All signs indicate that today, 19 August 2011, is a day more than eighteen years in the making. The so-called West Memphis Three — Jason Baldwin, Damien Echols, and Jessie Misskelley — will finally go home, after serving more than eighteen years in prison for crimes they did not commit.
Teens when they were convicted, the three men have spent their entire adult lives in prison while the actual killer(s) of three eight-year-old boys remains at large.
On May 5, 1993, three little boys, Stevie Branch, Christopher Byers, and Michael Moore, were murdered in West Memphis, Arkansas. Based on a pre-DNA theory of the crime, for which the West Memphis Police Department produced exactly nothing in the way of physical evidence, Jason Baldwin, Damien Echols, and Jessie Misskelley were charged with the murders of three children.
The State’s case rested on roughly eight-hours of interrogation of 17-year-old Jessie Misskelley, who, prior to “confessing” that the three of them had raped and tortured and murdered three other little boys under a full moon, told investigators that he “didn’t really know” Damien Echols and had simply “gotten along with” Jason Baldwin. Transcripts of the interrogations make it clear that Misskelley, who had an IQ of 72 at the time, had no idea to what he what he was confessing, but rather was repeating the words supplied for him by the investigating officers, who fed him details of the crime and corrected his story to the point of changing the time of the crime from day to night. Unclear as to how or even when the murders were committed, Miskelley, who waived his right to counsel and was interrogated in the absence of his parents, further confessed that he did not know the difference between a police officer and a lawyer.
In keeping with the spirit of the times, irrelevant evidence submitted to the court included Metallica teeshirts as well as lines from Shakespeare written on Echols’ notebook. Expert witnesses included now infamous “Occult Expert” Dale Griffis, whose mail-order degree did not require him to take any classes, and who was already a notorious figure, traveling the country warning all who would listen (particularly law enforcement) about the dangers of cults.
Also submitted as State’s evidence was a knife, which is not the murder weapon, and in fact had no connection to the crime. West Memphis police submitted the knife as “evidence” because it was found in the lake at the same trailer community where two of the children lived, which satisfied the court.
Furthermore, the State regretted that it had “lost” the blood samples collected from a restaurant a mile from the crime scene, where, on the night of the murders, a disoriented and blood-covered man had locked himself in the bathroom.
After DNA technology became available, evidence recovered from the crime scene was tested and revealed the presence of genetic material other than that of the victims, although it did not match Echols, Misskelley, or Nichols. Some of the DNA did match Terry Hobbs, however, the stepfather of one of the victims, and other DNA matched the step-father’s friend, who was with Hobbs on the night of the murders.
From the beginning, a website, WM3.org, along with its founders and its members, has worked daily to free Damien, Jessie, and Jason. The documentary that brought the case into the consciousness of an entire generation, oh-so-many years ago, was Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, for which a third installment is already completed. In the last two decades, the WM3 have also gained the vocal support of Johnny Depp, the Dixie Chicks, Eddie Vedder, and many other celebrities.
No single author has done a better job exploring this case than Arkansas Times Senior Editor and award-winning author, Mara Leveritt, whose Devil’s Knot: The True Story of the West Memphis Three, at once highly readable and painstakingly researched, is the most comprehensive examination of the case prior to the later discovery of crime-scene DNA that did not match the three young men above, but matched the stepfather of one of the victims, as well as the step-father’s friend, who was with him the night of the murders, May 5, 1993. Leveritt has followed this tragedy from its beginning, and has been an outspoken critic of both the prosecution’s case and their conduct.
For this reason, I hope that media will continue, in the hours ahead, to heed Leveritt’s words, published yesterday at WM3.org:
It appears that an agreement has been reached between prosecutors and defense attorneys. However, I believe some media reports that have already been released are inaccurate. Negotiations have been complex. An agreement, if one is approved in court tomorrow, will likely be complex too. Please remember how wild speculation distorted the start of this case. If a possible end is in sight, I hope that the next several sensitive hours will not also be marred—nor jeopardized—by a frenzy of speculation and rumors.
Indeed at least one major news source already botched the headline as well as the gist of what is happening today, but, that said, I would prefer to stay focused on what is actually important: that Damien, Jessie, and Jason will likely go home today.
Legal machinations are already confusing, but a legal system under the duress of false allegations and wrongful convictions is something far worse. My guess is only a guess–and we will all know more within hours–but my guess is that today’s release will come on the heels of an Alford plea, which is not an admission of guilt but rather an acknowledgment that the state has a case, which will allow defendants to maintain their factual innocence while the state is allowed a conviction. To check a box where a box needs to be checked.
On its face, an Alford plea may seem absurd, given the weight of the evidence pointing to the WM3’s innocence, but continuing to contest the guilty verdict would only keep Damien, Jason, and Jessie in prison. And, lest we forget, or if you have not heard: Damien is on death row.
Our legal system in not equipped to deal adequately, much less in a timely manner, with factual innocence in the face of legal guilt. Rather than see Jason and Jessie continue to suffer incarceration—and Damien put to death—while appeals drag on, the Alford plea may open the door for a different trial.
From the State’s perspective, the most important aspect will be other agreements contained therein, which will likely bar the defendants from three righteous lawsuits for taking away (O, how does one measure such a thing?) about two decades from each of their lives.
Again, we will know more, soon….
Readers who would like to know more about the West Memphis Three, and to stay up-to-date on today’s proceedings, should visit WM3.org, the aforementioned defense fund website, which maintains a large archive of materials as well as a discussion forum related to the case.
In spite of the best efforts of a deeply corrupt prosecution to keep this case in darkness, to allow a murderer to remain free, and to ignore the suffering they have caused in hearts of the innocent and all who care about them, and in the hearts of the victims’ families–who may never see justice–today is good day.
Free the West Memphis Three.