NEW YORK – Now living scattered across the country, three men released nearly two decades after they were convicted of killing three Arkansas boys reunited in New York on Monday for a movie screening about their case.
The men, known as the West Memphis Three, traded stories about obtaining a learner's permit to drive, getting used to cellphones and the Internet and even learning how to use a fork again as they adjusted to life on the outside after being in prison since they were teenagers.
Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jesse Misskelley needed a judge's approval to attend a screening of the film "Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory" at HBO and at the New York Film Festival. It's the third HBO film about the case, after the first two ignited a movement to free the men, who have proclaimed their innocence.
"I'm just living life, trying to enjoy it and pick up the pieces," said Baldwin, who has moved to Seattle and is working on a construction crew. He held up a copy of his learner's permit for an audience at HBO, though he said he hasn't gotten behind the wheel yet.
Echols, the only one of the three who had been on death row, is living in New York after taking a trip to Disney Land. Misskelley is back in West Memphis, Ark.
"In a lot of ways it feels like every day is a week since we have gotten out," said Echols, who said he kept stumbling in the days after his release because he wasn't used to walking without shackles.
The men were freed in August after their convictions for the 1993 murders of 8-year-olds Michael Moore, Steve Branch and Christopher Byers were set aside. They pleaded guilty to lesser charges to be released immediately instead of going through a lengthy trial, despite claims from defense lawyers that the lack of DNA evidence from the three would have helped set them free.
"We should be fully exonerated," Baldwin said. "The governor should grant us a pardon based on the knowledge of our innocence."
Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe has said he doesn't plan to issue pardons unless evidence is established showing someone else was to blame. The HBO film discusses possible DNA evidence that could implicate a stepfather of one of the victims but stops short of calling him a suspect. Baldwin says he's reluctant to point fingers at anyone else given what happened to him. Still, prosecutors maintain they convicted the right men.
But Echols said he thought authorities knew who killed the boys and "they don't care. ... What they were doing was doing anything they can to win the next election. That was their first priority."
He said he tries not to think about who committed the crime.
"If you had to think of someone being responsible for 18 years of your life," he said, "it would drive you insane."
A judge in northeast Arkansas had to permit the three men to appear together. Misskelley was initially barred from associating with felons except for his immediate family. Echols and Baldwin were prohibited from associating with felons except for each other.
The complex deal to release them concluded the movie. Baldwin clearly found the idea of having to plead guilty and having his sentence reduced to time served distasteful; he wanted his innocence established. But he has said he did it for Echols, not wanting to take the chance that the verdict was not overturned and Echols faced execution.
Filmmaker Joe Berlinger said it's "not the happy ending we hoped it would be."
"We're happy that the men are out of prison," he said, "but it is a bittersweet ending."
The film is set to air on HBO in January.
Celebrities such as musicians Eddie Vedder, of Pearl Jam, and Natalie Maines, of the Dixie Chicks, had campaigned for the release of the West Memphis Three, but Monday's screenings still had to seem like culture shock to them. They talked in an auditorium at HBO's headquarters while network employees applauded them and were served a catered lunch after the event.
As teenagers, the boys were said to be involved in a satanic cult, and part of the case against them in public opinion was Echols' penchant to dress in black clothes. He wore a black shirt, black pants and dark sunglasses to Monday's news conference.
Still, he said, it was difficult to talk about the case. Misskelley, appearing agitated, left the news conference only a few minutes after it started.
"This case has already eaten up 20 years of our lives," Echols said. "It is not easy to keep reliving it. It's a continuing violation, in a way. At the same time, I don't want the case to be forgotten."