Thursday, August 25, 2011

The West Memphis Three: What We Can Learn From Them

The West Memphis Three have finally been freed.

Eighteen years ago, three young men from West Memphis, Arkansas were convicted of torturing and killing three eight-year-old boys in that city. Jason Baldwin, Jessie Misskelley, Jr., and Damien Echols were 16, 17 and 18 years old at the time of their arrests in June of 1993, respectively [1]. Three eight-year-old boys were found dead in a drainage ditch on the afternoon of May 6, stripped naked and hog-tied. There was initial suspicion of rape, but later expert testimony provided strong indications that they had not been raped [2]. At any rate, the case of the West Memphis Three has gone down in recent history as an example of the “satanic panic” that originated in the U.S. in the 1980s and which spread throughout the country rapidly before subsiding in the late 1990s.

I have seen the website devoted to defending the innocence of the West Memphis Three. I am familiar with the details of the case. And in my estimation (and that of most others), the evidence shows quite conclusively that Baldwin, Misskelley and Echols are innocent. But my interest in this case is not limited to protesting the reactionary and grossly misinformed moral panics concerning Satanism and the hasty accusations of Satanic ritual being involved. We should all be concerned with working toward making sure that innocent people are not locked up in prison, let alone put to death by the State. In this particular case, Jason Baldwin was sentenced to life imprisonment, Jessie Misskelley was sentenced to life imprisonment plus two 20-year sentences, and Damien Echols was sentenced to death.

This past week, the three men worked towards getting new trials, given the fact that the overwhelming majority of average people as well as experts now believe the three are innocent. To begin with, there was DNA evidence recovered from the crime scene that, by any reasonable standard, should have exonerated them at the very beginning eighteen years ago. The DNA recovered from the scene did not match any one of them. Instead, the DNA matched Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of one of the victims, and a friend of his. But instead of being exonerated as they should have, the three men have only last week worked out a plea agreement. They were released on August 19, 2011, after entering Alford pleas which allowed them to plead “no contest” to the charges.

And so the West Memphis Three are now free, as they should be. The deal made on their plea bargain leaves much to be desired, however. An Alford plea allows a defendant to reserve the right to assert innocence, while at the same time conceding that prosecutors have sufficient evidence to convict. A plea of “no contest” is therefore not much different than a guilty plea.

Damien Echols, who again was 18 years old at the time of his arrest (and has spent the last 18 years, or half his life, in prison) released a quick statement, saying,
To all my friends and family, my attorneys and advocates, and to those of you from every corner of this earth who have stood beside us these long years, please know that I will forever be indebted to all of you for helping me to become a free man. Each and every day I was the beneficiary of acts of kindness and humanity from people of all walks of life, of all ages, nationalities, religions and political persuasions. The enormity of the support Lorri and I received throughout this struggle is humbling.

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 [3].

Echols is now moving forward with raising awareness about other innocent people on death row. Such awareness is greatly needed, especially in states like Texas, which many strongly suspect has executed an innocent person at least once in recent history. I refer here to the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, an alleged arsonist who was put to death in 2004 on Governor Rick Perry’s watch. From my point of view (and from that of most fire experts) any reasonable examination of the evidence demonstrates that the prosecution conspicuously lacked the information required to convict Willingham, let alone kill him [4].

My position on the death penalty is laid out in my essay, “The Broken Machinery of Death” (a paper that convinced the professor I wrote it for to change her position on capital punishment). More than any other factor that leads me to oppose the death penalty is the issue of practicality. Apart from extreme circumstances, (wherein a confession is made, there are many witnesses, and strong evidence such as video footage makes it clear that the individual is guilty), the risk is simply far too high that we could be wrong. I do not see any reason why we should be content to take that risk, especially considering the leeway that is characteristic of most sentencing procedures. The evidence shows beyond dispute that some groups (particularly blacks) are more likely to be sentenced to death than other groups. We also know that the legal system is plagued by jury coercion, prosecutorial mistakes, and human error on the part of the defence.

In my estimation, it is unfair to even call the death sentence a “penalty.” I advocate calling this what it really is: If the State is going to kill people based on crimes, then it must have the absolute highest standards of evidence in hand, it must secure conviction beyond any possible doubt, and it needs to apply the sentence equally. These three standards are conspicuously absent in the system today. But even if the system realized these circumstances fully, it only makes sense that the death sentence should be used extremely sparingly, if at all. Why? Because it is time we faced up with reality and realize that nothing anyone does is going to make up for what the offender did. Not even killing the offender is going to satisfy the wrong committed.

By and large, it is entirely too dangerous for us to rely on a dozen or less people who are not experts, and these factors should make any reasonable and critical thinker uncomfortable with the death sentence given the current nature of the legal system alone, not to mention the brutalizing effect capital punishment wreaks on society and the demonstrated fact that deterrence does not work.

The more I follow debates concerning capital punishment, the more I discern a fundamental difference of opinion that boils down to the concepts of Type I and Type II errors as used in clinical tests [5]. Type I errors are false positives, Type II errors are false negatives. If a physician commits a Type I error while diagnosing somebody with a disease, this means that the physician decided the patient has the disease when he really does not. Applying this concept to capital punishment, a Type I error would mean that an innocent person is sentenced to death, while a Type II error would mean that a guilty person is allowed to live out the rest of his life in prison when he should have been killed. My argument is that if there are a significant amount of Type I errors, then capital punishment is not worth practicing and should be abolished. On the other hand, people who strongly advocate capital punishment, particularly many lawmakers and the last two governors of the very red and trigger-happy state of Texas, would perhaps argue the converse: that making a number of mistakes is worth it as long as we are not letting any bad guys off the hook.

I personally find the latter argument to be absolutely repugnant. The story of the West Memphis Three provides a powerful and excellent case study for illustrating the problems plaguing the continued practice of capital punishment.


1. New York Times. “3 Teen-Agers Accused in the Killings of 3 Boys.” New York Times 6 June 1993. Web.

2. “Testimony of Dr. Frank Peretti.” West Memphis Three Case – Document Archive.

3. Max Brantley. “Damien Echols’ Statement on Plea Deal.” Arkansas Blog: Daily News and Comment 19 Aug. 2011. Web.

4. David Grann. “Trial By Fire: Did Texas Execute an Innocent Man?The New Yorker 7 Sept. 2009. Web. See also Craig L. Beyler, “Analysis of the Fire Investigation Methods and Procedures Used in the Criminal Arson Cases Against Ernest Ray Willis and Cameron Todd Willingham.” Hughes Associates, Inc. 17 Aug. 2009.

5. This analogy was suggested by Russell Glasser of the Atheist Community of Austin.

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