Three men in their mid-​​30s have been released from prison after serving more than 17 years behind bars for the 1993 mur­ders of three 8-​​year-​​old Cub Scouts in West Mem­phis, Arkansas—a crime that new DNA evi­dence sug­gests they did not commit. We asked Jack Levin, the Brud­nick Dis­tin­guished Pro­fessor of Soci­ology and Crim­i­nology at North­eastern Uni­ver­sity, who spe­cial­izes in the study of vio­lence and hate, to examine the unusual nature of the case.

The case of the West Mem­phis Three has been the sub­ject of a series of HBO doc­u­men­taries and has received sup­port from a number of celebri­ties, including actor Johnny Depp, film­maker Peter Jackson and musi­cian Eddie Vedder. What role did a public call to jus­tice have on the out­come of this case?

Public atten­tion can have an impor­tant impact on a homi­cide case, helping to deter­mine the quality of the inves­ti­ga­tion, the inmate’s length of sen­tence and the deci­sion of a parole board.

On the other hand, the sup­port of well-​​known Hol­ly­wood types kept the case in the spot­light for almost two decades, until DNA analysis could be effec­tively employed to deter­mine whether or not the West Mem­phis Three were con­nected to the crime scene.  The absence of their DNA led to the deci­sion to release them from cus­tody. Lacking in con­tin­uing public pres­sure, it is likely that one of the defen­dants would have been exe­cuted and the others would have served their life sentences.

One member of the West Mem­phis Three mar­ried a woman who ded­i­cated the last 10 years of her life to proving his inno­cence. Why do some inmates gen­erate such a pas­sionate following?

Women who date or marry noto­rious inmates — so-​​called killer groupies — feel that they ben­efit a good deal from their rela­tion­ship. First, they are given a mis­sion or pur­pose — to show the world that their man was a victim of injus­tice. Second, such inmates as the West Mem­phis Three become celebri­ties. Their groupies would love to date a rock star or a rap idol, but any cor­re­spon­dence or phone calls would prob­ably return no more than an auto­graphed photo. Third, a woman who dates an infa­mous man is made to feel impor­tant: The world says that her guy is an evil mon­ster, but he shares his gentle and decent side only with her, so she must be pretty special.

How does an inno­cent person con­victed of murder and then released from prison sev­eral years later go about living a normal life?

There are often family mem­bers and good friends who treat the former inmate with dig­nity and respect — but the public is usu­ally not so kind. What if the judge had erred in releasing the inmates? How do we know that an absence of rea­son­able doubt equates with inno­cence? In the case of the West Mem­phis Three, the con­victed men were never exon­er­ated. In fact, they were made to pro­claim their guilt in order to be released. The stigma of being con­victed of murder usu­ally remains, even when an inmate is deter­mined by the court to be entirely inno­cent of all charges