Blog of Rights

Another Death Row Inmate Freed Due to Innocence – And Another Unsolved Case

By Tanya Greene, Advocacy and Policy Counsel, ACLU at 4:20pm

Twenty years ago, teenagers Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley were the talk of the Memphis tristate area as they stood accused of brutally killing three little Boy Scouts. Folks seemed particularly titillated by the news reports and rumors of Satanism and struck by Damien's devilish name (remember Damien from The Omen?), wiccan connections and alleged "evil-worship." As a lawyer-to-be at the time, I was troubled by the frame-up feel of the case against poor boys from the wrong side of the tracks, the rush to justice and spectacularly shaky "evidence," alarmist media coverage and shocking trial testimony. Ultimately, Baldwin and Misskelley were sentenced to life in prison; Echols was sentenced to die in the electric chair. Years later, as a young criminal defense lawyer in the South, I was involved in legal research and investigation on the case as the HBO movies were being made.

And finally, we come to the release of the West Memphis Three last week. Jené O'Keefe Trigg, an activist and Managing Director of the New Orleans Innocence Project, shared the following:

An ordeal that lasted over 18 years was over in just a few hours. After Damien, Jason and Jessie left the court room with their legal teams for a press conference, the judge took a moment to address the courtroom — packed full with reporters, friends and supporters and family members of the murder victims — several who were unhappy with the decision. The judge clearly felt [releasing them] was the right thing to do — and really seemed to believe in their innocence, even thanking all of us who have worked on the cases pro bono (at which point he said "that means for free").

Later that day I was finally able to put my arms around my dear friend Damien — something I had never done in the 13 years I had visited him because he was only granted contact visits with family members. As I hugged him I said "I don't want to let go, but I know I have to" and I turned around to see a very long line of people who clearly felt the same. We gathered on the rooftop of our hotel to celebrate through the night. Jason finally joined us and both commented that it was like no time had passed since they last hung out — back in June of 1993. Jessie joined his family for a block party but wasn't forgotten by any of us. We watched the sun set just beyond West Memphis remarking on its beauty and realizing that we would never have to go back there.

While I can't stop grinning, I know that this isn't how we had hoped to celebrate this day. The real killer is still free and the state will not work to solve the case — to them the chapter is closed and they just hope we all go away. For the family members of Stevie Branch, Michael Moore and Christopher Byers I find this as just one more way the State of Arkansas has harmed them.

While Damien, Jason and Jessie have now restarted life as free men, the person or persons who killed Stevie, Michael and Christopher remain at large. The criminal justice system focused on the wrong targets. Not only did the state of Arkansas come close to executing the wrong person, but now the trail is stone cold after so many years uninvestigated. We can't afford to execute innocent people. Rather than spending our limited resources on capital prosecution, we should be focused on conducting proper investigations of cases from the beginning to avoid outcomes exactly like this — wrongful incarcerations, erroneous death sentences and unsolved murders.

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