The celebrated West Memphis Three– Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, Jesse Misskelley, Jr. — made their first appearance together today since being released from prison in August after 17 years. The trio arrived at the end of HBO’s morning press screening of Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky‘s extraordinary “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory.”
The film now contains an Epilogue chronicling their unusual arrangement to get out of an Arkansas prison even though they were forced –wrongly–to admit their guilt while maintaining their innocence. It’s a bizarre situation, leaving them technically cited for life as convicted murderers even though they are innocent.
What’s more, the new film firmly places blame for the terrible 1993 murders of three 8 year old boys at the feet of one of their stepfathers, Terry Hobbs. Even more incredibly, virtually all of the family members of the children have turned against Hobbs and support Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley–most prominently the father of one of the boys, John Mark Byers. Disturbingly the judge who let this miscarriage of justice go on for so long–David Burnett–is now off the bench and loose in the Arkansas political system as a state senator. (This story does nothing to help preconceived notions about the South, that’s for sure.)
The HBO Press conference was so emotional that at one point Misskelley, a genial man who is described in the film as “mildly retarded,” had to be escorted from the stage and left the room. You can only feel deep sympathy for him, what he’s been through, and how he’ll survive now. The West Memphis Three are prohibited at this point from seeking financial damages against the state of Arkansas.
Nichols and Baldwin are in better shape. Baldwin, in particular, is now planning on pursuing a career in law. He worked in the prison law library for the last several years. The two only saw each other once — aside from court appearances– and by accident. Baldwin said that when Echols published his book–and mentioned it–he lost his job in the law library immediately.
Nichols was on death row and would have been executed if Baldwin had not agreed to the unusual Alford law to get them all out of prison. Initially he was arrested not because of evidence but because he wore black clothing as a teenager and acted like an outsider. I am happy to report he still wears black clothing. (I told him that in New York that would never have been an issue.) Echols also wore sunglasses during the press conference, not out of hubris, but simply because he is overwhelmed by this experience. Even though he’s grateful for Berlinger and Sinofsky’s movies, Echols is also not comfortable with the publicity. “The worst part,” he said, “is talking about and living it over and over again.”
As for Terry Hobbs, who’s never been arrested for the murders or accused by the Arkansas of any wrongdoing, Echols said: “Terry Hobbs I try not to think about all. That’s the sort of thing that would drive you crazy. If you think someone else was responsible for you losing 18 1/2 years of your life, it would drive you insane.”
PS No investigation has ever been conducted with Hobbs, although the film lays out–and so does Byers–many inconsistencies with his original police interview, the timeline, and his alibi. When HBO airs the film in January, you can draw your own conclusions.