West Memphis Three released after 18 years in prison, and documentary is credited with helping free them

An HBO documentary helped free three men who’ve spent 18 years in prison, and a new film already in the works will tell their full story when it’s released in January.

The men known as the West Memphis Three, Jason Baldwin, Damien Echols and Jessie Misskelly, were released from prison today, having been convicted of raping, murdering, and mutilating three Cub Scouts–although as the New York Times reports, their release “does not result in a full exoneration; some of the convictions stand, though the men did not admit guilt.”

HBO announced today that the 1996 documentary, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, and Paradise Lost 2: Revelations, will be followed by Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, which debuts in January and “tells the entire story, from the arrests in 1993 to the growing movement, through the entire appeals process and the uncovering of new evidence, concluding with their release.”

Director and producer Joe Berlinger said his first two films contributed to the three men’s release: “To see our work culminate in the righting of this tragic miscarriage of justice is more than a filmmaker could ask for.” Co-director Bruce Sinofsky said in a statement, “Today, we, along with HBO, are humbled to be a part of this remarkable outcome.”

As The Wall Street Journal notes, “Sensationalistic local media coverage fed the prosecutors’ case that the killings were part of a satanic ritual, and the teens’ personal taste in heavy metal music and horror literature was used against them,” and the documentaries “rallied high-profile supporters to the West Memphis Three’s cause, including Johnny Depp, Metallica, Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder and Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks.”

Here’s a preview of the third movie, in which Damien Echols says that without the films, “these people would have murdered me, swept this under the rug, and I wouldn’t be anything but a memory right now.”

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about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.