Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley — the three convicted murderers who became familiar through the “Paradise Lost” documentaries of Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, which defended their innocence — could see an end to their case, with two of the three released from prison as soon as tomorrow, according to reports.
According to Memphis’ CBS affiliate, TV station WREG, two of the three — including Echols, who is on Death Row — will be released Friday after all three admit guilt to the crime. According to the station reporter, George Brown, the two men would be freed for time served.
Echols received a death sentence, with Baldwin and Misskelley receiving life sentences for their supposed roles in the deaths of Stevie Branch, Michael Moore, and Christopher Byers, who were found murdered and mutilated in a wooded area in West Memphis, Ark. in May 1993. At the time of their arrests, Misskelley was 17, Baldwin was 16 and Echols was 18. All three have maintained that they did not commit the murders.
Berlinger and Sinofsky have chronicled the fight to prove their innocence for nearly two decades. The first was in 1996 with “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills,” followed in 2000 with “Paradise Lost 2: Revelations” and this year with “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory,” which will premiere at the upcoming Toronto International Film Festival.
“To see 18 years and three films’ worth of work finally come to fruition with the potential for righting this terrible wrong is more than any filmmaker could ask for,” Berlinger told indieWIRE via email from his flight to Arkansas Thursday evening.
According to the Arkansas Times’ Arkansas Blog, Jonesboro, Ark. Circuit Court Judge David Laser will hold a hearing tomorrow, 11 am CT on August 19, with the families of the defendants and the victims in court.
Per the reporter, Max Brantley:
I received a tip from a local attorney predicting earth-shaking developments, now believed to be release of the defendants in return for pleas to reduced charges, perhaps done in a way that the defendants can still maintain their innocence.
The facts are well-known. Damien Echols, who is on Death Row, and Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr., who are serving life sentences, were convicted in the 1993 slaying of three West Memphis children — Christopher Byers, Stevie Branch and Michael Moore. The trials, though marred by bogus claims of Satanism and shoddy investigative tactics, had withstood appeals until recent developments allowed examination of DNA evidence. To date, none of the DNA gathered in the case has matched any of the defendants. That doesn’t exonerate them, but it was powerful new evidence that they weren’t involved in the crime. Strong new evidence also was introduced about potential jury misconduct, specifically improper consideration of a statement made by one of the defendants.
Last year, the Arkansas Supreme Court ordered a new evidentiary hearing to determine whether the defendants were entitled to a new trial. That hearing was scheduled for December, but tomorrow’s surprise hearing suggests a major development is at hand,” Brantley says. “The buzz in the defense bar community is that the news is beyond major.”
According to Brantley, an Arkansas Correction Department spokesman confirmed that all three men left the high-security prison in Varner, Ark. today in custody for the hearing, taking all their possessions with them.
Echols notes in the latest installment of “Paradise Lost” that the docs have been a crucial factor in what he sees as forcing justice to be served. He also notes in the film that the attention to the case from the features may have even saved his life. “These people would have murdered me, swept this under the rug, and I wouldn’t be anything but a memory right now,” he says.
HBO will release “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory” in January.
[Editor’s Note: iW will update after Friday’s hearing.]