By KIM SEVERSON
Read the full story at NYTimes.com
ATLANTA — The list of things you learn about yourself when you get out of prison after 17 years is long: You’re allergic to shrimp, or you’re paralyzed by the choices in a grocery store or moved to tears by the softness of the night sky.
From left, Jessie Misskelley, Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin, the West Memphis Three, after their 1993 arrests in the murder of three boys.
The men known as the West Memphis Three thought they would die in prison, linked forever as the torturers and killers of three young boys. They have been free for a year now, living as little more than acquaintances in a world flooded with possibilities.
Yet they are still linked, not only by a series of coming books and movies but by a legion of fervent supporters who hold them as a symbol of a flawed legal system.
“Honestly, we all lived through this horrible time in our own way and got through it differently, so now I guess we all have a different way of healing,” said Jason Baldwin, 35, who went into prison a quiet, heavy metal-loving teenager ready to start a job as a grocery store bagger and came out — much to the amazement of most people who meet him — a sweet, optimistic and slightly goofy man who wants to help people who have been wrongly accused.
Over the course of nearly two decades, their imprisonment grew into a much-examined narrative about wrongful conviction, class, conformity and the power of celebrity.
It ended last August in a legally awkward deal that had them declaring their innocence but pleading guilty to the murders while the State of Arkansas essentially admitted the evidence against them was weak but possibly viable.
On Saturday, supporters of the three will party on Beale Street in Memphis to mark the anniversary of their release. The three men will not be there.
In the year that has passed, their paths have crossed mostly for media events or awards.
Jessie Misskelley, 37 — then a hard-partying teenager with a low I.Q. and a penchant for fighting whose shaky confession led to their conviction in 1994 — headed back to his old Arkansas neighborhood to be near his father. He became engaged to a woman with two children and started to study auto mechanics.
Mr. Baldwin, who taught classes to other inmates while he served a life sentence, is working toward a law degree in Seattle. He is deeply in love with Holly Ballard, a longtime supporter who wrote and visited him regularly. He, Mr. Misskelley and Ms. Ballard are listed as executive producers on “Devil’s Knot,” a feature film that was shot in the Atlanta area over the summer.
Damien Echols, the brooding, charismatic star of the trio and the one who spent nearly two decades confined for 23 hours a day in small cinder-block box on death row, could barely walk when he got out. Inside, he became a Zen Buddhist and married Lorri Davis, a Manhattan landscape architect who became the driver behind the effort to free him.
He moved to New York and wrote “Life After Death,” a memoir that will be released in September. He got matching tattoos with his friend Johnny Depp and spent time with Eddie Vedder, the Pearl Jam frontman who was a lead supporter for his release. He also helped make a documentary, “West of Memphis,” with the New Zealand filmmakers Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh.
And he learned about the power of social media, which did not exist when the men went in but which ultimately helped free them and continues to help Mr. Echols build a fan base.
“Sometimes I still can’t believe I’m actually out. That I actually survived,” he wrote this week in a Twitter message.
Who really committed the crime is still a mystery. Efforts of private investigators and lawyers and an avalanche of documentaries, investigative reports, books and the coming Hollywood movie, starring Reese Witherspoon and Colin Firth and directed by Atom Egoyan, all point to one version of the truth: whoever it was, it was not these three.
Supporters, including some of the parents of the second-grade boys who were killed in 1993, want the case reopened. The men’s lawyers and supporters keep pushing for Arkansas’s governor, Mike Beebe, to pardon them, which a spokesman said he was unlikely to do.
“This has so far been a very cynical and unsatisfactory end to a sinister prosecution,” said Mara Leveritt, an Arkansas journalist who wrote “Devil’s Knot,” the 2002 best-selling book that examined how an overmatched defense and what she called “satanic panic” led to the convictions.
She is working on a new book about them, and her original book is becoming the movie. Mr. Firth plays an investigator, Ron Lax, and Ms. Witherspoon stars as Pam Hicks, the mother of Steven Branch, one of the boys who was found naked in a drainage ditch, bound with his own shoelaces.
Ms. Hicks, who still lives in Arkansas, became deeply connected to the producer, Elizabeth Fowler, who spent nearly a decade trying to get the movie made. The two prayed together and cried together.
Ms. Hicks also spent time showing Ms. Witherspoon around the old neighborhood and watching the movie being shot, worrying that the pregnant actor was too hot in the Southern humidity.
Having a movie made about the most horrific thing to ever happen to you is kind of weird, Ms. Hicks said, “but I’ve been talking about it since Day 1, so it was a method of therapy for me.”
Ms. Hicks has never been able to see the evidence in the case, including her son’s bicycle, so she filed a suit this month against the West Memphis Police Department and city officials.
Like most of the people in the West Memphis area, Ms. Hicks first thought the teenagers were devil worshipers. But now she and the stepfather of Chris Byers, another victim, believe someone else committed the crimes.
On the top of her list is her former husband, Terry Hobbs, whose DNA matched a hair that was found in one of the knots used to tie the boys. Mr. Hobbs, who lives in Memphis, has repeatedly denied it, and the police say he is not a suspect.
Todd Moore, the father of one of the boys, has also insisted that no one other than the West Memphis Three had anything to do with the boys’ deaths. Those who think otherwise, he has said, are buying the hype that years of celebrity attention and an estimated $10 million or more in legal and investigative work can buy.
Scott Ellington, the prosecutor who negotiated the plea arrangement and is running for Congress, said that his office was working on material provided by the men’s lawyers but that he had not seen anything definitive.
“You don’t have dot to dot to dot,” he said. “And that’s what we need if we were to reopen the case.”
Still, he said he was willing to do that if such evidence appeared. “I’m man enough to present that evidence to a judge and let the judge decide.”
He has seen “West of Memphis,” but you will not see him in line for “Devil’s Knot,” and he does not plan to buy a copy of the third installment of the HBO documentary series called “Paradise Lost,” the first of which, produced in 1996, the men credit with ultimately bringing their freedom.
How much the men will support one another’s projects going forward is unclear.
Mr. Echols hated that he was portrayed as a blood-drinking devil in the original script for “Devil’s Knot,” and pushed for changes, said Lonnie Soury, a New York publicist who became part of his defense team. Then, in his book, Mr. Echols criticized Mr. Baldwin for not immediately accepting the deal, saying Mr. Baldwin had grown to love prison and was acting as if he was morally superior.
That hurt Mr. Baldwin, who initially did not want to admit to something he says he did not do, preferring to take a chance on an upcoming hearing to examine new evidence that would have probably included DNA samples and charges of juror misconduct.
But as the short timeline on the offer approached, he became convinced that Mr. Echols would not survive much longer.
“I didn’t take the deal for me,” he said. “I took it for Damien.”
The two currently are not speaking. Those around them hope the rift will heal.
“Part of the downside of the Hollywood thing is there are so many people who claim this,” Mr. Soury said. “They want to own Damien and Jessie and Jason. Part of their struggle was trying to take back their lives and own their story.”