The West Memphis Three: Their First Taste of Freedom

Top: Echols, Misskelley, and Baldwin were released. Bottom: (From left) Chris Byers, Michael Moore, and Steve Branch were the three 8-year-old victims in the 1993 killings. Top row: Polaris; Bottom row from left: Polaris, Commercial Appeal-Polaris (2)

"Damien! I finallyGET to hug you!"

For 17 years, I have only seen Damien Echols—gaunt, pale, always behind thick glass—in an Arkansas supermax prison. Our voices—his always quiet—crossed through a metal grille. Yet here he is on a mid-August evening, in the flesh, atop a luxurious hotel in Memphis, where Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder has orchestrated an impromptu party. A few dozen people—attorneys and longtime supporters—have gathered to celebrate the first taste of freedom for the men known as the West Memphis Three.

Just 48 hours earlier, Damien, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley Jr. were in three different Arkansas detention facilities. Now Damien is here, peering at an iPhone. Jason, flanked by his girlfriend and mother, hugs me, confiding that he's brought his beloved Hacky Sack along. And Jessie has gone home with his father for a barbecue dinner. Even the judge said that what happened this morning will be talked about for years. In the space of two days, one prisoner sentenced to death and two others serving life without parole were driven to an Arkansas courthouse, pleaded guilty to multiple murders—and in a strange legal twist—were immediately set free.

Damien smiles and rises to greet me. I have no words for him, just this speechless, heartfelt hug. Giddy, I say, "Guy, you look good in clothes!" I hear him murmur, "Surreal."

I look out across the Mississippi River toward West Memphis, Ark., the town where, in 1993, the murders that sent Damien, Jessie, and Jason to prison occurred. They were then 18, 17, and 16 years old. Someone points to the river, noting the geographical irony of the party's location. But Damien, with his wife of 13 years, Lorri Davis, glued to his side, can't see that far. After years in an isolation cell less than 12 by 8 feet, he's lost his distance vision. A friend comforts him, "It'll come back."

I have known the West Memphis Three since 1994, the year they were convicted. Damien was a precocious high-school dropout who wore black, listened to heavy metal, and dabbled in Wicca—which made him an outsider in this tight-knit Bible Belt community. Jason was a diligent student who attended school the day of the murders and every school day after until his arrest. Damien and Jason were friends, but only slightly acquainted with Jessie, a wrestling fan with a temper.

Damien stood stonily as a jury concluded he'd killed three 8-year-old children and a judge told him that officials would "administer a continuous intravenous injection of a lethal quantity … into your body until you are dead."

When circuit Judge David Burnett asked Jason if he could offer the court "any legal reason" why his life sentence should not be imposed, Jason responded softly, "Because I'm innocent."

At the time, I was a reporter for the weekly Arkansas Times. I wasn't convinced by the trials, and as soon as the police investigative files became public, I drove to West Memphis to see what I'd missed. There I read for the first time a transcript of the statement that Jessie made to police a month after the murders—what has since been called his "confession." Based solely on that statement, police had arrested him, Damien, and Jason, and charged all three with capital murder.

Jessie, a high-school dropout, had been in special ed throughout school. He'd come to the police station voluntarily, and police had questioned him—with no parent or lawyer present—for close to eight hours. Only two brief sections of his account, totaling less than one hour, were recorded—and I found even those parts troubling.

Jessie stated he'd met Damien and Jason in the woods where the children's bodies were later found. He said he'd watched as Damien and Jason beat and stabbed the boys "and started screwing them and stuff." Ultimately, Jessie said, he had helped in the murders by holding one of the victims.

Police knew the boys were last seen alive after 5 p.m. Yet in the recordings, Jessie started out saying the killings took place "early in the morning." Police knew the boys were in school all day. Even on the taped sections, Jessie gradually changed the time to "around noon," then "five or six," finally settling for: "It was starting to get dark." The medical examiner found no evidence that any had been raped.

The local prosecutor, John Fogleman, had based three charges of capital murder on Jessie's vague and contradictory statement. A day after making his statement, Jessie recanted it. Damien and Jason always asserted their innocence. Jessie was tried alone and first. Fogleman played the tape of his statement, and Jessie was convicted. When the Arkansas Supreme Court affirmed his conviction, it noted that Jessie's "confession" was the only evidence against him.

Before going into Damien and Jason's trial, prosecutors offered Jessie a term of less than life in prison if he would repeat his claim in court that he'd seen Damien and Jason murder the boys. But Jessie refused. With no eyewitnesses, no actual physical evidence, and no motive to offer jurors, the prosecutors decided to tell them that the teens had killed the children as part of an "occult ritual."

First the prosecutors introduced evidence that Damien read books by Stephen King, Anne Rice, and Dean Koontz. A police officer testified that he thought that "strange." They established that Damien had borrowed a book titled Cotton Mather on Witchcraft from the local library. And they produced a piece of paper on which Damien had written the name of Aleister Crowley, described by one of the prosecutors as "a noted author in the field of satanic worship."

