Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Opinion: West Memphis Three, Outrage in Arkansas

Lack of Evidence

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Mara Leveritt. Also please see out feature story on the case: The West Memphis Three

Damien Echols
Damien Echols

If, as I believe will happen, some court, state or federal, eventually orders a new trial for Echols and Baldwin, Arkansas prosecutors will face a plethora of problems. Chief among them is that a new trial would further expose the enduring absence of evidence to support the original convictions. A new trial would also shine an unfavorable light on the indifference of Arkansas courts to the defendants' reasonable appeals these past 16 years, and on the state's relentless effort to execute Echols despite evidence that his trial was a sham.

A court-ordered new trial would also remind the public that, back in 1994, prosecutors sought the death penalty for all three of the accused. It was only because the juries would not go that far that Baldwin and Misskelley have not spent these intervening years on Arkansas' death row with Echols.

Jason Baldwin
Jason Baldwin

If a new trial is ordered for Echols, it stands to reason that Baldwin would deserve one too, since the two were tried together. Misskelley's case is different because of his confession, which the Arkansas Supreme Court has acknowledged was virtually the only substantive evidence against him.

If a new trial for Echols or Baldwin resulted in new convictions, Misskelley's case would likely not be affected. However, if new trials for Echols and Baldwin were both to result in acquittals, those verdicts would further support Misskelley's claim that his confession was coerced.

So far, the Arkansas Supreme Court has not been troubled by the facts that Misskelley, a minor who'd been put in special education classes in school, was questioned by police for approximately eight hours without a parent or attorney present, that most, if not all, of what he related was first suggested by police, or that, even so, he managed to get crucial information wrong about the crime to which he was confessing.

Jessie Misskelley in police custody
Jessie Misskelley in police custody

It is by now well known by those who have followed this case that Misskelley was wrong about the time of the attack on the boys, his claim that they were raped, and what was used to bind them. Police knew he was wrong, but they, along with prosecutors, accepted his "confession" and used it as the basis to arrest him and Echols and Baldwin.

At his trial, when prosecutors played Misskelley's recorded statement, Misskelley's lawyer asked Gary Gitchell, the West Memphis chief of police, why he believed the boy had made such big mistakes. Gitchell replied, "Jessie simply got confused."

That was apparently good enough for the jury. It found him guilty and sentenced him to life in an Arkansas prison, where all life sentences are without parole. Since then, the decision of that jury has also been good enough for the state appellate courts.

But even in 1994, as prosecutors faced the trial of Echols and Baldwin, they were worried that if Misskelley would not testify against the two there would not be enough evidence to convict them.

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