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Two New Year's resolutions for the state of Arkansas

December 30th, 2012

Mary Shaw


West Memphis Three convicted the 1993 murders of three eight-year-old boys

I propose two New Year's resolutions for the state of Arkansas:

1. Fully exonerate the West Memphis Three.

2. Reopen the case and find the real killer(s).

The world will be watching.

On Christmas Day, 2012, the documentary film West of Memphis opened in New York City and Los Angeles. It will be more widely released starting in January. The film tells the updated story of the West Memphis Three - a trio of men who were convicted as teenagers for the 1993 murders of three eight-year-old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. Presumed ringleader Damien Echols, who was 18 years old at the time of the murders, was sentenced to death. His codefendants, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Miskelley, Jr., who were still minors at the time, were both sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

A prior trilogy of HBO documentaries on the case, titled Paradise Lost, raised serious questions as to whether the three were actually guilty. Indeed, the first Paradise Lost film, which captured the proceedings within the courtroom, showed something that looked more like a modern-day witch hunt. The West Memphis police had no physical evidence definitively linking the defendants to the crime. The best they had was a coerced "confession" by Miskelley which occurred after several hours of high-pressure interrogation with no lawyer or parent present. In his partially taped interrogation, Miskelley, who has an IQ of 72 (borderline intellectual functioning), kept changing his story regarding the murders - and his lack of firsthand knowledge about them - until finally, in tired frustration, he resorted to repeating the self-incriminating story that the police were spoon-feeding him. It seemed so bizarre to him that he eventually assumed it was a game - and so he played along. And he lost that game.

Echols and Baldwin were tried separately from Miskelley. Miskelley refused to testify against his friends, despite offers of a reduced sentence. And his confession could not be used as evidence against the other two. However, one of the jurors had learned of the confession, and there is evidence that he illegally brought it up during jury deliberations. Other "evidence" presented at the Echols-Baldwin trial included two witnesses who later recanted their testimonies, and an occult "expert" who had bought his PhD from a mail-order diploma mill and had never taken a formal class on the subject.

As in Salem 300 years ago, the trial focused on the occult. This was in the midst of the satanic ritual abuse panic of the 1980s and '90s, which was later exposed as having no basis in fact. But back then it gave the cops - who were floundering in their investigation - an excuse to do something about Damien Echols, who had been making them nervous for some time simply because he was different. He wore black, he listened to heavy metal music, he read Stephen King novels, and he kept a journal of rather deep and edgy sentiments. Sure, these are things that a lot of teenage misfits do; but in the heart of the Bible belt, it's risky business. So the police and prosecutors contended that the defendants belonged to a satanic cult, and contrived the theory that the murders were part of a satanic ritual.

And the terrified jury bought it.

Fortunately, the Paradise Lost documentaries, which captured the trial and other case-related details on film, were widely viewed, and raised public awareness of the unfairness of the trial. People worldwide were soon convinced that the West Memphis Three were innocent. Celebrities including actor Johnny Depp, Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, and Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks held benefits for their defense fund. Filmmakers Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, of Lord of the Rings fame, funded an investigation into the case which yielded important new exculpatory evidence, including DNA testing which would rule out all three defendants - and which points to the stepfather of one of the victims. New York landscape architect Lorri Davis, who had written to Echols in prison after seeing the first film, eventually fell in love with him, moved to Little Rock, married him in prison, and quit her job to work tirelessly full-time on the case. And better lawyers got on board.

It paid off - kind of.

On August 19, 2011, the West Memphis Three walked out of prison as free men after each agreed to an Alford plea deal. Under an Alford plea, the defendants can maintain their innocence while officially pleading guilty - a controversial deal that sometimes serves a defendant's best interests. Their sentences were then commuted to time served, and they were released. Baldwin had initially resisted the deal, not wanting to plead guilty to a crime he did not commit. But he eventually agreed in order to save his friend on death row, saying, "This was not justice. However, they’re trying to kill Damien." (All three defendants had to agree to the deal or none would be released.)

The plea deal strongly suggests that the state of Arkansas was nervous about retrying the case with the new evidence. Surely the state would not have agreed to release the three if they truly believed they were dangerous murderers. And so the deal includes some caveats that allow the state to save face.

First, as part of the deal, the three had to agree not to sue the state of Arkansas.

Second, the state considers the case closed. The West Memphis Three remain convicted felons, and the authorities maintain that they caught the right guys.

And so, alarmingly, the real killer(s) are still out there somewhere.

As Baldwin pointed out, that's not justice.

Don't the victims in this case deserve better?

All six of them?

Mary Shaw is a Philadelphia-based writer and activist. She is a former Philadelphia Area Coordinator for the Nobel-Prize-winning human rights group Amnesty International, and her views on politics, human rights, and social justice issues have appeared in numerous online forums and in newspapers and magazines worldwide. Note that the ideas expressed here are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Amnesty International or any other organization with which she may be associated. E-mail: mary@maryshawonline.com

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