The trio of teenage friends were accused and convicted of several child murders in Arkansas in 1993, with the evidence more or less amounting to their interest in heavy metal music and dark-colored clothing. DNA evidence since confirmed their innocence, turning them into a cause célèbre as symbols of legal injustice, ’90s-era hysteria over provocative music, and, more broadly, the human tendency to scapegoat outsiders. The Los Angeles Times writes:
The three men known as the “West Memphis 3,” who have been imprisoned for 18 years for a notorious 1993 child-murder case, have won their freedom in an Arkansas courtroom.
In an agreement with prosecutors, Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley and Jason Baldwin pleaded guilty to the murders of three 8-year-old boys in May 1993, but are able to claim they are innocent, an arrangement known as an “Alford plea.” The three men were released Friday after serving sentences of 18 years plus credit for time served.
“Today’s proceeding allows the defendants the freedom of speech to SAY they are innocent, but the FACT is, they just plead GUILTY,” Scott Ellington, district prosecuting attorney for Craighead County, Ark., said in a prepared statement.
The case of the West Memphis 3 — teenagers when arrested — became a cause celebre in music and Hollywood circles as questions emerged about their trial, in which prosecutors argued that the suspects, who favored black clothing and heavy metal music, murdered the boys as part of a satanic ritual.
At one point, Misskelley confessed to police that he, Echols and Baldwin had attacked, raped and murdered the second-graders. Supporters said the confession was false and coerced, and noted that Misskelley is mentally disabled.
Since then, the Arkansas Supreme Court determined that DNA evidence found at the scene “conclusively excluded” the three, and attorneys for the men had asked for a new hearing to consider new evidence.