Freeing the West Memphis Three
Leveritt, Mara, Newsweek
Byline: Mara Leveritt
They were wrongly convicted of grisly child murders and locked up for nearly 20 years. Inside their path home.
"Damien! I finally GET 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. …