Eighteen years after they were imprisoned for stunningly flimsy reasons, the West Memphis Three are free. Yet what should be a day of sweet celebration has a sour aftertaste. They’re free but not exonerated and a system that railroaded them is off the hook. To end their ordeal, Jessie Misskelley, Jr., Jason Baldwin, and Damien Echols accepted a plea arrangement that still holds them accountable. As Baldwin angrily stated at a press conference, it’s not justice. Not for them, not for the victims.
To review, on May 5, 1993, three eight-year-old boys were battered and murdered in West Memphis, Arkansas, and one was sexually mutilated. Misskelley, 17, Baldwin, 16, and Echols, 18, were arrested. Miskelley had confessed, implicating the other two, so he had a separate trial. Although the detectives had clearly led him during interrogation and his confession was inconsistent and full of errors, the jury believed it was authentic. Dr. Richard Ofshe, an expert on false confessions, described the coercive methods of law enforcement. He testified that 19% of 350 cases of erroneous conviction had relied on a false confession. Apparently, the jurors ignored him. Miskelley’s confession, with its errors, can be found here.
It’s counter-intuitive to accept that anyone would confess to something he did not do, especially when the stakes are high. However, there are cases on record. Let’s not forget John Mark Karr, who falsely confessed to killing Jon-Benet Ramsey, or the Buddhist Temple massacre in Arizona in which five men admitted to a mass murder they did not commit. In 1932, when Lindbergh’s baby was kidnapped and killed, over two hundred people claimed they did it, but none was the killer.
Sometimes people just spontaneously confess, especially for fame, but most false confessions are coerced. The person being questioned complies with what he or she thinks interrogators want to hear, allowing them to lead him in the right direction. The conditions common to coerced false confessions include youth, low IQ, high anxiety, fatigue, and mental illness. Those who have difficulty understanding how the police might lead or trap them will often agree that they have done something, even if they can’t remember it.
MissKelley’s conviction for first- and second-degree murder affected the trial for Baldwin and Echols. The prosecutor seemed most intent to convict Echols, who had a professed interest in witchcraft and horror novels. He was also bipolar, he dressed like a Goth, and he’d made several snide statements that did him no good. This trial focused on his alleged participation in the occult. A suspect knife was found buried in a lake near Echols’ house and some fibers were circumstantially linked the defendants to the victims. However, the case against them was made primarily on the fabricated testimonies of people who later changed their stories, as well as of people who were seeking reward money or were proven liars. Baldwin and Echols were both convicted of three counts of first-degree murder and Echols was sentenced to die by lethal injection.
Many voices rose in protest over the investigation and trial proceedings, claiming a travesty of justice. Other potential suspects—including one who confessed—were ignored. An activist Web site was set up and HBO aired two compelling documentaries to expose the issues. Yet despite these efforts, the Arkansas Supreme Court upheld the convictions. The residents of West Memphis were insulted over what they called second-guessing by outsiders, and the outsiders accused the Deep South community (and its justice system) of being ignorant and superstitious. In the meantime, the clock on Echols’s execution was ticking.
The three men entered “Alford agreements” on August 19, 2011. In this deal, they maintained their innocence but agreed that the prosecutor has evidence to convict them. They got credit for time served and received a ten-year suspended sentence. Echols said that while it’s not the full measure of justice he sought, at least they can continue fighting from outside the cell. Their hope lies in DNA tests conducted between 2005 and 2007 that failed to link them to the crime scene and might help develop new suspects. Yet in this, they’ll get no assistance from the state. Prosecutor Scott Ellington commented, “I have no reason to believe there was anyone else involved in the homicide of these three children but the three defendants who pled guilty today.”
Baldwin fumes over this. He’d been reluctant to accept a deal that continued to implicate him, but he did so in order to get Echols off death row. He maintains that there remains an important fact that should not be overlooked: The killer is still out there. Although there is joy in the air among advocates and supporters at the release of the West Memphis Three, for them the case remains unresolved.
Crimescape author Dr. Katherine Ramsland holds graduate degrees in forensic psychology, clinical psychology, and philosophy, and a master’s degree in criminal justice. Currently, she teaches forensic psychology and criminal justice at DeSales University in Pennsylvania. She has published more than 1,000 articles and 38 books. Learn more about her work at and www.katherineramsland.com.