Friday, November 05, 2010

EDITORIAL >>Rehearing for WM3

At long last, the Arkansas Supreme Court took one small step Thursday toward unraveling the mysteries of the most spectacular Arkansas murder case of our time. The new proceeding ordered by the court will not answer many—perhaps not even one—of the hundreds of questions about the murders of three 8-year-old boys at West Memphis 17 years ago, but it will reverse several injustices. If it produces new trials for the famous “West Memphis Three,” it may eventually give us a closer version of the truth about what happened to the boys on the night of May 5, 1993.

The Supreme Court unanimously ordered a judge in the east Arkansas district to consider whether DNA evidence from the crime scene, which does not implicate any of the three teenagers (now men approaching middle age), might be sufficient to justify giving them a new trial. The circuit judge at West 
Memphis had refused in 2007 to consider the DNA analysis because he said the law permitted it to be considered only if it supported “a compelling claim of actual innocence” for the people who had been convicted.

As the justices suggested Thursday, that would be an impossible threshold to surmount. How could the DNA evidence, which only showed that it did not belong to any of the three men, be legally conclusive evidence of their innocence? It cannot. But it may add so much to all the other questions about the convictions that a new trial would be merited.

The case has become an international cause celebre. Scores of entertainment figures from the Dixie Chicks to actress Winona Ryder have taken up the cause of the three inmates. Concerts, albums, films and TV specials have raised money for their defense. Needless to say, Arkansas comes across as a particularly dark and unjust place.

While the state’s image always needs burnishing, that is not a reason to reopen the case, even by this narrow sliver. But justice, both for the three boys and the three men who have spent half their lives in cells, cries out for the courts to take any measure that will get us closer to the truth. One of the three men, who was 18 at the time, faces the death penalty and the other two, who were 16 and 17, have life sentences.

No evidence put them at the crime scene. The police settled on them as the prime suspects because all three had troubled childhoods—two were school dropouts—and one of them, Damien Echols, who had spent some time in a mental institution, was rumored to be into satanic rituals. The little boys seemed to have been tortured and perhaps mutilated before their deaths. Still, the evidence was so circumstantial and trivial that the teenagers might not have been charged, had not one of them, who had an IQ of 72, eventually confessed to the police. His confession, which jibed with police theories at the time, did not match the circumstances of the crime and he later recanted, saying that he confessed to what police told him. Another key witness against Echols, who was being investigated for theft, later said she made up all her testimony to satisfy the police, who never charged her with theft.

The DNA evidence that will be the focus of the hearings in circuit court was taken from the bodies of the three boys and a nearby stump. It included two hairs. When a lab analyzed the DNA in 2005 none of it matched any of the three men, but the lab concluded that the two hairs might have been a match for the ex-stepfather of one of the boys and an associate who was with him the evening before the murders.
Dozens of discrepancies have arisen, many owing to the police’s botching the crime scene or the gathering of evidence in the days afterward.

The three men lost every appeal for relief since their conviction, including the Supreme Court—until Thursday. The prosecutors, the police and the court that convicted them resisted every motion. The community, which was sickened by the children’s murder and horrified that it might have been the product of a sordid ritual, may have been resistant, too, but that seems to have changed a little. The parents of the murdered boys now confess doubts that justice was done.

If the three men win a new trial, this one in a dispassionate atmosphere, it may show with reasonable certainty that Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley slew the three boys. If it doesn’t, the state, though terribly late, will have corrected a horrendous injustice.

The Supreme Court said this week that the laws should not be construed simply to keep convicted men behind bars but to try to achieve justice, however hard it may be. It was the right decision.