The Case of the West Memphis Three Shakes Faith in the System

After almost two decades in prison for the murder of three little boys in West Memphis, Arkansas, Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley Jr.–the West Memphis Three–were released from prison on Friday, pleading guilty while also maintaining their innocence in a bizarre plea deal made with the state.

The three agreed to an Alford plea, meaning that they acknowledge that prosecutors had evidence that could convict them, but at the same time, they maintain their innocence. The case had been unraveling for years, particularly since no DNA evidence linked the three men to the crime.  

The three young boys, Christopher Byers, Stevie Branch and Michael Moore, were found in a  wooded area in the poor Arkansas town of West Memphis. Their bodies appeared to have been mutilated, and their hands were tied to their feet. It was a gruesome crime that dominated the news. As a college student in Memphis at the time, I remember the coverage well–the sweet faces of those little boys on the television juxtaposed by the sullen long-haired teenagers whose ringleader was named Damien. 

Jessie Miskelley, Jr. confessed to the crime and implicated Echols and Baldwin after a nearly 12-hour police interrogation. His confession diverged in significant details, like the time of the murders, with the facts known by the police. Misskelley later recanted.

Last November, the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled that there was enough evidence to merit a hearing in order to determine whether a new trial was needed. The hearing was scheduled for this December. With a possible new trial in the works, prosecutors moved to make a deal.

Even some of the victims’ families now believe the men are innocent, including John Mark Byers, the father of Christopher Byers. He said, “It’s a total injustice. These three men are being made to plead guilty to something they didn’t do.”

The prosecuting attorney, Scott Ellington, said in an interview that the state still considered the men guilty and that, new DNA findings notwithstanding, he knew of no current suspects. “We don’t think that there is anybody else,” Mr. Ellington said, declaring the case closed.

The case is now closed.  But what about the families of the three little boys?  

These families have suffered the murder of a child and were told that the men responsible were in prison for life and at least one would face the death penalty. Now they find that these men weren’t responsible after all these years of suffering and all the trips to court. For these families, the death penalty has turned out to be nothing but a false promise, and now the real killers will likely never be brought to justice.

This case, with all its tragedy, highlights yet again why we cannot continue to have the death penalty. Our current system is broken and will never be able ensure that we get it right 100% of the time. An attorney for one of the West Memphis Three stated that for every group of defendants that get some attention paid to them, there are 100 who are innocent who don’t have the legal and financial support they need to have their cases properly reviewed.

This system has served no one in this case. No one. With millions of dollars wasted, three young men have spent 18 years in prison and on death row for something the evidence demonstrates that they didn’t do while the families of these murdered children are now told the case is closed.  

When do we finally let go of the death penalty and focus on public policies that actually prevent crime, seeking to not simply to maintain a conviction but to find the truth.

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