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.