The West Memphis Three are Free: An Amazing Day Laced in Absolute Tragedy
I have not blogged here in over three months, but today is an amazing day. The West Memphis Three have been released from prison. This is both extraordinary and incredibly tragic, as they have served 18 years — half of their lives thus far — 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 was true. This really happened. It was astonishing, and exciting, and frustrating, and depressing.
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 only 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 in an already incompetent and unjust justice system, I have developed a strong emotional connection to this case; and to the three teenagers — now men — who had so many years of their lives stolen from them.
After they were tried and found guilty for the murders of three 8-year-old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas, Damien Echols, who was 18 years old at the time, was sentenced to death and sat for 18 years on Arkansas’ death row; Jessie Misskelley, Jr., 17 years old at the time, was sentenced to life imprisonment plus an additional forty years; Jason Baldwin, 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 heard of this case 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 with the Salem Witch Trials (still am) and I had begun learning about as many different religious beliefs and affiliations as I possibly could, including Wicca. It was this education of all things religion that predominantly led to my now strongly-held standing as an atheist. But at the time, up until I was 17 years old, I was a black clothes- and fishnets-wearing teenage girl with knee-high, 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 cosmetic collections. If these three teenage boys could face murder charges and be convicted mostly based on the fact that their community and justice system had labeled them the “town freaks,” surely I could have been faced with the same ordeal, had I been in the wrong place at the wrong time.
That these men are finally able to go home after 18 years is incredible, but how they were able to do so is disgraceful, both to the state of Arkansas and to the entire justice system.
In order for the West Memphis Three to be released from prison today, they were forced into accepting an Alford plea deal, in which they all pleaded guilty while also being able to continue to claim their innocence. For their guilty pleas, 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.
It is crucial to note, in light of discovering that they were forced to plead guilty, that in July 2011, the DNA evidence from the murder scene was finally tested, concluding that the West Memphis Three are not and never have been guilty of the murders of those three 8-year-old boys. After serving 18 years in prison for a crime that there is now 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 high profile acts of injustice they have committed. What the state of Arkansas did is outrageously disgusting and an obscene abuse of power.
In response to the plea deal that they 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 whatever they could to ensure that these three men would see the freedom that they deserved; including an entire film crew who have worked tirelessly for years to put out two documentaries about their case that have reached countless people and supporters. Without the notoriety that these men received at the hands of their many high profile supporters, they could very well still be in prison, and Damien Echols would likely have been executed years ago.
They were lucky, and yet there are so many people living right behind bars and on death row right now serving sentences for crimes that they did not commit. So, with that in mind, please 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 the press conference video, conducted with Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, Jr. after their release from prison today: