Friday, August 19, 2011

EDITORIAL >>The three go free

The saga of the West Memphis Three is finally over, or has it only reached a new and uncertain stage, a sort of purgatory where there are no satisfactory answers and no prospect of serenity about the future? The sudden ending in the circuit court at Jonesboro on Friday served no one’s ends except that of the criminal justice system — certainly not the families of the three little boys who were murdered so wantonly in a drainage ditch in West Memphis 18 years ago nor perhaps even the three teenage boys, now nearing middle age, who were convicted of the crimes and have spent the salad days of youth and beyond in confinement. They are free at last but they will pursue life, or perhaps just existence, under a cloud that may never evaporate and perhaps puts them in considerable peril.

Damien W. Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr. were removed from prison and taken to a courtroom in Jonesboro, where they were allowed to both plead guilty and assert their innocence in exchange for a judicial determination that they had served their punishment. Echols was under a death sentence and the other two life in prison.

It was all done under an obscure doctrine called “the Alford plea,” in which they essentially plead nolo contendere — I will not contest the charges — in exchange for a lighter sentence. It came about from a murder case in North Carolina that reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 1970. A man named Alford, accused of murdering a man with whom he had argued, insisted that he was not guilty, but he acknowledged strong circumstantial evidence against him. If he were convicted of the original charge, the death penalty was automatic in that state. The state had a weak case and plea agreement was its surest course.

Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley have insisted upon their innocence, but there was a strong compulsion for them and for the legatees of the prosecution, including the current prosecutor and the attorney general, to reach just such a conclusion as the Alford plea. The case against the young men had come to pieces over the years, so that all that remained was some weak circumstantial evidence. The DNA evidence from the crime scene, when it finally could be screened, demonstrated no connection to any of the three young men. The evidence supporting the police’s central theory — that the boys might have been carrying out some sort of satanic ritual (Echols was a punk kid who was known to have read some weird stuff, including Shakespeare) — seemed to dissolve, too. An expert who examined photographs and other evidence said all the scratches on the boys were not the work of a ritual torture but probably the scavenging of wild animals after the boys’ deaths.

So the Arkansas Supreme Court, which had upheld the convictions of the West Memphis Three, ordered the circuit court to conduct a fresh evidentiary hearing to determine whether the convictions should be set aside for lack of evidence and a new trial ordered. One crucial bit of evidence that was produced recently was gross misconduct by one of the jurors, who poisoned the secret deliberations by telling the other jurors, several of whom doubted the boys’ guilt, of an induced confession from Misskelley that was barred from the trial. Prosecutors concluded that at a hearing in December the judge was likely to set aside the convictions and order a new trial. They had little evidence with which to go forward for a new trial, but there was a great need in the community for resolution of the case—some assurance that the guilty had indeed been caught and punished. So both the prosecutors and the young men, who still faced the possibility if not the certainty of perpetual prison, were impelled to reach the unsatisfactory settlement of an Alford plea.

Baldwin, who had blurted “yes, I didn’t do it” in 1994 when the judge asked the boys after the jury’s guilty verdict if they had anything to say before their sentencing, was unrepentant Friday. He said he had not wanted to enter a guilty plea even now but that he did it to get his friend Damien off death row.

This was the most famous murder case in Arkansas history, or at least going back to 1888, when the assassination of the Republican candidate for Congress at a rooming house in Plumerville set off an international outcry and a national investigation (the crime went unsolved although the plotters and killers were commonly known).

The notoriety of the West Memphis crime helped convict the three youngsters and then helped free them. Their freedom became a cause celebré around the world. Films and books about the case attracted an international following. Film and rock stars joined the cause and raised money for their defense. That produced the DNA evidence and investigations that undermined the case and pushed it back into court.

The criminal justice system, which has taken a battering in this case and so many others in the past dozen years, earned a small measure of absolution in the Jonesboro court, even if the result left nearly everyone, especially the families of the slain boys, jaded if not grieving.

Infamy most often leads to miscarriage of justice. It is nigh unavoidable. The community and the state were aroused to near fever pitch by the needlessly brutal killing of three 8-year-old boys whose beaming photographs, so widely reprinted, spoke of promise and happiness. Woe to anyone who first comes under suspicion in such circumstances. The police, the prosecution, the court and finally the jury were under irresistible pressure to solve the crime and bring finality to the ordeal. They all did, or thought they did. But the nightmare only changed character.

All that is left is for all of us to hope that justice was indeed done, that the three young men did it and that all the angst over the convictions was not in vain—or else that new evidence will surface and produce the real killers. Neither is cause for celebration.