So the West Memphis Three are finally released.
I'm sorry if you don't know what I'm talking about - but those who do, will no doubt be celebrating along with Fran and myself.
But let's not think for a second that justice was served today. Far from it. Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley are finally free to get on with their lives after spending 18 years in prison in Arkansas for a crime they did not commit, but I'm finding it very difficult to suppress a deep anger.
Fran and I got up at 3am this morning to watch the live feeds from Jonesboro, Arkansas - we wanted to see Damien, Jason and Jessie walk free. That did happen, but not before we had to sit through a self righteous lecture from Arkansas State Prosector, Scott Ellington. Kind of tarnished the joy of seeing them released. I need to vent.
The fight to free the West Memphis Three has been raging for nearly all of the 18 years since their farcical 1994 convictions for the triple murder of three young boys, fueled hugely by the excellent "Paradise Lost" documentary released in 1996. Jason and Jessie were sentenced to life, Damien was sentenced to death.
This morning the State of Arkansas finally released these three innocent men. This was done on the strict condition that they agree the State prosecutors did the right thing in 1993 and their original convictions were in fact, justified. It's called an "Alford Plea", and in theory it allows innocent men to walk free, so long as they are happy to have their convictions stand, and lose any right to claim compensation from the State for wrongful imprisonment.
The last two weeks have been very tense, because the State told the three defense teams that they would consider an "Alford Plea" - but it had to be "all or nothing". All three men had to accept the conditions of the plea - if one refused, they would all stay in prison, probably for another 2 to 3 years, until their inevitable retrial, which would have almost certainly found them innocent. When he received the plea offer, Jason Baldwin refused to accept it. And why the hell should he? He's an innocent man, who has had the last 18 years - half his life - robbed by the State of Arkansas. This was a brave and noble stand by Jason, but it created a very tough time for Damien, and his loved ones.
You see, Damien Echols had to get out of prison, Alford Plea or not. Unlike Jason, Damien has spent the full 18 years on death row. He has not seen sky for over 10 years. He has not had sun on his skin for over 10 years. He is shackled hand and foot whenever he leaves his cell. His eyesight has deteriorated. Look at this morning's press conference - see how Damien has his hand over his mouth? It's because he has severe continual dental pain, and has had for years. On Arkansas death row, the only serious dental care they offer is extraction. No point killing men with nice new crowns. Everyone who knows Damien, has been fearful for his health. He's very weak, and frail - and has limited ability to fight off any infection. Up there in the Varner Unit death row, they don't tend to be as interested in basic medical care as your family doctor.
For several nerve-wracking days, Jason was saying no to the "Alford Plea", but he has been confined in a different, much less severe prison environment and had no contact with Damien. Damien's lawyer wrote to Jason, several friends talked with him. They explained Damien's situation to Jason, and he immediately agreed to change his mind. Jason is a decent guy, and did the right thing for his friend, just as he did many years ago when he was offered a much reduced sentence if he testified against Damien. He refused then - because he knows Damien is innocent, as he is - and he wasn't going to take the bait and sell out his friend. He's been in prison ever since as a result.
Why would you take this "Alford Plea" if you were innocent, if you had a strong possibility that the convictions would be overturned at a retrial? I can answer that - because a retrial would take at least two years, and if the convictions were overturned, the State would likely appeal and the process would drag on for several more years. And all this time you are relying on getting a fair hearing from a State justice system that has not served you well during the last 18 years. Last year you finally get a glimmer of hope when the case is heard by a judge who has no vested interest in the original verdict, but who's to say that judge will still be there in several years time? The whole thing is just too fragile, along with a total lack of trust and belief in the justice system of Arkansas. I know what I would do in their position.
So the "Alford Plea" was entered, and Damien, Jason and Jessie walked free this morning - all that was missing was justice. Justice did not play a role in the proceedings this morning ... not to the 3 men who have been robbed of 18 years, not to the 3 young victims and their families, and certainly not to the people of Arkansas, whom the system is supposed to serve.
