West Memphis Three supporters at Jonesboro, Arkansas courthouse on August 19, 2011

The West Memphis Three, who were convicted as teens of killing three eight-year-old boys and who spent 18 years in prison -- while fans of the 'Paradise Lost' series of documentaries about their case pushed for their release -- are free today.

According to the Arkansas Times, a hastily-arranged hearing at a Jonesboro, Ark. courthouse led to a plea deal that secured the release of Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr. while upholding the guilty verdicts against them. Celebrity supporters were on hand, including Eddie Vedder, Natalie Maines, and 'Paradise Lost' filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, who had rushed to the scene to film a new conclusion to their trilogy.
The trio were freed after agreeing to a plea deal that had them entering an "Alford Plea," which allows them to actively maintain their innocence in public statements while acknowledging in court that the state has enough evidence to convict them and accepting a sentence of time served. The deal forestalled the possibility of a new trial, a prospect raised in recent weeks by newly unearthed evidence supporting the defendants.

Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley had been convicted of the 1993 slayings of Cub Scouts Stevie Branch, Michael Moore and Christopher Byers. As documented in the 'Paradise Lost' documentaries that have brought worldwide attention to the case over the last 15 years, the prosecution offered little in the way of evidence against the defendants except their fondness for black clothing and heavy metal music, suggesting that the killings were part of a Satanic ritual. Baldwin and Misskelley were sentenced to life in prison, while Echols was given the death penalty. Since their 1994 convictions, appeals have kept the case alive, drawing on information revealed in the documentaries suggesting that the case against the West Memphis Three had been slipshod and that other potential suspects had been overlooked.

Berlinger and Sinofsky rushed to Jonesboro this morning to film the hearing. They had recently made a third movie about the case, 'Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory,' which was to screen at the Toronto and New York Film Festivals next month, but suddenly, they had a new ending to shoot.

'Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory' - Teaser Trailer

"I have now spent half my life on death row," Echols said in a statement upon his release. "It is a torturous environment that no human being should have to endure, and it needed to end. I am innocent, as are Jason and Jessie, but I made this decision because I did not want to spend another day of my life behind those bars. I want to live and to continue to fight for our innocence."

Singers Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam and Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks, longtime supporters of the trio, were present at the hearing. They were just two of the many entertainment world figures who had campaigned for the trio's release over the years. Yesterday, Deadline reported that 'Lord of the Rings' filmmakers Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh had subsidized the trio's legal costs in recent years, including funding investigative work that might have led to their freedom.

The surprise hearing, announced just yesterday, follows the release of a report three weeks ago that found that DNA from the crime scene did not match any of the three defendants. In a statement today, prosecutor Scott Ellington said that new evidence, including the DNA report and allegations of juror misconduct, had increased the likelihood of a new trial, one that the state would have difficulty winning because of the time that had elapsed, the attention the case has drawn, and the fact that two of the three victims' families now support the defendants and believe that the killer is someone else who is still at large.

Follow Gary Susman on Twitter @garysusman.

Photo credit: AP
Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills
Not Yet Rated1996
In Theaters on July 21st, 2009

Joe Berlinger chronicles the trials of three Arkansas teens for the satanic murders of three boys. Read More