CIK: West Memphis 3

August 31, 2011 at 6:00 pm by: seeta Category: Anti-Racism, Civil Rights, Criminal Injustice Series, Prison Industrial Complex, Prisoner Rights

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Cross-Posted from Criminal Injustice Kos:

Criminal InJustice Kos is a weekly series devoted to taking action against inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system. Soothsayer99, Professor of Sociology and Race/Ethnicity, is the Editor of CIK. Criminal InJustice Kos is published every Wednesday at 6 pm CST.

West Memphis Three Shine Spotlight on System’s Flaws

by EmmaWA
It was one of those sagas that seemed it might go on forever…. But last Friday, after nearly 20 years behind bars, the so-called ‘West Memphis Three’ finally emerged into a light at the end of their tunnel. It was a moment full of joy and relief.

Still, the light was somewhat clouded by the unsettling circumstances of their release. In exchange for freedom, the three men accepted a legal deal that falls short of true justice and is an utterly inadequate response to the slipshod manner of their conviction.


It all started in 1993, when three 8-year-old boys were found murdered and seemingly mutilated in West Memphis, Arkansas. The small town, ripped by horror and hysteria, believed the crime was part of a satanic ritual. Damien Echols, an 18-year-old who dressed in black and listened to heavy metal, suddenly seemed suspect.

Police interrogated one of his acquaintances, Jessie Misskelley –- a borderline mentally retarded 17-year-old –- for 12 hours. He ended up confessing to the crime himself, and implicating Echols and another teenager, Jason Baldwin.

Misskelley’s confession diverged in significant details with facts known by the police, like the time the crime was committed. He also later recanted. Still, he and Echols and Baldwin were convicted.

Misskelley and Baldwin received life sentences. Echols got death. All based on a vacillating confession and the hearsay testimony of other local teenagers. And, as in the more recent case of Cameron Todd Willingham, the defendant’s clothing and music choices were, in the climate of grief and terror, transformed from unusual choices to incriminating evidence (Willingham was executed in 2004 for arson – even though experts now say his conviction was based on junk science).

All in all, the case against the West Memphis Three was a house of cards in a community desperate for the shelter of a conviction.


Years of appeals were denied and the three languished in prison. Meanwhile, the doubt around their guilt began to attract attention and even celebrity support. Henry Rollings of Black Flag and Rollins band, actress Winona Ryder, Dixie Chicks singer Natalie Maines, and members of Metallica all called out for their release. Johnny Depp, Eddie Vedder, and Peter Jackson donated some of their personal fortunes to the legal fund.

In 2007, a new burst of national attention focused on the case when DNA tests of evidence at the crime scene turned up no genetic material belonging to any of the three convicted men.

Then finally, the week before last, the prosecuting attorney, Scott Ellington, offered the three what is known as an Alford plea, which would pave their way to freedom. Alford pleas let defendants maintain their innocence and admit frankly that they are pleading guilty because they consider it in their best interest.

Why would a prosecutor offer a deal allowing the three men to walk free if they were child killers?

When asked this very question, Ellington acknowledged the state didn’t have much of a case against them. He also expressed concern that if the men were exonerated at trial, they could sue, possibly for millions.

This appears to be a classic case of the state covering it’s you-know-what. And, for everyone involved, the outcome falls short of true justice.

During his trial, Jason Baldwin could have had his life sentence reduced if he testified against Echols but he refused. And he was resistant to accepting the Alford deal as he felt it was unprincipled to plead guilty for something he didn’t do.

But, he said, he couldn’t live with the possibility that if he didn’t accept the deal, Mr. Echols would remain on death row. Echols at one point came within three weeks of execution


It is likely that the death penalty exacerbated the problems in an already rotten case. When admitting a mistake means admitting you put an innocent person’s life at risk, it’s a lot harder to do. It boxes in prosecutors. It boxes in judges. And here we can see how it boxed one of the defendants into participating in a charade of justice.

This case shows just how badly the criminal justice system can get it wrong.

It’s also a reminder the official death row exonoree count is just the tip of the iceberg of innocence. There are 138 men who were sentenced to death that have been officially, formally exonerated. But how many more have faced a similar choice as Baldwin, Echols and Misskelley?

The Alford plea isn’t used often but this certainly isn’t the first time.

In 2006, Dennis Counterman was freed in Pennsylvania after serving 16 years on death row. Counterman had been convicted of setting a fire that resulted in the death of his three children.

The prosecution said the burn pattern showed an accelerant was used, but none was ever found. And, later, experts hired by the prosecution said that the prosecution’s theory of how the fire started was “not properly supported by today’s standards.

The straw that broke the camel’s back was the news that prosecutors had withheld evidence indicating that the oldest child had a history of fire-setting. Rather than face the uncertainty of another trial, Counterman agreed to an Alford plea. After his release, he said:

“I am more frustrated than angry. I spent all this time for something I didn’t even do.”

The Counterman case has an eerie parallel to the Cameron Todd Willingham arson case. Both lost three children in a fire they were accused of setting. Both were sent to death row after convictions based on junk science and innuendo. Only Willingham’s case ended not in an Alford plea, but with an execution.


The story of the West Memphis Three isn’t over. The lawyers for the three men say they will continue to seek full exoneration. But the broader significance of their case is already clear. Do your friends and family know about it?

If not, invite them over to watching the gripping movie about it. Rent or buy the documentary Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills and/or its sequel, Paradise Lost 2: Revelations.

Discuss what you saw. It’s a great way to spread the word about the failings of our criminal justice system in a fun setting with your friends and big bowl of popcorn.

And, if you want to go the extra mile, make it a fundraising houseparty for my organization, Equal Justice USA (EJUSA). We work state by state to end the death penalty nationwide.

If you live in the New York City area, you can check out the documentary at the New York Film Festival.

Together, we can ensure that stories like this live beyond the media’s short attention span and have a broader impact on the way we do criminal justice.

Write a letter to the editor.

Contact your lawmakers and tell them that you think that what happened to the West Memphis Three is enough of an example to prove that we are too error-prone to be in the business of taking of life.

Or simply take this chance learn more about the death penalty and sign up to receive news and action opportunities from EJUSA.

Eventually, hopefully, we can make sure disasters like this never happen again.

Criminal InJustice Kos is a weekly series devoted to taking action against inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system. Soothsayer99, Professor of Sociology and Race/Ethnicity, is the Editor of CIK. Criminal InJustice Kos is published every Wednesday at 6 pm CST.

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