In 1994, three young men in West Memphis, Ark. were wrongfully tried and convicted of the 1993 murder of three boys. However last week the trio known as the West Memphis Three (or WM3) were freed.
Their release was based on new evidence showing that none of the DNA found at the crime scene matched that of the three men. Instead, the DNA found actually matched Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of one of the victims.
For the WM3, their freedom arrived in a less-than-pure fashion. An Arkansas courtroom released them August 19, but only after Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, and Jason Baldwin entered Alford pleas.
Essentially that meant they could profess their innocence while acknowledging that prosecutors have enough evidence to convict them. And after serving over 18 years, the three were released with 10-year suspended sentences.
“It’s not perfect by any means,” said Echols to the Imperial Valley Press. Echols had spent his imprisonment on death row. “But at least it brings closure. We can still try and clear our names. The only difference is now we can do it from the outside.”
So how did these three young men come to receive such harsh sentences for a crime they did not commit?
The answer lies in a story that outlines a criminal justice system permeated with inequality and corruption.
The murders the WM3 were charged with were gruesome in nature and in the way in which they were carried out, leading community members to point to the three.
Their reasoning for this assumption is easy to believe, but hard to hear according to Echols’ defense attorney Stephen Braga. The three young men at the time were different describes Braga on AlterNet.org.
“They dressed in black. They listened to heavy metal. They were goths before goths were fashionable [and considered more normal by mainstream society], so they were easy targets,” notes Braga. West Memphis was a small town community, added Braga, and as a result the three young men “were the unusual kids in town.”
When families and neighbors pegged the incident as part of an “occult ritual” carried out by the three outcasts, the local police bought this hook, line, and sinker.
In the 2003 book Devil’s Knot: The True Story of the West Memphis Three, author Mara Leveritt reveals how local law enforcement mishandled the crime scene. For one, the police did not wait until the coroner arrived before moving the bodies of the boys.
“Police records were a mess,” Leveritt writes. “To call them disorderly would be putting it mildly.”
Throughout their imprisonment, the WM3 case was followed by a number of celebrities, musicians, and civil rights activists, who doubted the young mens’ guilt. Many believe that the three were prosecuted simply for being different and enjoying an underground (and misunderstood) form of music.
Eddie Vedder (lead singer of rock band Pearl Jam), filmmaker Joe Berlinger, metal musician Ozzy Osbourne, and actor Johnny Depp were among the supporters who traveled to Jonesboro, Ark. in celebration of the three young men they had actively defended for years.
One of the WM3’s most recent and passionate supporters was alternative metal artist Marilyn Manson.
In a 2010 MySpace blog by MansonWiki, Manson said that Damien Echols, who was deemed by police as the supposed “ringleader” of the “occult-centric” trio, “Is on death row for a crime he did not commit. Mostly because he dressed like we do, listened to music like we do, and acted like we do. This is a person who was singled out in a small town with his friends, and subjected to the basic Salem Witch Trial that everyone talks about.”
Manson continued, “So for 16 years, these guys – who were teenagers at the time of their trial – have gone through things that we can’t even imagine. I wish I had the strength that [Echols] had, because he’s gone to prison for just looking and thinking [like an individual], which is what all of us as a music community believe in [doing].”
Berlinger, who released the Paradise Lost documentary, told the LA Times the release of the West Memphis Three was “a bittersweet moment,” partially because they had to plead guilty even though they were let go. But two decades of their lives were lost, said Berlinger.
“My daughter is 17. And every time she went through a landmark – her first steps, middle school, high school, first boyfriend – I thought of Damien Echols, rotting in prison,” said Berlinger.
James Hetfield, front man of thrash metal band Metallica, showed his support for the WM3, calling their release an “amazing” outcome. “The way you dress, the things you listen to…” he said. “I can basically speak for myself, growing up, that that was just a sign of wanting to be creative and different.”
Baldwin, one of the three recently freed, notes the way in which they were released actually added insult to injury.
“They’re not out there trying to find out who really murdered those boys, and I did not want to take this deal from the get-go,” Baldwin says in the Huffington Post.
But Baldwin’s main focus was to save his friend Echols’ life. Echols was sentenced to die by lethal injection.
“Sometimes you just got to bite the gun to save somebody,” said Baldwin.
But for Baldwin and his friends, the struggle to fight this injustice is far from over.
“This was not justice,” says Baldwin. “We told nothing but the truth. We were innocent, and they sent us to prison for the rest of our lives.”
Photo: Damien Echols (left), Jessie Misskelley (middle), and Jason Baldwin, sitting in the Craighead County Courthouse Annex in Jonesboro, Ark. George Jared, The Jonesboro Sun/AP Photos