Friday, August 19, 2011

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.

WM3 2011

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:

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Posted in: Musings | 14 Comments

14 Thoughts on The West Memphis Three are Free: An Amazing Day Laced in Absolute Tragedy | Leave a Comment

  1. Barry says:

    You’re kidding me right? They have to plea guilty just so they can get out when they are in fact innocent? That’s the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard. I certainly hope they have good lawyers because I would NEVER let this die away.

    They deserve better!

  2. Wow. This is not a spam comment so don’t think I am trying to butter you up, but wow. Great article. I had no idea they had been sentenced to 18 years and now they were released. The kicker for me is that they had to admit guilt, even though they are not guilty.

    The act of “denying the truth” really hit home for me because I base my life on a few philosophical principals. First and foremost is to not deny the truth, ever. If it was me I do not know if I would of been able to admit I was guilty and get out of jail even if it meant my friends had to stay in their with me.

    Falsely admitting guilt would completely destroy my sense of self and I do not know if I would ever be able to recover. That is why I feel for these three people. Not only were they wrongly accused, but their subconscious is forced to believe that they are somehow responsible. An attempt to enslave the mind is an injustice of the highest magnitude.

  3. Kristin says:

    The rights of teenagers are missing in this country, looking at the numbers of kids being institutionalized for being teenagers, and this story omg, it is sick. Being a teenager seems to be a crime these days.

    -Survivor of “Wilderness Treatment” and runaway from “Therapeutic Boarding School” shut down for child abuse.

  4. Ted says:

    I have often wondered just how many innocent people have been convicted and punished for crimes they didn’t commit. Unfortunately, the justice system is highly influenced by politics. District attorneys often run for high political offices later in life. They salivate from the mouth when thinking about getting a conviction for a high profile case. That is a tragedy of the American justice system. I no longer respect district attorneys who choose a political path later in life. As much as I like Rudy Guliani, he too is a man who made a name for himself by convicting high profile criminals. I just don’t have respect for people who use that office for political gain.

  5. Carl Reid says:

    Well said… I just don’t know how they were able to endure for so long. I think Jason said it best “They’re not out there trying to find who really murdered those boys.”

  6. Dolphin Skye says:

    I have been watching this closely andI’m so glad that the’re finally free. The worst part is this could ofme. I wore black through my teen-age years,listened to hardcore rock, and occasionally got high, and my mouth got m into a lot of trouble. Therse young men who are still in many ways children, because of so much lost time in our prison system, now have to adjust to a whole new world. I wish them Luck, Love, Peace, and Happiness in their future endeavors. They survived prison hile keeping the ability to love, care for, and realize compassion for others. All the best.

  7. Corri says:

    Maybe it’s because I live in the back of nowhere (Australia) but I was quite unaware of this – and the tragedy that has engulfed the lives of all those involved. To lose that many years – their prime years – and have no recourse leaves me without words.

  8. Thomas M says:

    The system took best time of their life. At least they’ve been released, but this won’t change the fact that their lifes are broken..

  9. Jonathan says:

    I agree that their lives are ruined… but my #1 thought? Who gets to be their biographers. That’s a hell of a story waiting to be written. I would read that book.

    • Holly says:

      Damien Echols published a book about his life and time spent on death row. It’s called “Life After Death.” You can check it out here if you’re interested.

  10. Dan says:

    OMG!!! This is one of things that scares me the most in life, it’s injustice… Three young people wasted more than 18 yrs of their life in jail, the best 18 yrs of every person’s life, it’s when you discover life… What did they discover ? they saw injustice, and grey walls holding criminals… I don’t know how would they adapt now and if there’s anything Law can do to compensate their wasted lives.

  11. bilaleza says:

    So agree about the teenage image, I know for me I would have played into the stupidity of the situation just trying to be cool and tough.

  12. Nice to read your article.

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