Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley and Jason Baldwin — better known as the “West Memphis Three” — have been released from prison. They were convicted in 1994 for the deaths of three boys in West Memphis, Arkansas, a small community just outside Memphis, Tennessee.
In a rather bizarre arrangement known an Alford plea, they entered guilty pleas to the crimes while at the same time maintaining their innocence. They were sentenced to time served and a 10-year suspended sentence.
All this comes just a few months before hearings were going to determine whether they should get new trials because DNA evidence couldn’t tie them to the crimes — and in fact showed someone else entirely had been present during the murders.
All along, supporters have said shoddy police work, some rather shady backroom deals and a healthy dose of small-town justice were the driving forces behind the original convictions.
The case got a lot of attention after two HBO documentaries were made about it, and celebrities like Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder and the Dixie Chicks’ Natalie Maines spoke out and did benefit concerts to help fund the trio’s legal bills. Actors Johnny Depp and Winona Ryder were also among those who felt the men had been wrongfully imprisoned.
Vedder (that’s him on the far left in the press photo above from minutes ago) and Maines were present in the courtroom for the announcement today, sitting in the front row just behind the defense table.
If you don’t know anything about this case, check out http://freewestmemphis3.org (which is intermittently experiencing server meltdowns in light of the recent news). It’s a rather scary example of how being different in the wrong place at the wrong time can ruin a lot of lives.