After 18 years, three men emerge from prison, thanks to a series of documentaries — and funding from some seriously famous supporters

By Chris Nashawaty
August 26, 2011 at 04:00 AM EDT

We tend to think of movies as fun diversions. But every once in a while they have the power to change lives. When Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky‘s award-winning documentary Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills aired on HBO in 1996, it mobilized thousands of passionate advocates — including Johnny Depp, Peter Jackson, Winona Ryder, Eddie Vedder, Natalie Maines, and Henry Rollins — to rally around a trio of young men known as the West Memphis Three, who many felt had been wrongly accused of murder.

On Aug. 19, after spending almost two decades in prison, Jason Baldwin, Jessie Misskelley Jr., and Damien Echols left a Jonesboro, Ark., courthouse as free men. ”For all of us who have fought for this day, it’s thrilling,” Berlinger told EW from outside the courthouse.

The trio, now in their mid-30s, were baby-faced teens when they were arrested for the murders of three 8-year-old boys in 1993. After the victims’ mutilated bodies were found in a wooded area of West Memphis, Ark., suspicions focused on the adolescent misfits, whose taste for heavy metal music and the occult made them easy targets. Despite a lack of evidence, they were convicted of murder. Echols, the alleged ringleader, was sentenced to death.

Three years later, Paradise Lost brought national attention to the case. Vedder, Maines, and Rollins staged benefit concerts. Berlinger and Sinofsky released a 2000 sequel that offered new evidence. Jackson and his partner, Fran Walsh, ”put their attention into funding and spearheading DNA work, hiring forensic and other experts, plus extensive private investigations,” and became close friends with defendant Echols, says Jackson’s manager, Ken Kamins. Ultimately, there was enough of an outcry — and fresh evidence — to spark hope for a new trial. ”You had the best minds in the business working on this case thanks to Johnny Depp, Peter Jackson, and Eddie Vedder’s financial support,” Berlinger says, putting the stars’ contributions at ”many millions of dollars.” (Depp and Vedder declined to comment.)

Then, last week, the state agreed to let the West Memphis Three go free if they pleaded guilty in what is called an Alford plea — meaning they can publicly maintain their innocence. In this case, it also means they cannot sue the state. Vedder and Maines rushed to the courthouse when the men were released. Berlinger and Sinofsky were on hand too, to shoot a new ending for Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, though they won’t have time to edit it in before its premiere next month at the Toronto Film Festival. As for Jackson and Walsh, Kamins says, ”They are heavily involved in ongoing investigations, and the release of the guys is far from the end of the story.” After all, the West Memphis Three are still considered guilty in the eyes of the law and, as Jackson wrote on Facebook, ”there’s also a triple child-killer who has walked free for the last 18 years.”

In the meantime, director Atom Egoyan is working on a feature-film version of the case. And why not? Hollywood endings like this don’t come along very often.