09/12/2011 AT 8:00 PM ET
For the past few weeks, Damien Echols, who has spent the past 18 years in a tiny cell on death row, has been walking the streets of his newfound home in a happy daze.
“This thing has a map on it!,” Echols laughs, stopping for a moment to fumble with his new iPhone. “Can you believe that? A map on a phone!”
Echols, 36, spent half his life locked up in an Arkansas prison after being convicted of the grisly homicides of three 8-year-old boys in 1993.
Last month, in a surprise twist that feels scripted by John Grisham, he and the two other members of the so-called West Memphis Three – Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley (who both were serving life sentences) – were released thanks to a rarely used legal tactic.
Under the deal ironed out by defense attorneys, they will be able to maintain their innocence, but had to agree that prosecutors had enough evidence to find them guilty.
“I was so tired and worn out that I just didn’t care anymore,” says a gaunt Echols, who, along with Baldwin and Misskelley, has long maintained his innocence.
At their 1994 trial, the prosecution’s case was almost entirely circumstantial and often focused on Echols’s penchant for black clothing, a love of heavy-metal music and a fascination with the occult.
After the group’s conviction, HBO devoted two documentaries (a third soon to be released) to the case. Over the years, it became a cause célèbre among supporters, including Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson, Johnny Depp, Eddie Vedder and Dixie Chick Natalie Maines.
The celebrities helped finance a new defense team for the three, made up of more than a dozen of the nation’s top forensic scientists and attorneys. Their findings raised credible questions about crime scene evidence and conduct of the trial.
“The levels of ignorance, incompetence and negligence that has pervaded this case from the outset is breathtaking,” says Jackson’s wife Fran, who with her husband donated millions to fund defense efforts for the trio. “It is hard to believe that in this day and age, a miscarriage of justice of this magnitude can still happen.”
To read more about the Echols, Baldwin and Miskelley’s new life, pick up this week’s PEOPLE, on newsstands now