The West Memphis Three Are Free!
Stunning but happy news- Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, Jr. and Jason Baldwin were released Friday, after agreeing to an Alford plea. The three young men have spent 19 years in prison (in Echols’ case, on death row) for the murder of three boys in West Memphis, Arkansas in 1993. The case eventually became a cause célèbre after two films and a book detailed the weaknesses in the case. The three were prosecuted because of moral panic more than any real evidence. They were alleged Satanists, they dressed ‘oddly’ and listened to Metallica. They were ‘different’.
The police, the prosecutor and the judge all skated perilously close to misconduct in this case. Even the jury foreman discussed the case with an attorney beforehand and advocated for the trio’s guilt based on inadmissible evidence. The forensics were also badly botched- supposed ‘knife’ marks on the victim’s bodies were found to be the result of post-mortem animal predation.
But now they’re out of prison and semi-free, sentenced to time served plus 10 years suspended. So why only semi free? The Alford plea allows defendants to assert innocence, but while admitting that sufficient evidence exists with which the prosecution could likely convince a judge or jury to find the defendants guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. That seems a bitter pill in a case where little evidence other than local prejudice has been shown. Without the legal system admitting to their likely innocence the stigma will always remain. And what of the 19 years ripped away from them?
And why the ‘sort of’ in the heading? There are three innocent young men who have been freed, but what about the victims? Is it likely that, after two decades, their killers will be found? Will those three boys eventually also see justice done? It seems unlikely with a legal system more interested in defending it’s mistakes than in tracking down the real killers.
In the end nobody won and three lives were lost, three were unjustly imprisoned, and many more- friends, family members, even strangers who became involved were irrevocably harmed.