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West Memphis Three: Internet campaign, Hollywood drove their release

The West Memphis Three, charged in the 1993 slayings of three Cub Scouts, were released Friday. Social media, the Internet, and Hollywood have helped raise critical questions about their convictions.

By Staff writer / August 19, 2011

West Memphis Three: Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, Jr., and Jason Baldwin (l.-r.) at a news conference at the Craighead County Court House in Jonesboro, Ark., Friday after the three were released in the case involving the 1993 deaths of three West Memphis, Ark., children. The defendants agreed to a legal maneuver that lets them maintain their innocence while acknowledging prosecutors have enough evidence against them.

Danny Johnston/AP

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The release Friday of the “West Memphis Three” – the men convicted in the 1993 killing of three young Cub Scouts in Arkansas – testifies to the power of the Internet and broadcast media in influencing the criminal justice system.

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Questions about the prosecution of the case and conduct of the trial – raised by supporters of defendants Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley Jr. – generated widespread interest through such websites as “Free the WM3 Support Fund” and its “Free the West Memphis Three Official Blog.” Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube videos helped spread the word.

That would have been far less possible 18 years ago when this particularly heinous crime occurred. Not only have social media and websites aimed at affecting legal outcomes proliferated, but powerful search engines have created easy access to detailed case information and the assertions of advocacy groups.

Friday’s outcome was not a clear victory for the West Memphis Three (so-called because of the place in Arkansas where the crime occurred) or for the families of the three 8-year old boys. As the prosecuting attorney, Scott Ellington, put it: “Some are happy, some are angry, and others are perplexed.”

While maintaining their innocence, the three men agreed to a legal maneuver that lets them maintain their innocence while acknowledging that prosecutors have enough evidence against them. They were sentenced to time served, allowing their immediate release.

“It's not perfect by any means,” Mr. Echols said at a press conference Friday. “But it at least brings closure to some areas and some aspects.” The three say they will continue to fight to prove their innocence.

The solidity of the case against them began to crack when DNA evidence could not be linked to the defendants while at the same time indicating the possible presence at the crime scene of one of the boy’s stepfather. Questions also had been raised about the jury foreman discussing during jury deliberations a confession deemed inappropriate at trial. (That confession by Mr. Misskelley – reportedly elicited by police taking advantage of his low IQ – was quickly recanted.)

Last November, the Arkansas Supreme Court ordered a new hearing, asking a judge to consider allegations of juror misconduct and whether new DNA science could affect the conviction.

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