The West Memphis Three

After reading the news about the release of the West Memphis Three from prison, I have been feeling unsettled.  My feelings have nothing to do with the three men being released.  From what I have read online, there is evidence that exonerates the three men; and so their release sounds like a good thing to me.   My unease, instead, has to do with the deal the three men had to accept to obtain their freedom.

For those not familiar, the criminal case of the “West Memphis Three” is the case about the triple murder of eight-year old Cub Scouts Stevie Branch, Chistopher Byers and Michael Moore.

Eighteen years ago, Jason Baldwin, Damien Echols and Jessie Misskelley Jr., now commonly known as the West Memphis Three, were jailed for the murders. For nearly two decades, Damien Echols sat on death row.  Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr. served life sentences.

From what I have read online, Damien Echols became the focus of the investigation solely because he was an “easy target” — he wore all black, had nontraditional hair, listened to heavy metal music, and practiced Wicca.  The ultimate convictions were based largely on the prosecution’s theory that the murders were part of some satanic ritual and that the three teens were part of a satanic cult. Despite a lack of physical evidence linking any of the three teenagers to the crime, a jury found them to be guilty.

In recent years, the case has received national attention for how it was mishandled.  The case has captivated celebrities such as Johnny Depp, Natalie Maines and Eddie Vedder, and they took up the cause to free the three men.  An HBO documentary “Paradise Lost” chronicled the events and highlighted problems with the evidence used to convict the men.

In 2007, new DNA evidence revealed that none of the DNA retrieved from the crime scene matched the three men convicted.  Instead, it matched someone else.  With this break in the case, the defendants filed motions for new trials.

[UPDATE — I had embedded a really helpful video, but it has been made private on youtube.  A similar, though not identical video can be viewed at this link.]

But before the Court decided the motions, the defendants and prosecutor entered a deal.  And somewhat suddenly, on Friday, the West Memphis Three were free.

The deal is confusing.

Scott Greenfield at Simple Justice describes what happened —

The defendants took an Alford Plea to the murders with an agreed upon sentence of, in essence, time served plus a ten year suspended imposition of sentence.  If they violate the terms of the SIS, they face 21 years in prison.  

Under an Alford Plea you must concede “that there was enough evidence to produce a conviction, while denying that [you] did, in fact, commit the crime.”

While I have seen lots of blog posts and tweets rejoicing in the unexpected release of the three men, I can’t help but feel that there is something really off about this.  Of course, no one can question the decision of the men to take the deal.  It was the fastest way to freedom.  Had they pressed for new trials, it would have been years.

But as Scott Greenfield states, “the deal sucks”:

This is an ugly, horrible deal all around.  The problem is that it highlights the most unacceptable failing of the legal system by splitting the baby.  While the responsibility for a herniated disc may reasonably be shared, the question of whether the West Memphis Three are responsible for the murders of three children cannot be so easily divvied up.  Either the three defendants, whether together or separately, committed the crime of they didn’t.

Maybe that is why I feel so blech about this. The prosecution shouldn’t be able to have it both ways.  If they think these men are guilty and that they can prove it at trial, than they should go forward.  But if the prosecution doesn’t think it can go forward, then they shouldn’t be able to coerce a guilty plea by using the lure of immediate freedom.  It just seems wrong.

It doesn’t seem like much of a resolution and it doesn’t feel like justice.

Tiny top hat tip to a recent commenter who cited the West Memphis Three as an example of people being targeted in a criminal prosecution just because they looked different.


~ by siouxsielaw on August 22, 2011.

11 Responses to “The West Memphis Three”

  1. You would hope that the State would care more about justice and truth.

  2. I’m glad you wrote this because I felt the same way when I read the deal. I am happy that they are reunited with their families, but the deal indicates that true freedom and true innocence was not won.

  3. I’m really glad you broke this down and explained the agreement reached as no stories I have seen on the news or in papers has made this clear. It’s a pretty atrocious deal, but after two decades on death row or otherwise imprisoned, it still sounds awfully tempting.

    • Thanks. I too totally understand accepting the deal; I am not judging them at all for that. I just can’t wrap my head around the prosecution stance that these three people are guilty of a horrific triple murder, and yet letting them walk free. It’s just outrageous for them to take that position. It is politics, not law.

  4. Thank you for writing this explanation. I have also had a vague unease about this deal but had not followed the case and did not fully understand just what the deal meant and this post explained it very well. I do have one remaining question, will this plea legally prevent someone else for being prosecuted for this murder? It seems obvious that these three were not responsible, but obviously someone is.

    • According to CNN, the prosecutor said that the state can file charges against others if new evidence emerges that implicates someone else. But it sounds like the state is considering the case closed. Plus, the fact that three people were already found guilty of the crime would likely be enough to create reasonable doubt in a second trial.

  5. This isn’t justice. I am glad they’re out of prison, but the deal sucks for them.

    It’s appalling that there are still places like Arkansas and Georgia where you can be convicted of a crime based not on evidence but on your appearance or lifestyle. And the locals (like the ponytailed guy wearing a camo hat and overalls in the video) are perfectly okay with that. They don’t care if you’re guilty as long as you’re locked up out of sight of “decent folks.”

    I fervently hope they find the real killer.. who no doubt looks completely, utterly normal.

  6. Toronto-based director Atom Egoyan has signed on to direct a feature film about the West Memphis Three. The film, which has reportedly been in development since 2006, will be based on the 2003 book Devil’s Knot: The True Story of the West Memphis Three by Mara Leveritt.

    (Thanks to Torontoist for the tip —

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