Jan. 12, 2012 at 9:25 AM ET
This bittersweet ending has been nearly 20 years in the making, and on Thursday night, Americans will get to watch the West Memphis 3 walk out of prison as free men after a long legal fight featured in the third installment of HBO's "Paradise Lost" documentaries on the case.
Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr., the men who were convicted on what appears to be shaky evidence and a questionable confession in the brutal killings of three young boys in West Memphis, Ark., in 1994, each took the Alford plea in August. The deal allowed them to go free and maintain their innocence while pleading guilty to the murders. (Echols had been sentenced to death, and Baldwin and Misskelley Jr. to life in prison.)
In the third documentary of the series, "Purgatory," Baldwin doesn't hide his displeasure with the Alford plea. "I did not want to take the deal from the get go," he said in the film.
And in an interview with msnbc.com on Wednesday, he said he still feels the same way despite finally gaining his freedom after 18 years behind bars.
Baldwin said that he was first told of the plea deal on Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2011. He said that he talked to a friend a few days later on Saturday, and soon made his decision to take the deal. "She reminded me, you know, that Damien's situation was very different from mine," he said. "He's in a tiny cell. He's tortured daily. He's had to watch countless people where he was at being marched past his cell, to never return, to be killed. You can't imagine the stress that has! And here I was, all I had to do was say 'yeah' to the deal and he could go home right then, and his life would be saved. And I'm like, 'What am I thinking wanting to fight this, keep fighting this?' ... It was a no brainer then."
The three men submitted their pleas on Aug. 19, 2011, and were released.
Though they're free men now, Baldwin said "they shouldn't have forced us to take an Alford plea to be free. They should've let us go a long time ago. They should've never charged us."
Baldwin, now 34, said he believes the authorities focused their attention on him, Echols and Misskelley Jr. because "they let the killer slip through their hands or lost evidence" pointing to the real culprit. And thanks to the immense pressure to find the murderer(s), "they had to create all this elaborate crazy stuff to force people to lie, (to have Misskelley Jr.) making a false confession," a confession that played a large role in the conviction of the three men who were still only in their teens at the time.
"That's when it turned into a mistake from their part into a problem," Baldwin said. "They didn't want to admit they made a mistake. ... The state did what was wrong and created a case of ... like a witch hunt against us."
And as the first two documentaries -- 1996's "Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills" and the 2000 follow-up "Paradise Lost 2: Revelations" -- showed, prosecutors who painted the three accused teenagers as satanists helped turn the community against Baldwin, Echols and Misskelley Jr. In an exclusive sneak peek provided by HBO, "Purgatory" also reveals allegations of jury misconduct, and from one jury member in particular. Take a look:
"An apology would be nice," Baldwin told msnbc.com when asked if he'd like anything from the authorities now. "And I'm not even wanting to force them to do that. Just admit that we're innocent and drop the charges. I'm not gonna make them grovel and beg and say they're sorry. That stuff's gotta come from the heart."
And what about Misskelley Jr. and the confession that played such a big role in landing the West Memphis 3 behind bars? "That was a horrible thing (investigators) done to (Misskelley Jr.)," Baldwin said. "I definitely hold no ill will toward him."
Though Baldwin hopes that one day, he, Echols and Misskelley Jr. will officially be declared innocent, he's moving on with his life.
"I got my driver's license. I passed the test on my first attempt," he said Wednesday. "Just six days ago, I got my own apartment." But that's not all. "I set up an appointment with a college on the 16th to lay out a schedule for me to go to school in April," he said. "I want to get into law and try to use my situation to help people that are in similar situations."
And thanks to the documentaries shedding light on all the issues with their case, Baldwin said it hasn't been too difficult to pick up where his life left off when he was 16, even with the guilty plea.
"Everywhere I go, I run into support," he said. "Even though when I was trying to get my apartment I had to check the box saying I was a convicted felon. But the person running the place had heard of the case and was supportive and was like, 'It doesn't matter.' Everyone knows we're innocent."
See how the latest chapter of the West Memphis 3's tale unfolds when "Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory" premieres on HBO at 9 p.m. on Jan. 12.
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