Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Freeing the West Memphis Three

The West Memphis Three. Police photos.

The West Memphis Three won a big break on November 4, 2010 when the Arkansas Supreme Court ordered a lower court judge to hold hearings to consider whether new DNA analysis, along with other evidence not introduced at the 1994 trials, might lead a reasonable jury to acquit Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley.

The Arkansas Supreme Court also ordered the lower court to examine possible juror misconduct in the original trials. Echols’ attorneys alleged that jurors at his and Baldwin’s joint trial had factored Misskelley’s recanted confession into their decision even though the trial judge had not allowed it to be introduced into evidence.

Writing for the Associated Press, Jill Zeman Bleed quoted Echols’ wife Lorri Davis as saying, “Damien is thrilled with the court’s decision. It is the best news he has heard in his case in the 17 years he has been on death row.” The same article reports that Echols attorneys Dennis Riordan, Donald Horgan and Deborah Sallings issued a statement calling the decision a “landmark victory.” The lawyers further asserted, “The decision also will affect the case of every wrongly convicted Arkansas prisoner who files a DNA innocence petition in the future.”

According to the Arkansas Supreme Court ruling, Circuit Judge David Burnett was wrong to refuse to hold a hearing on the new DNA evidence in his 2008 decision rejecting Echols’ request for a new trial. Judge Burnett ruled in 2008 that the fact that DNA analysis showed no evidence of Echols, Baldwin or Misskelley at the creek where the victims’ bodies were discovered was legally inconclusive and not strong enough to support their claims of innocence. On November 4, the Arkansas Supreme Court stated, “While there is a significant dispute in this case as to the legal effects of the DNA test results, it is undisputed that the results conclusively excluded Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley as the source of the DNA evidence tested.”

Bleed reported, “Prosecutors maintained that the absence of their DNA wasn’t enough to prove the three men are innocent and that a jury [sic] convicted them on other evidence.” Bleed should have written “two juries” since Misskelley was tried separately from the combined trial of Echols and Baldwin.

The Arkansas Supreme Court also ordered that a new judge be assigned to the case since Burnett had been elected to the Arkansas State Senate.

In early August 2011, attorney Stephen Braga asked attorney Patrick Benca to meet with prosecutors to make a special proposal. That meeting took place at which Benca proposed that prosecutors to skip the hearing and go directly to a new trial.

An article by Sara Randazzo quotes Braga stating, “They weren’t interested in agreeing to a new trial but were interested in discussing a global resolution to the case.” Prosecutors proposed a deal in which the men would plead guilty in exchange for being sentenced to time served. The defense team rejected this proposal. However, an agreement was worked out that would lead to an end of the imprisonment of the defendants.

Freedom for the West Memphis Three

From left: Echols, Baldwin, Misskelley. Prison photos.

On August 19, 2011, Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley were freed as a result of the agreement between their attorneys and the prosecutors. The unusual plea deal resulting in their liberty left some people on both sides dissatisfied and bewildered.

The deal allowed the men to make what is called an “Alford plea.” Under its peculiar conditions, each man stood up in the courtroom, verbally proclaimed his innocence – and then pleaded guilty to three counts of murder. An “Alford plea” allows a defendant to maintain that he did not commit a crime but plead guilty to it because he or she believes it is in his or her best interest to do so.

Campbell Robertson’s article in The New York Times reported, “Despite a half-hour of esoteric legal procedure, the courtroom was charged with raw feeling, and several of the relatives of the victims were ejected for their outbursts. One told the judge he was opening a Pandora’s box in allowing this deal; another shouted that the defendants were murderers and baby-killers.”

The courtroom was packed with relatives of both victims and defendants. In addition, Pearl Jam lead singer Eddie Vedder sat in the front row beside Echols’ wife Lorri Davis. Dixie Chicks singer Natalie Maines sat a few seats away. Both celebrities strongly believe the West Memphis Three are innocent.

