The West Memphis Three are Free: An Amazing Day Laced in Absolute Tragedy
I have not blogged here in over three months, but I cannot think of a better day to start again than today.
Today is an amazing day. The West Memphis Three were released from prison. This is both extraordinary and incredibly tragic, as they have served 18 years–half of their lives–behind bars for a crime that they did not commit.
I slept in today. When I woke up, I took it easy, made coffee and took my time getting to my computer and settling in for the rest of the day to work–something I have not allowed myself to do in months. When I checked in on Facebook, I saw one single story pop up declaring that Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, Jr. were finally given the freedom that they have always been deserving of. I didn’t believe it. By the time I made it half-way through the first article, several others had been posted, assuring me that it really happened. I immediately started crying.
I have been following the story of the West Memphis Three for the past ten years. When I first heard about their case and watched the documentary Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, I was 14 years old. Like countless other people who have heard about the West Memphis Three, have seen the facts of their case and have long witnessed the corruption at work within an already incompetent justice system, as perpetrated by everyone who sought to convict them, I have developed a strong emotional connection to this case and to the three teenagers–now men–who had half of their lives literally stolen from them.
After they were tried and found guilty for the murder of three young, 8-year-old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas, Damien Echols, who was 18 years old at the time, was sentenced to death and spent the past 18 years on death row; Jessie Misskelley, Jr., who was 17 years old, was sentenced to life imprisonment plus an additional forty years and Jason Baldwin, just 16 years old at the time, was sentenced to life imprisonment.
One of the factors that made me so emotional from the very first time I ever heard of the West Memphis Three is that I saw so much of my teenage-self in them; a feeling that a great deal of other supporters have acknowledged as well. When I was 13 and 14 years old, I was beyond fascinated by the Salem Witch Trials (still am), and I had begun learning about as many different religious beliefs as I possibly could, including Wicca. The practice of becoming educated on the many different religious affiliations and beliefs that are out there in the world is what predominantly led to my now strongly-held staunch atheist beliefs. But at the time, up until I was 17 years old, I was a black clothes and fishnets-wearing teenage girl with knee-length, ass-kicking black boots, arms that were filled with black jelly bracelets up to my elbows and more black eyeliner on my face than what many probably have in their makeup collections. If these three teenagers could face murder charges and be convicted based mostly on the fact that the system had labeled them as the “town freaks”, surely I could have gone through the same ordeal; as could anyone who illustrated the same qualities in their teenage years.
That these men are finally able to go home after 18 years is amazing, but how they were made able to walk out of those prison doors is disgraceful both to the state of Arkansas, as well as to the entire justice system.
In order for the West Memphis Three to be released today, they were practically forced into accepting an Alford plea deal, in which they all pled guilty while being able to continue to claim their innocence. For their guilty plea, they were sentenced to 18 years with credit for time served, as well as a Suspended Imposition of Sentence for 10 years. It is also stipulated that if they “re-offend”, they can be sent back to prison for 21 years.
I say that they were practically forced to take the Alford plea deal because firstly, DNA evidence that was finally tested in July 2011 concluded that the West Memphis Three are not guilty of the crime in which they have been serving time for. After serving 18 years in prison for a crime that they now have proof that they did not commit, the state of Arkansas would only give them the freedom that they are entitled to as long as the state could protect itself from one of the most corrupt acts that they are totally and completely guilty of. That is outrageously disgusting and an obscene abuse of power.
In response to the plea deal that was accepted, a press conference was conducted with the West Memphis Three (video below); here is what Jason Baldwin had to say about taking the plea deal:
“This was not justice. In the beginning we told nothing but the truth–that we were innocent and they sent us to prison for the rest of our lives for it. We had to come here and the only thing the state would do for us is say, ‘Hey we will let you go only if you admit guilt,’ and that is not justice any way you look at it. They’re not out there trying to find who really murdered those boys, and I did not want to take the deal from the get-go. However, they are trying to kill Damien, and sometimes you just got to bite the gun to save somebody.”
A portion of Damien Echols’ statement is below, you can read it in its entirety here.
I have now spent half my life on death row. It is a torturous environment that no human being should have to endure, and it needed to end. I am innocent, as are Jason and Jessie, but I made this decision because I did not want to spend another day of my life behind those bars. I want to live and to continue to fight for our innocence. Sometimes justice is neither pretty nor is it perfect, but it was important to take this opportunity to be free.
I am not alone as there are tens of thousand of men and women in this country who have been wrongfully convicted, forced into a false confession, sentenced to death or a lifetime in prison. I am hopeful that one day they too will be able stand with their friends and family to declare their innocence.
That last part is incredibly important. The West Memphis Three were lucky. They have an incredible amount of supporters and people who have dedicated so much of themselves to doing everything in their power to ensure that these three men would see the freedom that they deserved; including an entire film crew who have worked through the years to put out two documentaries on their case. These documentaries have reached an astounding number of people, making this case known around the world. Without the notoriety that these men received at the hands of their many high profile supporters, they would still be in prison and Damien Echols would have likely been executed years ago.
They were lucky, and yet there are so many people living right now behind bars who had never committed the crimes that they were found guilty of. So, with that in mind, check out The Innocence Project, a national litigation and public policy organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted people through DNA testing and who strive to reform the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice.
Here is a press conference conducted with Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, Jr.: