I was 12 years old in 1993, the year Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley Jr. were arrested for allegedly murdering three 8-year-old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. A year later, the aptly named West Memphis 3 were tried and convicted for the crime in my hometown of Jonesboro, Arkansas.
Eighteen years later, I sat just a few feet away from the three men at a press conference in Jonesboro announcing their freedom after taking the Alford plea, a guilty plea where the defendant does not admit the act and asserts innocence.
As a former goth kid from small-town Arkansas, I was interested in the case from its start. My attention was especially piqued after watching Paradise Lost, the documentary that showed the world how very little evidence existed to convict the three teens.
Who knew years later, I'd be in the same room with the West Memphis 3, all grown up and finally free from prison? Echols, now 36 and sporting a fine suit and blue-tinted glasses, looked a far cry from the long-haired 18-year-old we saw in 1993.
All three men quietly entered the press conference in the basement of the Craighead County courthouse, followed by a posse of attorneys and their staff. The men took their time before speaking, providing no opening statement and only speaking when prompted by reporters' questions. When they did speak, their voices were barely audible over the clicking of cameras.
"I'm still very much in shock. I'm still overwhelmed. I spent the last decade in solitary confinement. I'm not used to being around anyone, especially this many people," Echols said.
Echols, admitting he'd not slept in four days since he'd learned of his impending release, thanked his wife Lori for keeping him strong and working tirelessly on their case.
Baldwin and Echols exchanged a warm embrace in front of the cameras, not long after Baldwin stated that Echols, who was on death row, "had it so much worse than I had it."
The whole thing made me feel guilty. Here we were, a swarm of news-hungry reporters flashing cameras in their faces, and these guys have barely had time to hug their families or each other.
Nonetheless, I was elated to witness the important moment, especially since I almost didn't make it to Jonesboro on Friday. I'd scheduled an interview for that morning with local filmmaker Morgan Jon Fox for another story. On Friday morning, just hours before our planned interview, we spontaneously decided to make the road trip instead.
When Fox and I arrived at the courthouse around 10 a.m., a crowd of West Memphis 3 supporters were gathered outside. A group of girls, who likely weren't old enough to remember the original 1994 trial, held a colorful sign that read, "Equal Justice Under the Law. Free the WM3."
John Mark Byers, the firebrand father of victim Christopher Byers, was outside giving television interviews. Though he originally blamed the West Memphis 3 for the killings, he has since been convinced of their innocence.
"They did not kill my son or his two friends," Byers told the cameras, adding that Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley were convicted after a "botched investigation by the West Memphis Police Department."
The fourth-floor courtroom, where the public hearing was about to begin, was already packed, so we headed into the basement for a press conference. I tossed Fox my camera in lieu of a press pass.
We knew we'd get a much-anticipated glimpse of Echols and company, but we weren't expecting Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder and the Dixie Chicks' Natalie Maines, both long time supporters of the West Memphis 3, to walk in.
Vedder hugged Echols as the men exited the conference (and reportedly sang at his post-release celebration at the Madison Hotel in Memphis).
Asked what he'd do now that he was a free man, Baldwin summed up some good advice for all three: "I want to live my life the best I can and enjoy it."