How do you integrate yourself back into society after 18 years in prison? How do you cope when the ordinary activities most of us take for granted -- eating a meal, going to the movies -- count as shockingly new experiences? For Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr., better known as the West Memphis Three, you go at it one day at a time, making sure to savor every moment along the way -- while admitting that some of those moments may not be that sweet.
"The first movie I saw was that horrendous 'Fright Night' remake,' Echols said today, to a chorus of laughter from journalists, HBO executives and members of the West Memphis Three Support Fund. "Going to Disneyland, that was the first time I had ever gone on rides like that in my life, so that was a pretty huge deal. I am pretty much keeping track of firsts. I am even saving hotel room keys."
Together for the first time since their release from prison, Echols, Misskelley and Baldwin are in Manhattan for the New York Film Festival premiere of 'Paradise Lost 3,' the third in a series of documentaries about the murder case that claimed their youths.
"I [just] got my driver's permit though I haven't actually driven yet," said Baldwin, when asked about what he's been up to since his release. "I am working on a construction crew, working with a great bunch of guys and I got my first paycheck. [I've also been] going to the movies, being with family, friends -- people that have been supportive [of me] for two decades."
"Cell phones, TVs, it's crazy," said Misskelley. "It's going to take some time to get used to it, but everything is coming together good."
'Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills' premiered on HBO in 1996, two years after Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley, three teenagers from West Memphis, Arkansas, were convicted of brutally murdering three boys. Baldwin and Misskelley would eventually be sentenced to life in prison; Echols was sentenced to life and the death penalty. But the documentary, directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, raised disturbing questions about the seemingly circumstantial evidence that was used to convict them.
After the film's release, the outpouring for the three boys was enormous. A fund was founded, and celebs like Johnny Depp, Peter Jackson and Eddie Vedder did whatever they could to provide support. ("Eddie Vedder used to come and see me at the prison," said Echols.)
Four years after the first film, 'Paradise Lost 2: Revelations' showcased new evidence that could have exonerated the three (it didn't). Almost a decade later, Berlinger and Sinofsky filmed 'Paradise Lost 3' to document the further failed appeals of the West Memphis Three, as well as the media circus that sprung up thanks to the documentaries themselves.
Then, in November 2010, the Arkansas Supreme Court granted a hearing to reintroduce key evidence. Originally, the film was supposed to be released prior to the hearing, which was set for December 2011. What the filmmakers could not have known was that the trio was on the verge of being set free thanks to a rare legal move known as an "Alford" plea, where the defendants admit guilt but still maintain their innocence. The judge sentenced them to 18 years and 78 days in prison (the time they had already served) and set them free with suspended sentences of 10 years.
Which brings us back to the 'Paradise Lost 3' press conference in New York. Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley looked a bit overwhelmed at the prospect of sitting on stage in a screening room in New York City, but seemed to be in good spirits despite all they've been through.
"It's a little frightening and it's not easy" Echols said when asked about having to discuss the ordeal in front of so many people. "This case has already eaten up 20 years of our lives, so it's not easy to have to keep reliving, keep talking about it over and over. It's a very very difficult thing. It's a continuing violation. But at the same time, I don't want it to just be forgotten, because people think this case is something out of the ordinary."
And it's true: this case and this series of documentaries are anything but ordinary. They helped start a movement and were instrumental in freeing three men from prison. Now the question is, will there be a fourth film?
"I think there is a story and aftermath, whether it's a year or two or five, I can't tell you," said Sheila Nevins, President of HBO Documentaries. "But if [the West Memphis Three is] willing, we're willing."
For now, it looks like the three are just trying to live and enjoy the rest of their lives to the fullest. After all, they have a lot to catch up on.
"There are so many firsts, almost every day is full of firsts," reflects Baldwin. "I guess the best one was the first night out with the people you love, talking to everybody, seeing everybody, being happy. It was amazing [being] together."
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