The release this week of the men railroaded into prison as teenagers for the 1993 killing of three young Cub Scouts in West Memphis Arkansas was covered by the news media in superficial and misleading fashion, concentrating on the human interest aspects of the event—a “happy ending” in which three wrongfully accused and convicted men finally get justice. This overshadowed the disgraceful performance of the justice system in general and the Arkansas justice system in particular. The circumstances of the men’s release were only slightly less revolting than their conviction, and the method by which it was achieved was thoroughly unethical.
Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley Jr. had been in jail for 18 years, with Baldwin and Misskelley serving life sentences and Damien Echols languishing on death row. They are almost certainly innocent. In 1993, police discovered the bound and mutilated bodies of three 8-year-old Cub Scouts in a pit, and there was immediate speculation that their killings had been part of a satanic ritual. Long-haired teen Damien Echols became a suspect in the small town of West Memphis, Arkansas because of his appearance, reputation, and liking for heavy metal music; there was no real evidence tying him to the crime. Then another teen, the mentally-limited teen (what is the acceptable description for a boy with an IQ of 70 these days?) named Jessie Misskelly Jr. confessed to police, after extensive grilling, that he helped Echols and Jason Baldwin kill the scouts. He recanted, but it was too late: the religious community thought that it had its Satanists. Though the Supreme Court of Arkansas later called the dubious confession “virtually the only evidence” against the three teens, and noted that it contained “a confusing amalgam of times and events” and “numerous inconsistencies,” both internally and with the actual physical evidence in the case, the convictions were upheld.
Two HBO documentaries by filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky persuasively made the case that the West Memphis Three were convicted by overwhelming bias against their clothes, attitudes and tastes in music in a conservative town panicked by the satanic overtones of the murders. Over time, the case against Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley continued to deteriorate, with new DNA evidence pointing to other suspects and evidence emerging of juror misconduct. In an ethical system, prosecutors would have made certain the wrongfully convicted men were freed, without any further adversary action.
But this was not an ethical system.
Instead, prosecutors insisted on a bizarre plea deal in which the Memphis Three agreed to take an Alford plea, a strange, dishonest and much criticized guilty plea in which a defendant essentially lies to avoid an otherwise unavoidable unjust punishment. With an Alford plea, the prisoner or defendant asserts he or she is innocent, but acknowledges that the prosecution has sufficient evidence to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, and thus acknowledges legal, though not actual, guilt. Prosecutors insisted that all three men plead “guilty” in this fashion in order to agree to release them with time served. The judge accepted the deal.
Now Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley are free, their lives all but ruined by 18 lost years, thanks to a rotten system. The news media for the most part didn’t bother to explain why the terms of their release was just one more gratuitous assault on their existence by Arkansas legal hacks. Consider:
- The release of the three is tacit admission by prosecutors that the three were wrongly convicted. Would any guilty prisoners who drugged, hogtied, drowned, stabbed, raped and castrated three eight year-old boys—for this was the crime the men had been convicted of—be released into the community, ever? Of course not. The men were released because they were innocent and harmless, and the prosecutors knew it.
- Why, then, would they be required to plead guilty? In a typical Alford plea, the prosecutor is ethically obligated to believe in the defendants’ guilt and know that he or she can prove it. In this case, the prosecutors unquestionable didn’t believe in the convicted men’s guilt any more, and presumably knew that they couldn’t prove it—yet insisted that Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley plead guilty—sort of—anyway. There is no way this can be defended ethically.
- Yet the three men were required to plead, by way of the Alford plea, that they acknowledged that the prosecution had sufficient evidence to prove them guilty…when prosecutors never had sufficient evidence to prove them guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, and now absolutely do not. In addition to lying themselves, prosecutors are forcing the defendants to lie and their lawyers to assist in a lie, a clear and serious breach of legal and prosecutorial ethics.
- The police, meanwhile, have absurdly stated that the case is closed, meaning that in the eyes of the law and on the record, Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley “did it”—though their release shows that prosecutors no longer believe that. How can the police justify maintaining the fiction that a horrific triple child murder has been solved while the killer or killers are still at large? They can’t. It is a lie, and a breach of duty.
Echols told reporters that now he and his fellow Three members have to “clear their name,” perhaps by hiring investigators. Why should they have responsibility for clearing their name, when the police and prosecutors are 100% to blame for smearing it in the first place? Because the men pleaded guilty (but not really guilty, just guilty because the prosecutors insisted on it to release them, even though they know the three are innocent and prosecutors are supposed to release innocent people and keep guilty people in jail, in this case, to save face or to duck liability or because they are a disgrace to the legal profession or because they are dimwitted fools, the prosecutors decided to release prisoners who said they were guilty and would have kept them in jail if they kept saying they were innocent, which they were and the prosecutors knew they were…), the families of the three murdered boys are furious and think their sons’ killers are walking free. It was the obligation of law enforcement and prosecutors to admit to the families, “We blew it. Your children’s killer is still out there.”
I strongly suspect that the prosecutors insisted on guilty pleas as a condition of release in the desperate belief that it would make it more difficult for Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley to sue them for millions, as they certainly will. This is also despicable, using the threat of death in one instance and life imprisonment in the others to coerce three grievously wronged citizens into undermining their ability to seek compensation for what was done to them.
Fortunately, according to the excellent analysis of attorney Mark Kennerley, the Alford pleas should not be an impediment to recovery, based on case precedent.
I hope not. Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley and their attorneys were wise to accept even this most unethical of resolutions so that not one second more of the men’s lives would be wasted by the incompetent and cowardly officials of Arkansas. In celebrating their release, however, we should not allow the corrupt manner in which it was granted escape notice and condemnation.
Even though the inept news media has done its best to achieve that result.