their music.
The men's plight, and the problems with the case against them, first got wide recognition with the 1996 HBO documentary Paradise Lost: The Child Murders of Robin Hood Hills, for which Metallica did the soundtrack. A second documentary, Paradise Lost 2: Revelations, followed, and Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory is set to air in November. According to the Arkansas Times entertainment blog Rock Candy, filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky were at the hearing Friday to update the final film. "“What greater gift to a filmmaker than to see their work actually having real world impact,” director Joe Berlinger told the Wall Street Journal on Friday.
The release on Friday carried its own conflict. The three found success with a rare legal maneuver called an Alford plea, which allowed them to maintain their innocence, but acknowledge that the prosecution has enough evidence to convict them. It amounts to a guilty plea in the eyes of the court, and means, in practice, that the men can't sue the state for wrongful imprisonment. Jason Baldwin said he didn't want to enter the plea, but did so in order to get his friend, Damien Echols, off death row. "That's not justice, however you look at it," Baldwin said, according to the Associated Press.
Whatever happens next for the three newly free men, Ad Week makes a good point that the title and trailer of Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory are going to need some work: