Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley and Jason Baldwin, three men collectively known as the "West Memphis 3", were freed from prison today after more than 16 years. The three were wrongly convicted in the 1994 murders of three young boys, a court case that was documented in Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky's landmark 1996 documentary PARADISE LOST: THE CHILD MURDERS AT ROBIN HOOD HILLS, which aired on HBO.
The news comes just weeks before PURGATORY, the third film in the PARADISE LOST trilogy, is set to debut at the Toronto International Film Festival.
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The deal reached Friday is what's known as an Alford plea. Normally, when defendants plead guilty in criminal cases, they admit that they've done the crime in question. But in an Alford plea, defendants are allowed to insist they're innocent, says Kay Levine, a former prosecutor who now teaches criminal law and criminal procedure at Emory University in Atlanta. She is not involved with the Arkansas case.
"It's not an insane strategy decision," Levine said. But, she added: "It's incredibly troubling to us as a free society that people would plead guilty to something that they actually did not do."
In a clip from the forthcoming film [embedded below], Echols is seen telling Berlinger and Sinofsky that if it weren't for the films, he would already be dead. "I really do believe these people would have gotten away with murdering me if it would not have been for what you guys did, for being there in the very beginning and getting this whole thing on tape so that the rest of the world sees what was happening. If not for that, these people would have murdered me, swept this under the rug and I wouldn't be anything but a memory right now."
In a statement today, Berlinger said, "What greater gift to a filmmaker than to see their work actually having real world impact."
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal's John Jurgensen, Berlinger noted that the filmmakers find themselves having to add a new, last-minute ending for their film.
Originally the movie had ended on “a question mark,” Berlinger said, having presented a chronology of the whole case and the emergence in recent years of new evidence, including DNA, that pointed toward a likely hearing next December. On Wednesday, however, the filmmakers rushed to Arkansas after getting a tip that the men would likely go free on time served and a plea to lesser charges.
As the filmmaking team prepared to set up their cameras for what they expected to be a climactic press conference, Berlinger was ebullient about the prospect of shooting some last-minute footage for the movie before it hits the festival: “Now we’re in that funny position and wonderful opportunity of having a much happier ending.”
On Twitter and elsewhere, many were drawing comparisons to Errol Morris' 1988 THE THIN BLUE LINE, which helped free Randall Dale Adams, who had been wrongly convicted in the murder of a Dallas police officer.