Three convicted murderers, subject of three HBO documentaries, will be freed after nearly two decades behind bars and intense celebrity lobbying for their release.
The controversial case of the so-called "West Memphis Three" inspired a heated debate about their guilt or innocence and attracted the attention of some of Hollywood's biggest celebrities.
The earlier convictions were not overturned completely. Rather through a legal maneuver, the three men will maintain their innocence, while acknowledging that there was enough evidence against them for a murder conviction.
In releasing the "West Memphis Three," a district court judge said the men had served their time, but issued a 10-year suspended sentence against them.
The case of the men, who were convicted of killing three 8-year old boys in the small town of West Memphis, Ark., in 1993, has drawn nationwide protest. An effort to free them inspired the support of celebrities such as Johnny Depp, Eddie Vedder, and Henry Rollins.
After being reported missing, the naked bodies of the three boys were found mutilated in a ditch.
Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, Jr., were imprisoned for the crime in 1993. Echols was give the death penalty and the other two men were serving life sentences, yet the evidence against them was considered slight.
The case became the subject of the acclaimed 1996 documentary "Paradise Lost" and a 2000 sequel "Paradise Lost 2: Revelations."
The filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky produced a third film for HBO, "Paradise Lost: Purgatory" that is scheduled to be released this January.
"Eighteen years and three films ago, we started this journey to document the terrible murders of three innocent boys and the subsequent circus that followed the arrests and convictions of Baldwin, Echols and Misskelly,” Berlinger said in a statement. “To see our work culminate in the righting of this tragic miscarriage of justice is more than a filmmaker could ask for.”
Berlinger and Sinofsky were in court Friday to watch the three men's release.
The controversy centered around the prosecution's failure to articulate a strong motive for the murders. At the time, they claimed that three men had been inspired to murder the boys as part of a Satanic ritual.
Efforts to overturn the convictions gained steam five months ago, after new evidence found no DNA traces from the three men at the scene of the crime. The evidence also indicated that another person may have been at the scene and that animals may have mutilated the three bodies.
The Weinstein Company has long been interested in making a feature version of the story.
In 2006, Dimension Films acquired rights to "Devil's Knot: The True Story of the West Memphis Three" — and hired Scott Derrickson and Paul Harris Boardman to write the script.
"Devil's Knot," by journalist Mara Leveritt, is considered the definitive book on the case.
Now that there's an ending to the story, the project is more attractive.