West Memphis 3: Free

With an unusual plea deal, three men are freed after being wrongfully convicted of murder nearly 20 years ago

Produced by Gail Zimmerman
[This story was originally broadcast on Sept. 17, 2011. It was updated on July 21, 2012.]

For 12 years, Lorri Davis had been married to a man she couldn't live with - even worse, they could rarely even touch - until now.

"Is there a way to describe what you're feeling right now?" "48 Hours Mystery" correspondent Erin Moriarty asked Lorri's husband.

"Too many things," Damien Echols replied. "You know, it -- just about any emotion, any thought, anything else that you could put a name to I'm probably havin' it or probably have it in sometime over the past week. You know, there's excitement. There's -- maybe a little bit of anxiety. Curiosity."

Damien Echols is finally tasting the freedom he's longed for his entire adult life. Convicted of a notorious crime in 1994, he was on death row - waiting execution - when he first spoke with "48 Hours Mystery". The only bright spot in his life was Lorri.

"She's like a living, breathing miracle in human form," Damien told Moriarty in a 2009 prison interview. "She is my life. ...in every aspect, in every regard, in every way. She is my universe.

Lorri met Damien after she became aware of his controversial case. She wrote to him, traveled from New York to see him and offered her help.

"It was the right thing to do," she said, "because he is innocent."

"I can understand you believing that he's innocent and wanting to work on his case. But what made you actually decide to marry him?" Moriarty asked.

"Well, I mean, the simple answer is I loved him. He's an amazing person."

Damien is one of the men known as the West Memphis 3. His co-defendants, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley were also in prison, sentenced to life. But from the outset - serious questions were raised about their guilt. And over the years, a growing number of people began to demand a new look at the case, including Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks, Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, and actor Johnny Depp.

Photos: Star support for the WM3

"I'm here because I firmly, truly, 1000-percent believe that Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley are totally innocent," Depp told Moriarty in 2010.

But the demands fell on deaf ears in the Arkansas courts which repeatedly upheld all three convictions. Prosecutors maintained that Damien, Jason, and Jessie were responsible for the murders of three 8-year-old boys on May 5, 1993.

That day, Chris Byers, Michael Moore, and Stevie Branch were out playing together.

"Stevie was very outgoing, a brilliant child. Anyone who knew him loved him," said his mom, Pam.

Stevie's mom, Pam, a waitress back then, didn't worry very much when her son wasn't home home before her five p.m. shift began. "I just figured that he mighta lost track of time, and was on his way home."

It was when her husband, Stevie's stepfather, picked her up at 9 p.m. that she heard for the first time that the boys had still not returned. "I just started cryin' and sayin', 'God, no, no. Why isn't he home?'"

Pam searched straight through the night, along with other panicked parents, including Chris Byers' father, Mark.

Then, at 1 p.m. the next day, police made a grim discovery in a wooded strip by the interstate known to the kids as Robin Hood Hills. Stevie, Michael and Chris were found bludgeoned and drowned in a drainage ditch. Their bodies were naked and hogtied with their own shoelaces.

"Just a gut wrenching moment to put into words... the disaster, the devastation," Byers recalled.

Six days later, Mark Byers buried his son, Chris.

"When these murders happened, it was something that was almost like an atomic bomb going off," Damien explained in 2009. "You have three children that are murdered. I mean, that in itself is a pretty horrific thing...And then slowly, details start comin' out about how they were found. Now, a lot of these details weren't true."

Byers told Moriarty there were a lot of rumors. "I heard that one of 'em was skinned. I heard that one of 'em's face was cut off."

"Then you start hearin' all these, you know, people whispering about, maybe it was Satanists that did this," said Damien.

It was a time when a media-fueled hysteria about Satanic cult activity was sweeping the country. Damien, who wore black clothing and listened to heavy metal music, stood out in this rural community and he came under suspicion.

"All black was the only thing I ever wore. ...ridiculous hairstyles," Damien explained. "I was a stupid teenager. I really was a smartass."

"Damien, you didn't help yourself too much--" Moriarty remarked.

"Oh -- I didn't help myself at all. No I didn't."

Police had Damien in their sights - and word of that got out.

"I walked into a softball game ... I went around the concession stand and I hear people sayin', 'There he is. That's him,'" Damien recalled.

"They're pointing at you, because -- they think you might have had something to do with the murders?" Moriarty asked.

"Yeah."

Still, there was no physical evidence to connect Damien to the crime. But then, someone he knew spoke out.

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