Justice Fleeting In West
Memphis Three Saga
Although Misskelley, Baldwin and Echols Are Free, The Killers Of The Three Cub Scouts Remain Unpunished
The mugshot of Damien Echols.
By John Monahan
Special for Modern Times Magazine
Aug. 24, 2011 — Sometimes, it seems that every generation has one or two notorious miscarriages of justice that capture the imagination of America.
But in the case of the West Memphis Three, who were released from prison earlier this week, it might have been the first time that such a case surrounded the cause of three white teenagers who were accused of killing three, white, boys.
For anyone coming of age in the early 1990s, though, the case was a tangible representation of changing attitudes and emerging social battles that were engulfing the country. In 1993, evangelicalism was rising along a parallel track with modern social attitudes towards clothing, music and other forms of expression like piercings and and tattoos.
All over the country, kids were drifting to goth, emo, and ‘dark’ things. Wicca was re-emerging and in places like Arkansas, where the crime and punishment played itself out like some Greek tragedy, those were not trivial matters.
But where kids like that were merely taunted and ridiculed by the mainstream, the West Memphis Three were tried and convicted as murderers and it took almost 20 years for them to get out of prison. What eventually got them out is the admission of new DNA evidence in 2007 that showed that there was no evidence whatsoever that the West Memphis Three were at the murder scene that night.
For those that don’t know, the West Memphis Three are Damien Echols, Jesse Misskelley and Jason Baldwin. The three men, who were still teenagers when the crime occurred, were alleged to have killed three 8-year-old cub scouts in what prosecutors called a “satanic ritual.” While they all have proclaimed their innocence throughout the entire legal saga, Misskelley did admit to the crime to police after more than 12 hours of interrogation.
After their convictions in 1994, their case began to elevate onto the national scene as an HBO documentary film, Paradise Lost, brought their story to the masses. By the time of their release last week, Eddie Veder, Johnny Depp, Natalie Maines, Henry Rollins, Metallica and a host of other famous faces took up their cause. Most of the support was generated, in part, because it did seem that because they liked heavy metal, dressed funny and did not subscribe to radical Christianity targeted them as satanist and murderers.
Unfortunately, the real truth of whatever happened on that Arkansas evening in 1993 might never be known. Even though the West Memphis Three are now free, they got their freedom after entering Alford pleas, in which they agree that the court had enough evidence to convict them, but that they may still proclaim their innocence.
The flip side to that is that law enforcement in Arkansas have not reopened the case into the deaths of the three young men killed that night: Stevie Branch, Christopher Byers, and Michael Moore. Setting the legal wranglings of the Alford plea aside, those three boys seemingly still have not received justice. The person or people responsible for tying them up and killing them have likely escaped justice.
According to a Scripps Howard News Service study of the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, roughly 185,000 cases of murder in the U.S. went unsolved from 1980 to 2008, according to a Scripps Howard News Service study of the FBI's Uniform Crime Report. Apparently, Stevie Branch, Christopher Byers, and Michael Moore can be added to that list.
Those three boys should not be forgotten.
The cause of the West Memphis Three, however, was intended to stop making the crime one that impacted three victims — Branch, Byers, and Moore — apparently caught three more along the way. Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley spent more than 18 years in prison for crimes that the state of Arkansas eventually believed were too thin to avoid a future conviction in a retrial based upon the new DNA evidence. If they did not commit those crimes, they, too, were victims of the same crime.
And while the release of the West Memphis Three buoy their supporters, it should not be forgotten that they are relatively “lucky” because they eventually did go free. Many more are not as lucky.
A 2007 study from the University of Michigan tried to put a number on the number of people sentenced to murder who were actually innocent. The study concluded that among those sentenced to death in the United States since 1973, at least 2.3 percent — and possibly more, were falsely convicted, according to law professor Samuel Gross in a study co-authored by Barbara O'Brien, a professor at Michigan State University College of Law.
The study revealed that if those who were sentenced to prison had been freed because of innocence at the same rate as those who were sentenced to death, there would have been nearly 87,000 non-death row exonerations in the United States from 1989 through 2003, rather than the 266 that were reported, the study said.
That is a lot of people in the same situation as the West Memphis Three that don’t have famous faces and filmmakers trumpeting their cause.
But justice is a one-on-one battle and for those who support the West Memphis Three and of course, to Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley, this was a battle won.
John Monahan is a freelance writer living in Connecticut.