West Memphis 3: Free
Damien Echols, left, Jessie Misskelley, Jr., center, and Jason Baldwin sit at a table before a news conference at the Craighead County Court House in Jonesboro, Ark., Friday, Aug. 19, 2011, after the three were released after pleading guilty to the 1993 deaths of three West Memphis, Ark., children. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston)
When "48 Hours" first spoke with Damien Echols, he was still hanging his hope on the DNA found at the crime scene.
"You can do a lotta things now with forensic testing and DNA that you couldn't do back in 1993," he told Moriarty. "So, a lotta things have come forward now."
Judge David Burnett, the original trial judge, denied Damien - and the other two defendants -- a new trial based on the DNA. But the Arkansas Supreme Court agreed to review that ruling. That's when Lorri Davis decided to pull out all the stops.
"I contacted all of our long-time supporters and friends, you know, kind of heavy hitters. And said, 'Let's do somethin' in Arkansas to just wake people up. ...send a message out to everyone about what we're goin' into.' And all of them said, 'Yeah, let's do it.'"
In August 2010, those "friends" of the West Memphis 3 show up in force. Natalie Maines, Eddie Vedder, Patti Smith and Johnny Depp are all determined to keep the case in the spotlight.
"You want to do all you can to help right the wrongs," Depp said, "and the clock is ticking."
Two months later, a stunning reversal of fortune.
"It was like winning, you know, the Super Bowl," said attorney Stephen Braga.
The Arkansas Supreme Court blows all three cases wide open - ordering a different judge to examine all evidence, old and new, and decide if there should be new trials. The hitch: everyone will have to wait another year.
"Sometimes I think they hoped things were just gonna, like, die away and people were gonna start going away and stop paying attention," said Lorri.
But then, attorney Stephen Braga comes up with an idea to get Damien out: a rarely used legal procedure in which a defendant proclaims innocence and yet pleads guilty: the Alford Plea.
"The Alford Plea is sort of a technical wink and a nod," he explained. "We're innocent, but we're signing this paper to get the case over."
"Damien, Jason, Jessie, have spent the last 18 years saying, 'We're innocent.' And then an Alford Plea?'" Moriarty asked.
"Yeah, absolutely," he replied. "Mr. Echols was living in a box about 8 foot by 11 foot. No windows, no open bars, a little slat through the door. ...He needed to get out of there."
To Braga's surprise, the state agrees... but only if all three men would go along with it.
Said Braga, "The prosecutors were demanding finality. That's what they wanted. They wanted to bring an end to this legal tangle."
"It sounds crazy, but fine," Lorri said, "He's going to have the plead guilty, but he can maintain his innocence."
"I literally felt like I was gonna have a heart attack," Damien said of the plea deal. "There's a possibility that I may walk out of this place within a week. ...That this can all become like a bad dream."
Like Damien, Jessie Misskelley agrees to the deal. Everything's a go until Jason Baldwin weighs in.
"I told 'em I would not accept the plea 'cause it's wrong," he told Moriarty in August. "...anybody logical and reasonable and unbiased can look at it and realize they had the wrong guys you know and release us...and I was unwilling to accept anything less."
"What was your reaction when you heard that?" Moriarty asked Echols.
"I can't even describe it. Just despair," he replied.
Because Damien couldn't contact Jason directly, his long-time supporter, Eddie Vedder, and attorney Stephen Braga did it for him - writing Jason letters.
"How close did this deal come to just dying, not making it at all?" Moriarty asked Braga.
"I'd say very close," he replied. "We had a deadline from the prosecutors... we were within 48 hours of the deal going away."
Jason changes his mind. He'll take the deal and give up his hope for a new trial.
"There's really no guarantee, as it was proven durin' my original trial, that the right thing would have happened," he explained. "And Damien could have very really lost his life."
On August 19, 2011, the three men - who hadn't spoken with each other for 18 years - were brought to court.
