I was talking about the movie Paradise Lost just last night, actually. It’s about the West Memphis Three, a trio of juveniles convicted in the allegedly “Satanic” human sacrifice of three young Cub Scouts in Arkansas. There was precious little evidence for this conviction outside of a coerced confession and cultural biases. The West Memphis Three were outsiders, they had black painted fingernails and long hair, and they were assumed to be Satanists. That colored the perceptions at the trial.
After the release of Paradise Lost, the matter of freeing the West Memphis Three became a cause celebre, particularly among the Hollywood community. Benefits were planned, fundraising for their legal defense was undertaken, cards and letters were written. It was a two-decade odyssey of activism for three young men believed to be falsely convicted. Incredibly, it could come to a head today.
An Arkansas court has called a short-notice hearing Friday for three men convicted of killing three West Memphis boys in 1993, with authorities tight-lipped about the nature of the proceeding in a closely watched case.
All three of the men — Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley Jr. and Jason Baldwin, dubbed the “West Memphis Three” — are expected to attend the session in Jonesboro. The state attorney general’s office said it could not comment on the matter, citing a gag order on participants in the case.
New DNA testing could not link any of the three to the crime. The West Memphis Three got a favorable court ruling in Arkansas late last year saying they could present new evidence if they received a new trial.
According to AP, a deal could be in place where the West Memphis Three get set free today, with the local police allowed to save face.
The father of one of the victims and a person familiar with the case told The Associated Press that Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley would be offered a chance to change their pleas in the 1993 killings at West Memphis. Echols was sentenced to die for the brutal killings and Baldwin and Misskelley were sentenced to life terms. Misskelley initially confessed, but defense attorneys claim police took advantage of his low IQ.
A person who spoke on condition of anonymity because of a gag order in the case told the AP the tentative deal includes a legal maneuver that would let the men maintain their innocence while acknowledging prosecutors likely have enough evidence to convict them.
“It’s a highly technical way to put an end to judicial proceedings in the case,” the person told the AP.
It’s a little disgusting that, even after the evidence has made their innocence pretty clear, they have to go through this so the local police don’t have to admit wrongdoing. But no matter. The West Memphis Three could be free men and out of prison by as early as tonight. This is an incredible feat, a victory for activism, and an example that “liberal Hollywood” isn’t this kind of selfish, stupid collection of self-aggrandizers, after all.
More from Boing Boing.
UPDATE: Confirmed. The West Memphis Three left prison today with all their belongings. They took the plea deal mentioned above. Unbelievable.
…This is official. The judge accepted the plea deal, and the West Memphis Three are free men. Great news!
UPDATE II: I mostly agree with Alyssa Rosenberg, by the way:
That it takes three HBO documentaries, a celebrity benefit album organized by Henry Rollins, and the quiet financial support of Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh to free three wrongfully convicted men is an illustration of how difficult, and how expensive it is to exonerate people who are on death row. As long as we have to rely on campaigns like these, we are extraordinarily unlikely to regularly and promptly recognize grievous errors [...]
It’s much, much easier to build coalitions around specific, and sympathetic, defendants and specific cases than it is for procedural and cultural reform. But we need the latter, and we need it urgently, and those campaigns could use the kind of money and public influence the West Memphis Three’s supporters have on offer. Hopefully, their campaign doesn’t end with this deal.
We actually need both, because the one necessarily follows the other, and if the specific campaign can humanize the issue and bring in those big coalition, it makes the more general job of structural criminal justice reform that much easier.