The damning evidence against Jason was less pronounced, though prosecutors did introduce album covers he owned of heavy-metal groups, along with testimony that police had found "11 black T shirts" among his clothes.

The second element relating to motive had to do with the moon. Fogleman asked the court to note that it was full on the night of the murders. Fogleman then called to the stand a witness who claimed to be an "expert" in the occult. In his closing argument, Fogleman pointed to Damien and said, "There's not a soul in there." Jurors sentenced him to die. In the belief that Jason acted under Damien's influence, they gave him the lesser sentence of life without parole.

In 1996, the Arkansas Supreme Court unanimously affirmed all three convictions.

I did the first interview with Damien seven months after the trials. It was our cover story, with the headline "Witch on Death Row." In the years since, Damien, convicted in part because of his taste in books, has remained a voracious reader in prison, and is still interested in the occult. "I don't know how these other guys do it. If it wasn't for magick," as he spells it, "I would have been dead long ago."

He's had poetry published and an autobiography titled Almost Home. He has collaborated on songs with several artists, including Vedder.

Lorri was a landscape architect living in New York when HBO aired a documentary, Paradise Lost, about the case. She felt an immediate affinity for Damien, and the two began a correspondence that would lead to marriage. Over the years, I watched her grow from a woman who cherished her privacy to one who was willing to meet with teams of lawyers, speak at large public events, and ask benefactors for money to fight the convictions.

Jessie entered prison a brawler. He fought—and got beaten—a lot during his early days in prison. But he's had support, calling his father once a week, a link that helped steady him.

Last year he told me that he wasn't mad at the judge for the way his trial was handled. "If I was a judge and somebody done that to a kid—like we was accused of murdering those three little boys—I would have probably done the same thing," Jessie said. "But he was a judge, and he went to school, and he was supposed to do the right thing."

In researching my book, Devil's Knot, I learned that prior to Damien and Jason's trial, prosecutors had offered not to seek the death penalty against Jason if he would testify that he'd seen Damien kill the boys. "That would be a lie," said Jason, who added that his mom had raised him better than that. Since his conviction, Jason has earned his GED and 36 hours of college credit (an option not available to Damien). He has worked as a counselor to other inmates and as an assistant in the prison school.

Meanwhile, outside the men's prisons, and almost imperceptibly, doubts about the verdicts began to build. Part of the change arose after reports of new DNA tests on old crime-scene evidence. Where suspicion had long been focused on one of the victims' stepfathers, the new tests revealed that a hair found in a knot used to bind one of the boys apparently came from the stepfather of one of the other victims. No DNA was ever found that traced to the men in prison.

Lorri and others formed a group called Arkansas Take Action. Last August, Vedder and Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks, along with Johnny Depp, Patti Smith, and other celebs, packed Little Rock's 4,000-seat auditorium in a rally on behalf of the West Memphis Three. Fogleman ran for the state Supreme Court and lost—to the surprise of his prominent supporters. Weeks later, the state Supreme Court ordered a new hearing to decide if the men deserved new trials.

That hearing was set for December. But last week, to widespread amazement, prosecutors and the men's attorneys struck a complex agreement. The state of Arkansas, which had staunchly resisted new trials, suddenly offered freedom—but with a further price. While continuing to maintain their innocence, Damien, Jason, and Jessie had to plead guilty to reduced charges of murder. It's called an Alford plea. Prosecutors said it was an all-or-nothing deal.

Initially, Jason balked. He wasn't guilty and he would not say he was, even if refusal meant more time in prison. When Jason did change his mind, it was because lawyers had convinced him that, unless he did, Damien would remain on death row, still facing execution.

I remember how often Jason and I discussed how really ordinary his case was—except for the publicity and support it drew. He knows that there are many at his prison and in prisons everywhere who are also innocent—but whose cases never got the spotlight that happened to shine on this one. A few months ago he told me that when he finally did get out, he wanted to study law—not to practice but to teach it. He felt he had some authority to speak about wrongful convictions.

I reflect that before Damien does anything else, he needs to regain his health. Five hours a week, alone, in a covered, outdoor cell offered scant sunlight and no real chance to exercise. A thin pad on a concrete bed was hard on his bones. What little medical care he ever got was less than optimal. He learned to focus his energy.

The night of the rooftop party, there is talk of creating funds for the three men's futures. Others vow to keep investigations alive, so that the actual killer or killers are found.

The next morning, Jason is walking alone in downtown Memphis when a camera crew approaches and asks how he feels. There is the sweet-hearted Jason I've known since he was a kid. "Good morning, Memphis," he says happily. "Good morning, Tennessee. Good morning, America.

"Good morning, the world."