Oct. 10, 2011 at 5:41 PM ET
On the surface, it was just another film screening at New York's HBO headquarters: Members of the press assembled in a darkened room, watched a documentary, asked questions of the filmmakers and subjects afterwards.
But the screening Monday afternoon of Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky's "Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory" was very different. "Purgatory" is the latest of three films by the pair focusing on Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, the three young men who were teenagers back in 1993 when they were arrested for murdering three even younger boys in West Memphis, Ark.
Over the next 18 years, their convictions and the films made about them ("Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills" and "Paradise Lost 2: Revelations") became intertwined. Without the documentaries and the attention -- both grassroots and Hollywood-based -- they attracted to the case, Echols said, "We would have probably sunk into obscurity."
Instead, the most remarkable thing about this particular screening happened after it ended, when the West Memphis Three, now freed men, joined the filmmakers and HBO/Cinemax's head of documentary and family programming Shelia Nevins -- who originally sent Sinofsky and Berlinger down to West Memphis to make the first documentary in 1993 -- to field questions.
"It's a little frightening," said Echols of being in the real world after so much time in prison. All three men spent 18 years behind bars, with Echols -- who had a death sentence -- in solitary confinement for 10 of them. "The case has taken up 20 years of our lives. It's not easy to relive over and over ... it's a continuing violation in a way."
The trio -- who have maintained their innocence since their arrest -- were freed in August after DNA evidence convinced the Arkansas Supreme Court to grant them an evidentiary hearing that would likely have led to a new trial. That then led prosecutors to cut a rarely used deal known as an Alford plea. In that plea, the men professed innocence while also pleading guilty. Largely, Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley say they agreed to the deal to avoid waiting even more years for a new trial, which might have produced a "not guilty" decision, but was no foregone conclusion.
"As Jason points out in the film, it's a raw deal," said Berlinger. "They walk out of prison convicted killers ... it's a bittersweet conclusion."
It has been only a matter of weeks since the young men have been out of prison, and they're having to do a lot of catching up. Baldwin showed his recently acquired driver's permit to the audience. "I'm just living life, trying to enjoy it," he said.
Echols -- wearing sunglasses, clad in black and tapping his legs nervously -- noted he'd just gotten back from Disneyland. "It's a different feeling being around a lot of people," he said. "I've been in solitary for the last 10 years. I've been writing again, trying to capture this while it's all still new."
Misskelley, however, spoke little and had to leave the room when the discussion turned to who the three thought had actually committed the crimes.
"I think (the authorities) know exactly who did it," said Echols, "and they just don't care."
The future remains open for the trio. Once they learn how to use things such as cell phones and the Internet, they're expected to take part in the ongoing investigation of the case in hopes of clearing their names. In time, there may even be enough for another chapter in the "Paradise Lost" series.
Nevins is open to it: "Yes," she said. "If they're willing, we're willing."
"I don't see why not," said Echols, with Baldwin nodding along.
Added Nevins: "They're free ... but we have to get that in print."
"Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory" is set to debut in January 2012 on HBO.
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