"I lived in -- terror that this wasn't gonna happen," Damien admitted. "That somethin' was gonna fall through...and I literally could not rest until they came and got us and took us to the courthouse."
There are victims' parents among the supporters there: Stevie Branch's mother, Pam Hobbs and Chris Byers' father, Mark.
"They're innocent," Chris Byers yells to the crowd gathered outside the courthouse. "They did not kill my son!" The crowd applauded in agreement.
But other victims' relatives, including Stevie Branch's father, are angry. "They were found guilty. I think they are guilty."
The men stand before Judge David Laser in a procedure that takes all of a half hour.
"Your honor, I am an innocent of these charges but I am entering an Alford guilty plea..." Damien told the judge.
They are sentenced to time served. And in the paradox that is the Alford plea, the prosecutor gets his convictions.
"I have no reason to believe anyone else involved in [the] homicide of these three children, but the three defendants who pled guilty today," prosecutor Scott Ellington told the judge.
The imprisoned men are allowed to walk free.
"If they -- actually believed you were guilty there's no way in hell they would let you go," Damien told Moriarty in the interview following his release.
"Three kids murdered," Lorri said, "And they're gonna let three murderers -- and one of them on the death row, walk out of prison? It wouldn't happen."
At a press conference held following the release of the West Memphis 3, Jason Baldwin told reporters, "I did not want to take the deal from the get go. However, they're trying to kill Damien -"
"I recognize he did do it almost entirely for me," Damien replied, after which Jason stood to give him a hug.
"He did thank me. He gave me a big old hug, actually," Jason laughs. "And it felt good."
Damien told Moriarty the first thing he wanted to do was "go outside at night."
"When was the last time you have been outside at night?"
"Eighteen-and-a-half years before that," he replied. "The night we were released from prison, everybody just sort of had like a small celebration. And we went out on the rooftop and watched the sunset. Watched the stars come out."
As for Jason, "I smiled so much that my face actually hurt from it. You know, but it's a good thing."
Jason says his days behind bars weren't as bad as Damien's. He had a job and tutored other inmates. And now he's soaking up the everyday life that most people take for granted.
"I'm tryin' to learn the rules of the road so I can learn to drive...Went to the movies the other night with my girlfriend," he said. "I'm livin' a great life, you know. I'm free for the first time ever."
"This is a whole new world," said Damien.
He credits Lorri for keeping him sane all these years. Just days after his release, they came to New York.
"Does it feel overwhelming, how much stuff there is you have to learn?" Moriarty asked
"It is. But it's also fun,' Damien said. "You know, I want to know how to navigate in this world. Whether it's technology or whether it's finding my way up and down the streets of New York City."
Jessie Misskelley is back home with his family - and enrolled in a community college. But all three men are paying a heavy price for their new lives - to the world they are convicted felons.
"We can continue work on this case," Damien told Moriarty, "But we can do it from out here instead of with me sitting in a prison cell."
"You know, the fight's not over with," Jason said. "I talked to my attorney... And everything's a go on continuing this investigation."
So who did kill those three innocent 8-year-old boys? Was it someone they knew? And who was that bloody, muddy man at the Bojangles restaurant who was never found? There was also DNA and a partial fingerprint recovered at the crime scene that are still unidentified.
"Hopefully, some day we will find that smoking gun, that key piece of inculpatory DNA or a deathbed confession or a witness [will] come forward and say, "You know, this is really what happened," said Braga .
Until then, it's an imperfect ending... and something short of justice for everyone.
"You have a tough road ahead of you," Moriarty remarked. "It's not gonna be easy."
"Name one thing in our lives that has been easy," Damien replied.
"Or normal," Lorri said with a laugh. "Everything we've done in our lives together hasn't been easy, but it's worked."
As a condition of the plea, the West Memphis 3 had to agree not to sue the state of Arkansas.Jason Baldwin is going to college.
Jessie Misskelley is training to be an auto mechanic.
Damien Echols' autobiography, "Life after Death," is being published in September.
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