As the proceedings got underway, a distraught Steve Branch, father of victim Stevie Branch, rose to his feet and shouted, “You’re wrong, your honor. You can stop this right now before you do it.”

Judge David Laser made no verbal response to Branch’s outburst as deputies escorted him from the courtroom.

Moments later, Judge Laser vacated the previous convictions and then ordered new trials. Then each defendant entered an Alford plea, maintaining factual innocence but pleading guilty and rendering new trials superfluous.

Judge Laser sentenced them to time served. As Gavin Lesnick wrote in ArkansasOnline, “They each also received a suspended 10-year-sentence and Laser warned them that any violations of the law in that span could send them back to prison for a lengthy term.”

All three defendants left the courtroom to fill out departure paperwork with the Department of Corrections.

Then they were free.

The victims’ family members were heavily divided about the deal. As noted, some were outraged at what they believed to be the freeing of three vicious child-murderers. However, others believed it likely that the West Memphis Three were not the actual murderers of their loved ones so they supported the deal. John Mark Byers, stepfather of Chris Byers, was one who believed the defendants were innocent. Byers said,” Three young men have had 18 years of their lives taken away. To see them get out and have a normal life is a blessing.”

The defendants themselves expressed mixed feelings about the deal. After Baldwin was freed, he told reporters, “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. And then we had to come here and the only thing the state would do for us is to say, ‘Hey, we’ll let you go but only if you admit guilt.”

Baldwin recalled that he had initially been resistant to the deal but decided to accept it because it seemed the only way to get Echols off death row and Baldwin believed Echols “had it so much worse” than the other two.

Echols indicated he felt drained by his ordeal. He said, “I’m just tired. This has been going on for 18 years.” Commenting on the deal, he stated, “It’s not perfect by any means. But at least it brings closure to some areas and some aspects. We can still bring up new evidence and we can still continue the investigations we’ve been doing. We can still try to clear our names. The only difference is now we can do it from the outside instead of having to sit in prison and do it.”

Baldwin also expressed frustration at the cloud that inevitably hangs over their heads. “They’re not out there trying to figure out who really murdered those boys,” he complained.

However, despite the mysterious DNA from the crime scene, Arkansas law enforcement officials do not believe that anyone else is apt to be prosecuted for the murders. Prosecuting attorney Scott Ellington told an interviewer, “We don’t think that there is anybody else.” Since he is convinced the West Memphis Three are in fact guilty, how could he agree to the deal that freed them? He answered that he believed a new trial would have set them free because important evidence has decayed or been lost and vital witnesses have changed their stories. Robertson reported that Ellington “expressed concern that if the men were exonerated at trial, they could sue the state, possibly for millions.”

Ellington remarked, “I believe that with all the circumstances that were facing the state in this case, this resolution is one that is palatable and I think that after a period of time it will be acceptable to the public as the right thing.”

Piers Morgan interviewed Baldwin and Echols a little over a month after their release. In that interview, Baldwin stated he was working for a construction firm. He also said he was learning to drive. Echols said he hoped to work in visual arts.

In January 2012, filmmaker Bruce Sinofsky (who made documentaries about the case along with filmmaker Joe Berlinger) told an interviewer that Baldwin was in school. Sinofsky added that Baldwin “wants to be a lawyer and work for a group like the Innocence Project.”

In an August 2012 article, CBS Crimesider reported, “Jesse Misskelley, the only one who stayed in West Memphis, hopes to become an auto mechanic.”

While supporters of the West Memphis Three are happy to see them win their liberty, a sense of injustice shadows this case. If they were in fact guilty, they got off relatively lightly for three heinous murders. If they were innocent, they suffered extraordinarily for crimes they did not commit.

Equally important is the truth that, if they are innocent, the perpetrator or perpetrator of three vicious child murders remain unknown. For James M. Moore, Steven E. Branch and Christopher M. Byers, three children brutally murdered at the tender age of eight years old, there has been no justice.

Sources on following page.

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