On a recent friday night in Memphis, 75 people gathered on a hotel rooftop overlooking the Mississippi River for a party hosted by Eddie Vedder. As the guests of honor - Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin, who had just been released after spending 18 years in prison - arrived, they were mobbed by friends and supporters for hugs and photos. Vedder gathered the crowd for a champagne toast - and then, joined by the Dixie Chicks' Natalie Maines, grabbed a guitar and sang Neil Young's "Rockin' in the Free World."
It was the end of a nearly two-decade nightmare for the West Memphis Three - Echols, Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr. - who as teens were convicted of killing three eight-year-old Cub Scouts, whose bodies were found in an Arkansas creek in 1993. Misskelley, diagnosed as mentally disabled, confessed to the murders during a questionable 12-hour interrogation, and the trials regularly disregarded evidence in the teens' favor. Instead, prosecutors focused on their outcast reputations and dark tastes: They listened to Metallica records, read Stephen King books and Echols dabbled in Wicca - evidence, the state claimed, that the teens killed the children in a satanic-cult ritual. All three were convicted of murder. Echols, the alleged ringleader, was sent to death row.
The convictions outraged Metallica, who lent their music to the 1996 HBO documentary Paradise Lost, which made a powerful case for the teens' innocence. "It was the least we could do," says Lars Ulrich. "They were outsiders who didn't fit into what that community wanted. I could definitely identify with them. We all could."
The case resonated with the music community, from Patti Smith and Henry Rollins to Tom Waits and Ozzy Osbourne. "The state used our personal preferences for music to destroy us," Baldwin tells Rolling Stone, days after he was released. "I find it telling that, in the end, some of those very same artists helped us gain our freedom."
Rollins began organizing benefit shows and, in 2002, released an album featuring Iggy Pop and Lemmy Kilmister. "The trial reeked to high heaven," Rollins says. "I'd find myself up at 3:30 a.m. thinking about Damien. He could have been me. I had those records. I was sullen as a teenager." By 2005, Rollins had raised $100,000, funding key DNA tests to help the defense.
Another twist came in 2007, after Maines posted a blog entry claiming that DNA consistent with Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of one of the victims, was found at the crime scene. Hobbs sued for defamation, protesting his innocence. During his deposition, he stated that he never saw the children the day they were murdered. But three eyewitnesses came forward, claiming he was with the victims shortly before they disappeared. "When [Maines] got that deposition, it was a huge advantage for our case," says Lonnie Soury, an adviser to the defense team. "It gave us a lot of revealing information."
More attention came in 2010, when Maines and Vedder headlined a benefit in Little Rock that included supporters Smith and Johnny Depp. "They've studied the case," Echols' lawyer, Stephen Braga, says of Vedder and Maines. "I had meetings with Eddie to try to figure out how best to move the case forward." Adds Rollins, "He contributed some pretty heavy amounts to this thing."
After a hearing was set to determine whether there should be a new trial, the state abruptly agreed to release the West Memphis Three through an obscure legality, an Alford plea, in which the trio would plead guilty while maintaining their innocence - and give up the right to sue the state. "The state gave them no compensation," says Ulrich. "So I think it falls upon our responsibility to help with that side of it."
Now in their midthirties, all three are eager to finally begin their adult lives. Echols is pondering his next move while on vacation with his wife, Lorri Davis (an advocate for their case he met in prison); Misskelley is preparing to marry his high school sweetheart; and Baldwin is looking at college catalogs. "It feels like I've been reborn," he says. "The future is wide open."
This is from the September 15, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone.
Photo by AP Photo/Danny Johnston