On August 18th the West Memphis Three were escorted out of their cells carrying all of their belongings in preparation for a court appearance scheduled for the next morning. For the 18 years Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jesse Misskelley have spent incarcerated, this is the first time they have been told to pack all of their belongings prior to a court date, spurring hope in the hearts of those who maintain the innocence of the West Memphis Three.
The West Memphis Three were only 19, 17 and 16 (respectively) when they were charged with the deaths of three 8-year old boys in their small Arkansas town. The boys were found bound, mutilated, sodomized and drowned in the woods close to the homes of the West Memphis teens. The trio were suspected in the murders based on the way they dressed and music they listened to once the local police officers assumed the killings were part of a satanic ritual (satanic killings were widely feared in the Baptist town despite the fact that there had been none prior). The boys were charged with the murders following a confession from Misskelley which was argued to have been given under duress and was wrought with inconsistencies regarding the murders, despite his almost immediate recantation of the confession.
The three accused have maintained their innocence from the start and a national movement called “Free the West Memphis Three” was started. Celebrities and prominent defense lawyers garnered attention and funds in order to appeal the Court’s decision. With the advent of new forensic evidence coming to light in 2007, Echols’ defense team showed that not only did no genetic material found at the site belong to any of the 3 convicted men, but that it did belong to the stepfather of one of the victim’s who had been a suspect initially.
This was a highly publicized case at the time of the murders. The media, the community, and the victims’ families were out for blood and the prosecution was under a lot of pressure to convict the alleged murderers. Drawing a lot of parallels from the recent verdict on Casey Anthony, this is a prime example of what happens when a case is sensationalized by the media. This case, unlike that of Casey Anthony, fell victim to the sensationalization. The justice system failed and three teens spent the next 18 years of their life incarcerated for a crime there is no evidence they committed, based on a soggy idea of a motive and a fear of satanic murders prevalent in the Baptist community.
The release of Echols, Misskelley and Baldwin comes after the Arkansas Supreme Court granted a new trial for the murders. Prosecutors feared a new trial would acquit the men based on lack of evidence and recantations of several key witnesses in the trial. If the men were acquitted in the new trial they would be in a position to sue the State for millions.
In an attempt not to waste any more time and money for the accused and the State, the Court allowed the accused to enter Alford pleas. The Alford plea allows the men to maintain their innocence while at the same time pleading guilty to the charges based on the idea that it is in their best interest to do so. The pleas were accepted by the Court and the trio were sentenced to 18 years and 78 days – the amount of time they have already served and tacks on a new 10 year suspended sentence.
The plea even applied to Echols who was on death row awaiting his death by lethal injection. It is terrifying to think that the State found it acceptable to kill a man based on a judgment they now doubt the validity of. I hope this further motivates the remaining States with the death penalty to reconsider their sentencing options in light of this and other recent examples.
With his release on Friday August 19, 2011, Damien Echols became the highest-profile death row inmate to be released in recent memory.
I have been following this case ever since my true-crime loving best friend Ashley loaned me the book Devil’s Knot. She has followed it more intensely and recently recommended I watch the Paradise Lost movies (Parts 1 and 2), documentaries based on the murders and eventual convictions of the West Memphis Three.
This weekend I secured my first ever set of TIFF tickets – two tickets for Ashley and I to attend the screening of Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory. The documentary was made before the recent hearing so it will be even more interesting to watch now that we know the convicted killers have been released.
If you want to come, there are tickets still available here.