This Is How The West Memphis Three Were Set Free

In 1993, three teenagers from West Memphis, Arkansas, went to prison for the murders of three eight-year-old boys whose bodies had been found in a muddy ditch in the woods. But Damian Echols, Jessie Misskelley Jr., and Jason Baldwin never touched those boys. According to true crime writer DeLani R. Bartlette, they were the unfortunate victims of a spasm of paranoia that swept across the country in the 1980s and 1990s called the Satanic Panic. Frightened by heavy metal music, black clothing, moody teenagers, and other things they didn't understand, the good, God-fearing parents of the nation facilely blamed all the woes of society on Satan-worshiping cults that obviously just wanted to murder all the children. The movement was spurred on by charlatans who wrote "memoirs" about made-up personal experiences in sadistic Satanic cults, and in this fervor, the West Memphis Three were lambasted by so-called "experts" at their trial and easily found guilty by a jury of their "peers."

Despite the prosecution's shoddy argument, complete with at least one witness with a made-up Ph.D. that the judge allowed to testify anyway, Damian Echols was given the death penalty, and the other two were thrown in jail for life and some change. They ended up spending 18 years in prison for crimes they didn't commit. So how did they finally get out, with all the cards so seemingly stacked against them?

The West Memphis Three were finally set free by pleading 'guilty'

As in other cases that spanned into the dawn of the 21st century, such as that of Florida's killer clown, new technology allowing investigators to analyze DNA evidence played a role in the West Memphis Three finally being released from prison — well, partially, at least. According to the Arkansas Times, in 2007, hairs found on the shoelaces used to tie up the murdered boys pointed to Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of one of the victims. His ex-wife also claimed to have found her murdered son's pocketknife in the stepfather's stuff. Many are convinced that Hobbs was the killer. Other evidence the prosecution had used turned out to be bogus, as well. The three requested a new trial in 2007, but were denied.

In the end, it came down to a change of judge and a rare type of legal stratagem known as an Alford Plea, which allows the defendant to paradoxically plead guilty while still maintaining their innocence. (Ah, the chimera of irony that is American justice.) Really, it was a way for the state of Arkansas to weasel out of any responsibility for locking up three innocent kids and completely ruining their lives, and part of the bargain was that they could never sue the state for having done so. All three were released in 2011, and no further investigation has been made into who killed those boys.