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Video: ‘West Memphis 3’ released from prison

  1. Closed captioning of: ‘West Memphis 3’ released from prison

    >> an extraordinary turn of events in a murder case that has captured worldwide attention. it began nearly 20 years ago with the shocking deaths of three boys, and now the men who were convicted in those killing killings, and who have always maintained their innocence are free. they were released from prison yesterday. nbc's pete williams reports on the west memphis three.

    >> reporter: a crowd gathered early outside the courthouse to witness the end of an emotional saga that began in 1993 with a brutal crime in west memphis , arkansas. three second graders, cub scouts , tied up and beaten to death, left in a ditch behind a truck stop. a month later, police accused three teenagers of killing the boys in a satanic ritual . despite a lack of physical evidence, all were convicted. jason baldwin and jessie misskelley sentenced to life in prison , the death penalty for damien echols . but friday it was over. their dna was never found at the crime scene . appeals for a second trial was marred by police and juror misconduct and an hbo documentary attracted nationwide attention to problems with the case.

    >> the murders had been part of a satanic ritual .

    >> satanic worship.

    >> reporter: in court friday a judge ordered a new trial. then in a move worked out in advance, the three maintained their innocence but pleaded guilty , rather than face a new trial. sentenced to time served , they were free to go. the men said they wanted to prove their innocence, but agreed to the deal to get damien echols off death row .

    >> fighting for the trial as much as possible, but, he had it so much worse than i had it.

    >> i recognize and acknowledge that he did do it almost entirely for me.

    >> reporter: the father of one of the victims, christopher buyers, says he became convinced the men were not guilty.

    >> i want justice. and i wanted the three of them to be free. and i have no animosity whatsoever towards the three. i know they're innocent.

    >> reporter: but the father of another victim, steve branch, says he believes they did it.

    >> if these animals are released you're just going to give the keys to everybody on death row right now.

    >> reporter: the deal saves face for both sides. prosecutors insist the three were the killers, but their lawyers say the state would never let them out if it was convinced of their guilt. the men themselves say they'll keep fighting to prove their innocence, leaving some to wonder, who killed those boys. for "today," pete williams , nbc news, washington.

    >> joe burlinger and bruce anoski are directors of paradise lost , a documentary that sparked widespread support for the possibility of the memphis three's innocence. they also produced a follow-up documentary and a third installment that will air this january on hbo. joe and bruce, good morning to you.

    >> thanks for having us.

    >> good morning.

    >> how are you?

    >> i'm doing great. i know you were there when the three men, damien echols , jason baldwin and jessie misskelley learned they were able to walk free after 18 years behind bars . you call it salvation, not justice. and i know these three weren't prepared to accept this deal because they had to plead to a lesser crime. how did they come to move forward with this? what was the reasoning behind it?

    >> well, there was a quick deal about two weeks ago started happening, a deal was offered to the prosecutor that they, for 18 years, delays and dragging this thing out, decided to take. i think it's politics. you know, dusty mcdaniels, the arkansas attorney general , is running for governor at the end of the year, and i don't think they wanted a messy, embarrassing evidentiary hearing in december, which was scheduled to happen.

    >> i know a lot of big names joined the chorus for their release. was this, in large part, due to your documentary?

    >> the first film that we made impacted a lot of people. you know, celebrities and johnny depp and eddie vedders and people like that. but i think it was the everyday person who discovered this case, and really, you know, brought it forward. they've been with it for 18 years. so, the celebrities were great but the everyday person was really the person that carried this through.

    >> and i know you all really got to know the families over the years. the families of these three men. the families of the victims of this crime. how -- what has been their responses to what's happened, to the events that unfolded this week?

    >> well, obviously the families of the accused men or the convicted men are thrilled that this legal nightmare has come to an end, but they, like us are dumbfounded that the state of arkansas didn't have the courage to fellly exonerate these people and now these guys have this sort of damocles hanging over their head of having to accept a murder conviction when, in fact, we all believe that they're completely innocent. and the families of the victims, two of the three families of the victims believe that the west memphis three were innocent and therefore, what the state of arkansas is basically telling them is that, we're not going to go find the real killer. i think there's joy and there's confusion, and, you know, it's bittersweet.

    >> we really believe that if -- go ahead.

    >> i just wanted to have you talk a little bit about the three men, these 18 years behind prison, you spent some time with them. how have they changed? they were just teenagers when they were put behind bars .

    >> yeah, they were teenagers, and now they're in their mid 30s. and you know, i got chills yesterday at the hotel when i saw damien go in to the elevator. just to see him do something other than being chained, and behind a piece of plastic when we would see him. i think damien and jason are going to do really, really well. i'm a little bit worried about jessie just because he doesn't have the same support system as those guys have. but we'll do anything we can to help these guys. we loved them over the years.

    >> and i think the remarkable thing about these guys is they were impoverished, trailer park people, and we don't mean that discourteously, we just mean that they had very little opportunity and education when they were arrested. i think that's one reason the state almost got away with this. they were basically indigent, you know, uneducated people. and to see how all of them have transformed themselves into prison, and to have endured this nightmare while still maintaining their innocence was really quite remarkable.

    >> we know --

    >> we spent some time with them last night to just be able to hug these guys, and to really, you know, tell a joke and talk and, you know, damien asked me how my family was. and you know, it was all very, very cordial.

    >> right.

    >> no way to say it. i mean, damien 's been nice enough to say that the film probably saved his life. and that's quite an honor for us.

    >> it's powerful, and i know you all are working on a third installment of your documentary series . we look forward to it. thank you both.

    >> thank you.

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