The West Memphis Three are free at last

Brit Schulte reports on a long-awaited victory in the case of the West Memphis Three.

Damien Echols waves to supporters after his release following 18 years on death rowDamien Echols waves to supporters after his release following 18 years on death row

THE WEST Memphis Three--Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr.--were finally freed from prison Arkansas on August 19 after serving 18 years for crimes they didn't commit.

Accused and convicted of the murder of three young boys, Damien Echols was sentenced to death and spent nearly two decades locked down on death row for 23 hours a day. Jason Baldwin was sentenced to life without parole, and Jessie Misskelley faced life imprisonment plus 40 years. When these sentences were pronounced, all three were teenagers.

This terrible injustice began in 1993 with a frightened small town, a frenzied media and blatant police coercion.

Under huge pressure following the discovery of the bodies of three 8-year-olds in the Robin Hood Hills of West Memphis, police quickly announced that they had the killers in custody--and the local media didn't hesitate to back up their claims. The arrests of the three teenagers were based on a confession coerced from Misskelley, obtained over a 12-hour period of questioning without his parents or any legal advisers present.

Misskelley also had a mental disability, and police preyed on this, feeding him details of the murders he couldn't have known about--and promising him an immediate release and return to his family, even a cash reward, if he confessed to the crime. Of the 12 hours of interrogation, only 46 minutes were recorded. Misskelley quickly recanted the false confession, and it was ultimately disallowed as evidence--though it was still regularly referred to when the media reported on the case.

"No physical evidence linked either Echols, Misskelley or Baldwin to the crime, and bite marks on one of the victims didn't match any of the three," reported the Campaign to End the Death Penalty's New Abolitionist in a May 2000 story. "Plus, the obvious main suspect, the stepfather of one of the victims, presented documentary filmmakers [who investigated the case years later] with a knife containing a blood stain type of one of the victims!"

But none of the evidence to the contrary mattered to police and prosecutors desperate to pin the crime on someone, guilty or not. The self-proclaimed prosecutors of the media were as bad or worse. They whipped up a witch-hunt against the Three for being fans of heavy metal music, who were supposed to have committed the crimes as part of a "Satanic ritual."

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THE WEST Memphis Three weren't forgotten. Their supporters, angered by the lack of evidence against them and the incompetence of the lawyers who defended them at their trial, continued to organize for them, through the Internet and at local meetings, rallies and protests.

Several documentaries documented the many flaws in the case. The father of one of the victims voiced his disbelief that the three had committed the crime. Celebrities, such as musicians Eddie Vedder and Natalie Maines, and actor Johnny Depp, joined the campaign for the West Memphis Three, with benefit concerts among the means used to raise funds for badly needed DNA testing.

In 2007, DNA evidence collected from the crime scene was finally tested. None matched Echols, Baldwin or Misskelley. Instead, the evidence linked the stepfather of one of the victims, to the crime.

This was only the latest in the growing mound of evidence exonerating the three. For example, some of the country's leading pathologists examined the wounds and markings on the victims' bodies--which had been hyped by prosecutors as evidence of the supposed Satanic rituals carried out by the three--and concluded that they were caused by animals after the children were dead.

Finally, in 2008, a former Arkansas prosecutor signed an affidavit stating that during the trial, the foreman of the jury repeatedly spoke with prosecutors--and had referred to Misskelley's false confession during deliberations, even though it was disallowed as evidence.

All this should have been enough to win freedom for the three, but they remained behind bars.

In September 2008, an Arkansas appeals judge denied a request for a new trial, claiming the DNA tests were inconclusive. Eventually, the Arkansas Supreme Court ordered new lower-court hearings into the DNA evidence, but that was more than two years later, and the hearings had still not begun by this summer.

As a consequence, the three men took what's called an Alford plea deal when it was offered to them. As the Free West Memphis 3 website described it: "An Alford plea is a rarely used agreement...The defendants plead to the charges, but maintain their innocence. It is similar to a sentence commutation in many ways. The plea deal does not preclude new evidence of their innocence from being presented to authorities leading to a full pardon." The three will not be subject to parole, and Echols' death sentence is lifted, but they will be subject to some legal conditions on their freedom.

As Jason Baldwin said in a statement, "As an innocent man, this is not what I thought justice would look like. But I am incredibly grateful for our freedom, and for all those countless people who worked so tirelessly to help us obtain it."

While no one would question why the three men would make such a deal, it's still a tragedy that the state and prosecution can, under its terms, skirt responsibility for wrongfully convicting and stealing the youth of three innocent men.

The case of the West Memphis Three shows that the real crime is the "justice" system itself. It didn't matter that two of the teenagers were model students and that a third one, coerced into confessing, had a disability. What mattered was that Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley were poor--and easy scapegoats because of their outward appearance.

The media was caught up in a panic about heavy metal and Satanic rituals, and literally demonized the teens. That angle was fed by the prosecution, which fabricated tales of a devil-worshipping ritual in order to instill fear in the community and in the jurors, for the ends of securing a conviction. Plus, the three were represented at their original trial by underfunded, inexperienced, state-appointed defense attorneys.

In such a system, it's clear: Innocence doesn't matter. Conviction rates do.

The victory in this case, though many years to late, shows the importance of organizing and grassroots struggle in exposing the hypocrisy of the criminal justice system and saving the wrongfully convicted. Building campaigns to support those who suffer at the hands of a grossly flawed and broken system can win.