There's also a triple child killer who has walked free for the last 18 years ... seemingly an unimportant detail in today's white-washing job.
Back to Scott Ellington, the State's prosecutorial mouth-piece, who lectured the press this morning - take a look, it's online. I'm not going to watch it again, so I can't quote him directly but he managed to state his complete confidence that the three men are indeed the real murderers, and that the State has no intention of further investigation ... whilst also saying that a retrial would likely result in an overturning of the verdicts. Sorry ... how does that actually work? Did I miss something? Compelling evidence of extensive DNA results that were not available back in 1994 ... vastly experienced forensic and scientific experts who were not consulted in 1994 ... prosecution witnesses who now admit they lied under oath back in 1994? Mr Ellington says all that would likely result in a different verdict today, but he still maintains Damien, Jason and Jessie committed these crimes?
And what reasons does Mr Ellington give for Arkansas State not wanting to retry this case - beyond his personal opinion of rampant, evil, satanic worshipping, Stephen King reading, black tee-shirt wearing guilt? Not a lot, but he does refer to the fact that a State Crime Lab employee who specialised in hair and fiber evidence analysis back in 1994 has died in the intervening 18 years. I'm not sure how this hinders the State. He doesn't mention that this very same State employee was very loose with their record keeping, failed to accurately record where key hairs had come from, and submitted questionable analysis, much of which has been rendered redundant by subsequent DNA testing. This same late forensic expert even managed to state that Jason had curious art-work on his bedroom wall - a little outside the forensic brief maybe, but hey, it's good for the team!
It goes on and on ... any serious detailed look into the facts and science of this case quickly reveals what an appalling miscarriage of justice it is. Any vaguely intelligent person would come to the same conclusion, if they take the time - except for Mr Ellington and his justice league. But then, to be fair, Mr Ellington has a job to do, and a good reason to protect his State from admitting any fault. 42 million good reasons in fact. The most telling thing Mr Arkansas Justice Mouth-piece said this morning was that a guy who proved he was wrongfully convicted in another State, was awarded compensation of $14 million.
Follow the money.
What is the price of justice in Arkansas? I don't know, but it seems the price of a miscarriage could be as much as $14 million per person. Or you could look at it another way - investigating and convicting the real killer would cost Arkansas $42m, or $14m for the lives of each of those little boys. A little outside of their "Justice Budget" perhaps? Protect and Serve the people - up to a price?
No, let's not hold our breath for any form of justice in this case.
This "Alford Plea" deal started about three weeks ago, when one of the defense lawyers had a meeting with Arkansas Attorney General, Dustin McDaniel. McDaniel has long expressed his unwavering belief in the original convictions. He has to, of course. But he could arguably have a problem, because the tide of public opinion has been slowly turning in this case and elected officials get nervous when that happens. It helped that this defense attorney was an old law school acquaintance of Dustin McDaniel ... it's easier to talk about stuff among friends.
So congratulations to Dustin McDaniel. It's great he's done this. Good on him! And it will continue to be good for him, should he ever decide to run for Governor of Arkansas. Not that he's thinking of doing that. Who knows? I have no idea. I mean, imagine if this case dragged on for another 2 or 3 years - it could create trouble during a campaign for Governor - for whoever decided to run for next Governor of Arkansas that is. Anybody campaigning for Governor wouldn't want to be stained with a proven miscarriage of justice, should that occur. Especially when the original conviction was largely driven by questionable Arkansas law enforcement and justice department behavior. If that was highlighted by a continuing court case, that would be bad, especially if you were an A.G wanting to run for Governor. But that certainly doesn't apply to Dustin McDaniel because he's done the right thing! Excellent job! For Dustin McDaniel is an honourable man; so are they all; all honourable men.
Hell, I'd vote for Dustin McDaniel. Hang on ... I live in New Zealand, so I can't vote for him - should he ever run for Governor. Damn!
Sir Peter Jackson
August 19th, 2011