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Gordon Campbell On The Release Of The West Memphis Three

Good news stories are few and far between, and the release from jail of the West Memphis Three is definitely one of those moments to celebrate… After 18 years, the persecution of Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jesse Miskelley is finally at end, and they have been set free. The 12-minute press conference held straight after their release can be found here on the WM3 website that has been central to the global campaign.

Damien Echols’ comment to one questioner that he’s finding the press conference a little bit hard to handle – partly because he’s been in solitary confinement for almost ten years – says a lot about what they’ve been through. In 1993, the murders of three children in West Memphis led to a moral panic about Satanic cults and the conviction of three teenagers who were notable locally for wearing black clothes, listening to metal music and reading doomy poetry. Damien Echols was sentenced to death, and has spent almost the last ten years in one of America’s Supermaxx prisons.

Scoop has carried its own extensive coverage of the WM3 cause, including an exclusive interview in 2008 with Mara Leveritt, author of the definitive Devil’s Knot book on the case.At the time, Scoop noted the prevalence of “Free the West Memphis Three” graffiti around Wellington, one small sign of how this case has affected people all around the world….and drawn support from the likes of Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, the Dixie Chicks and it would seem, Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh.

The mechanics of how the release of Echols, Baldwin and Miskelley was managed provided the last bizarre moment in the story. As happened with the Ahmed Zaoui case in New Zealand, the final manoeuvrings weren’t about justice – they were about ensuring that the authorities could back down from their mistakes without being seen to lose face.

Thus, the judge quashed the original convictions, set a new trial at which the trio would agree to plead guilty while –paradoxically – still maintaining their innocence, and be then sentenced to the time they had already served. Which could then allow them to be freed. Immediately.

This so called “Alford plea” is an extremely rare mechanism and its use in this case will allow the state to evade being open to claims for compensation for wrongful conviction. That’s because under an Alford plea, the defendants are required to formally admit that the state could have convicted them beyond reasonable doubt if a new trial had been heard.

This was a very difficult concession for the WM3 to make – mainly because it is patently untrue. Almost certainly, the state would have lost and been humiliated at any new trial: but the trouble was, that hadn’t happened before. At the first trial, the prosecution got away with bullshit, innuendo, jury misbehaviour, faked “expert” evidence, the lack of any DNA evidence then or since, and wild conspiracy theories.

So, as Jason Baldwin explains – in the press conference clip to which I’ve linked above – he agreed to the Alford plea solely in order to get Damien off Death Row. It was a fraught decision because the lawyers working on their behalf had finally won the right to a new trial, due this December – which, to repeat, the WM3 would have been likely to win because all along: the state never had any concrete evidence linking them to the crime scene, nor any motive that went beyond Satanic possession.

Moreover, if they had decided to fight on, the WM3 could have not only cleared their names but would also have been able to pursue financial compensation that could have run into millions. Unfortunately, this would have been a gamble waged on Damien Echols’ life – and without any guarantee that the legal system that had screwed them over once couldn’t conceivably conspire to do it again. This way – and despite the outrageous concessions to the state – freedom was a certainty, and the nightmare could be brought to a close.

Some nightmare. In effect, these three men had their youth stolen from them, and were dropped into the hell of the US prison system. They went to prison at 18, and have now woken up in their mid 30s to try to start life afresh. Understandably, all of them will find it hard to do so. They will not lack for support. While in jail, Damien Echols married Lorri Davis, who has been a leading campaigner for the WM3, along with Burk Sauls, Kathy Bakken, Grove Pashley and Lisa Fancher – some of whom appeared in the two Paradise Lost documentaries that played such a key role in publicising the case. Any misgivings that might be felt about the second Paradise Lost film, and its dubious use and payment of John Mark Byers (the flamboyant father of one of the slain children, and an occasional suspect) pales against the inestimable good done via these documentaries, by film-makers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky.

The West Memphis Three case will remain as one of the strongest arguments against the death penalty in the US, The condemnation of youth culture central to this case, the work by the WM3 website campaigners, and the involvement of celebrities like Vedder – it would have helped if Peter Jackson had used his celebrity to do more to publicise the plight of the WM3 before their release, not after it – all certainly helped.

Without such a campaign, Damien Echols would have been executed by now. For a chilling example of what can happen to someone lacking similar support, read this account of the trial and execution of Cameron Todd Willingham in Texas – which remains the clearest case yet of the US legal system executing someone who was convicted on bogus ‘expert’ forensic evidence.

The authorities it seems, are never held to account. The WM3, the Willingham case, and this recent Supreme Court judgement from earlier this year are all examples of the state and its legal system refusing to accept responsibility for their own criminal errors, and for the destruction of peoples lives that they have caused. (Even now, we still do not know the detail of the proceedings that caused the final collapse of the SIS case against Ahmed Zaoui. The SIS ‘reasoning’ remains hidden.)

Maybe if politicians want to preach that everyone else – and especially the young – must face up to their responsibilities, they could first ensure that authority has earned the right to respect. Regardless, we need to be grateful for small mercies right now. And as I said at the outset, the release of the WM3 is a fantastic reason to celebrate just what activism can achieve.

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