Life seldom plays out like a movie. But for the West Memphis Three, it did.
The lives of the three men convicted of the 1993 brutal killings of three young Cub Scouts in Arkansas shifted dramatically this week.
On Monday, Damien Echols sat on death row while Jason Misskelley and Jason Baldwin each faced life without parole sentences. By Friday afternoon, they were free men with no restrictions on travel and undefined futures after 18 years behind bars.
At a hearing in Jonesboro, Ark., Friday morning, the trio agreed to a legal maneuver that allowed them to maintain their innocence while acknowledging that prosecutors had enough evidence against them to find guilt. Important questions had been raised about crime scene evidence and conduct of the trial. They were sentenced to time served and immediately released.
But such a startling change in circumstances could have dire effects on the three men locked up as teenagers and now in their mid-30s. They’ve spent half their lives in prison, missing out on the presidencies of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, the rise of Twitter and Facebook, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the election of the first black president, and the creation of reality TV.
“It’s disconcerting when an inmate leaves the system so abruptly,” says Dr. Frederic G. Reamer, a professor at the School of Social Work at Rhode Island College in Providence “And it’s extraordinarily unusual. To go from zero to 75 within a matter of hours is likely to be overwhelming for anybody. There hasn’t been enough time to construct the scaffolding that an ex-offender absolutely needs after entering society.”
For the West Memphis Three, legal negotiations accelerated so quickly that this couldn’t happen.
Shea Wilson, an Arkansas Department of Correction spokesman, says that no inmate has ever walked off death row like Echols.
Most inmates have some notice of impending release, Wilson says, in order to prepare for life on the outside. Typically, prison officials work with inmates on a parole plan that includes programs designed to help them transition to a new life.
The three men were teenagers when they were arrested. In prison, they grew up in a hostile environment surrounded by violent offenders, says Reamer, who also serves on the Rhode Island Parole Board. Echols has lived in solitary confinement for ten years, and now he has to learn daily human interaction.
While in prison, Echols married Lorri Davis, a long-time defender of the three men. One challenge will be learning how to maintain that relationship.
“Sudden liberation, while wonderful, can also be absolutely overwhelming,” Reamer says.
According to experts, recently released prisoners have three areas of concern. They must adapt to the practical side of an unstructured world – making life decisions for the first time and learning new skills like working a smart phone. Second, community support is a must. And third, they need psychological attention to understand their experience.
“In the end, it would be a deeply personal process, dealing with the pains of an 18-year imprisonment and a perception of betrayal by the criminal justice system,” says Dr. Michael Jenkins, a professor at the University of New Haven’s Henry C. Lee College of Criminal Justice and Forensic Sciences in Connecticut.
After their release, Echols and Baldwin attended a lunch and later an evening party at a swanky Memphis, Tenn., hotel with supporters that included Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder and Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks.
While celebrity hoopla and international attention currently surrounds the West Memphis Three, reality will soon loom.
“My guess is that their heads are spinning,” Reamer says. “It will take a Herculean effort to cope with this traumatic set of challenges in everyday life.”