By Chris Nashawaty
Updated August 19, 2011 at 12:00 PM EDT
Credit: Danny Johnston/AP Images

On the other end of the phone line, Joe Berlinger sounded both ecstatic and relieved. After all, it had been 15 long years since he and his filmmaking partner, Bruce Sinofsky, first released the award-winning documentary Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills — an HBO movie that advocated for justice in the case of the West Memphis Three. And now, a decade and a half later, their story finally had an ending.

The 1993 case, which later became a cause célèbre for entertainers like Johnny Depp, Eddie Vedder, Henry Rollins, Peter Jackson, and Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks, sent three teenagers to jail for the brutal murders of three 8-year-old boys in West Memphis, Ark. But as Berlinger and Sinofsky’s film pointed out, the evidence against them was always sketchy at best. In the meantime, the three convicted teens — Jason Baldwin, Jessie Misskelley, Jr., and Damien Echols — spent 18 years in prison maintaining their innocence.

Until today.

“It’s an amazing moment,” says Berlinger by cell phone from Arkansas. “For all of us who have fought for this day, it’s thrilling.”

Baldwin, Misskelley, Jr., and Echols accepted a plea bargain on Friday that allowed them to maintain their innocence while acknowledging that prosecutors had significant evidence against them. In other words, by admitting they were guilty (even if they didn’t mean it), they were allowed to walk free. And while Berlinger is overjoyed to see the West Memphis Three finally released, he’s enraged by the conditions of the deal.

“I mean, it’s wonderful,” says Berlinger. “I would have made the same decision if I were them., but it’s deeply disturbing that the state of Arkansas did not have the courage to admit that it made a mistake. It’s astounding how long it’s taken for the wheels of justice to grind through.”

Ironically, when Berlinger first found out about the fast-breaking developments in the case earlier this week, he was busy putting the final touches on Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory — the latest chapter in his and Sinofsky’s 15-year-long odyssey of the imprisoned trio. He received a call on Tuesday night saying that he needed to get his camera and head down to Arkansas immediately. Something was happening. When Baldwin, Misskelley, Jr., and Echols were released today, he was there watching the whole surreal event unfold through the viewfinder of his camera.

The West Memphis Three’s saga may finally be over, but for Berlinger and Sinofsky, the next filmmaking challenge is just beginning. After all, Paradise Lost 3 was scheduled to make it world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival. Now, after the events of the past 24 hours, the ending has to be changed. There may not be time to do radical editing before Toronto, but Berlinger says that the West Memphis Three’s release has to be acknowledged somehow. After the festival, he suspects that more of the footage they’ve shot today can be edited in time for the film’s January premiere on HBO. In any event, Berlinger and Sinofsky can at least take some solace in the vindication of their cause. The scrappy, low-budget story they’ve spent the past 15 years of their lives telling finally has one hell of a Hollywood ending.

Read more:

Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills

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