West Memphis Three: Who are they, and how did they become a cause célèbre?

West Memphis Three members, convicted in 1994 of killing three Boy Scouts, could go free Friday, news reports suggest. The men of the West Memphis Three have drawn support from actor Johnny Depp, among other famous personalities.

James Byard/The Jonesboro Sun/AP/File
Craighead County Chief Deputy Bob Sharp escorts Jessie Lloyd Misskelley (c.) and Charles Jason Baldwin as they leave the Craighead County Courthouse Annex at Jonesboro, Ark., on Nov. 21, 2008. Baldwin and Misskelley, two of the of three men convicted of killing three 8-year-old boys in Arkansas in 1993, are due court in Jonesboro, Ark., along with Damian Echols, Friday for a hearing that could end with their release from custody after nearly two decades in prison.

The West Memphis Three case, which has become a cause célèbre for a handful of prominent American actors and musicians, could be coming to an abrupt and unexpected conclusion.

On Thursday, Craighead County Circuit Judge David Laser renewed hopes that the three may be released after he called a surprise hearing for Friday morning in Jonesboro, Ark. News reports suggest that the three may be released Friday under an “Alford plea,” in which the three actively claim innocence, but will plead guilty for freedom in exchange for time already served.

Damien Echols is on death row and Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr. are serving life sentences after being convicted in 1994 of killing three 8-year-old Cub Scouts in West Memphis, Ark.

The gruesome murders, which were described as satanic by police, shocked the small eastern Arkansas town. But lingering doubt over whether the West Memphis Three were guilty resulted in campaigns by celebrities to have the men freed.

Those doubts were strengthened last month, when a status report on new DNA evidence was filed in Craighead County Circuit Court. It failed to link the crimes to the men convicted in the murders. An evidentiary hearing was scheduled to start in December.

Attention at the original trial centered on Mr. Echols, then 18, who wore black clothing, dyed his hair black, read vampire books, and listened to heavy-metal music. He was often questioned by police about satanism.

Two HBO documentaries filmed in the 1990s raised awareness about the case. Rock band Metallica allowed their music to be used in the movie. Another documentary will be released this fall.

Since then, Eddie Vedder of the alternative rock band Pearl Jam and actor Johnny Depp have become strong advocates for Echols, in particular.

Last year, Mr. Vedder, along with local activists called Arkansas Take Action, organized a “Voices for Justice” concert in Little Rock to raise awareness about the West Memphis Three. Mr. Depp appeared along with punk legend Patti Smith and Dixie Chicks singer Natalie Maines.

"Three innocent people are losing years of their life on a wrongful conviction on a crime they didn't commit,” Ms. Maines said last year at a press conference in Little Rock. “It makes me scared. It could happen to any of us."

Over the years, Depp and Vedder have contributed to legal fees for Echols. Vedder has also written songs about Echols and visited him on death row. Other musicians and actors have often donated autographed instruments and memorabilia for auctions to aid the cause.

Websites have also served as a portal for allies to communicate with other supporters, generate letter writing campaigns to the West Memphis Three and politicians and to generally keep a virtual vigil burning.

“From beginning to end, this is probably the first national case to play out on the Internet,” Lisa Fancher, an activist for the West Memphis Three Fund, said Friday before the hearing. “The Internet was the way to mobilize the troops all over the world. I don’t see how we would be where we are right now without the Internet.”

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