After 18 long years the West Memphis Three are finally free. Damien W. Echols, 36, Jason Baldwin, 34, and Jessie Misskelley Jr., 36, were wrongfully convicted of killing three 8 year old boys, Steven Branch, Christopher Byers, and Michael Moore, in West Memphis, Arkansas in 1993.
The plea deal agreed to by all parties and confirmed by the district court judge is known as an Alford plea in Arkansas, which allows the men to maintain their innocence but it does not result in full exonerations. The plea that provided freedom may be seen as a disappointment to those expecting full exonerations. Damien Echols released a statement today explaining the decision to accept the plea:
“I have now spent half my life on death row. It is a torturous environment that no human being should have to endure, and it needed to end. I am innocent, as are Jason and Jessie, but I made this decision because I did not want to spend another day of my life behind those bars. I want to live and to continue to fight for our innocence. Sometimes justice is neither pretty nor is it perfect, but it was important to take this opportunity to be free.”
The miscarriage of justice that took place in West Memphis, Arkansas, was due in part to a rush to judgment based on information obtained from a coerced confession. For those following the Amanda Knox case in Perugia, Italy, those words are haunting.
Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito currently stand convicted of murdering Meredith Kercher in late 2007. Both have vehemently denied any involvement in the murder. The case is currently on appeal.
Though the cases are unrelated, similarities in the course taken by authorities to secure convictions are difficult to ignore. In both cases conclusions were made quickly based on perceived behavior rather than actual evidence. Guilt was determined quickly in the Amanda Knox case based on observed behavior. Lead investigator Edgardo Giobbi had this to say regarding Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito:
“We were able to establish guilt by closely observing the suspects’ psychological and behavioral reactions during the interrogations. We don’t need to rely on other kinds of investigation as this method has enabled us to get to the guilty parties in a very quick time.”
Keep in mind that Giobbi made these claims long before a single piece of evidence was analyzed and before he had even heard of the real killer, Rudy Guede.
Guilt was decided in a similar fashion in the West Memphis Three case. Damien Echols was brought to the attention of authorities by Crittenden County juvenile officer Jerry Driver. Driver had somehow determined that Echols was a violent person from past interactions with him. Driver also believed that Echols was the leader of a satanic cult. There was never any evidence that the cult existed and Echols strongly proclaimed his innocence. With nothing to go on, the police questioned anyone that had ever come in contact with Echols.
Jessie Misskelley was brought in for questioning based on a tip that he had been seen with Echols. Misskelley was seventeen at the time of his questioning. Arkansas law states that anyone under the age of eighteen must not be questioned without the express written consent of a parent or guardian. However, consent wasn’t given by Jessie Misskelley, Sr. Misskelley is mentally handicapped with an IQ of 72 and a severely diminished reading capacity. He should never have been questioned alone without the knowledge of his caretakers. After twelve hours of intense pressure and coaching, he told police he had seen Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin attack the three boys. Misskelley was no match for the seasoned interrogators and was heavily influenced by their demands for information. His answers clearly showed that he was simply doing what he could to appease the authorities and his answers contradicted the actual evidence. He told police the three victims had skipped school the day of the murders and that the attack occurred at noon. He said that Damien and Jason raped and murdered the victims and tied their bodies with rope.
History shows that coerced confessions do not lead to accurate information. School records proved that all three had attended school that day, so not only did they not skip school, but they were in class at noon. The medical examiner found no evidence of rape, and the boys were not bound with rope but were tied using their own shoestrings. As soon as Jessie realized he wasn’t going home he recanted his entire testimony.
Similar interrogation techniques were used by authorities in the Amanda Knox case. Knox was subjected to an all night interrogation putting her in a situation that she had absolutely no control of. Knox was thousands of miles from home, in a country where she had a very limited knowledge of the language, with no legal counsel, confronted by aggressive police officers who were accusing her of a horrible crime that she did not commit. Physical force was used on Knox and she was lied to intentionally to make her believe the police had evidence against her.
Knox was told that they had proof she was at the crime scene at the time of the murder. This was a lie. She was told that she was going to prison for 30 years and she would never see her family again. Knox was told that her boss, Patrick Lumumba was the killer. The interrogators told Knox to imagine she was at the cottage and that Lumumba committed the crime. The interrogators kept telling her over and over again to imagine that she was there. When she could not imagine what they were saying, she was slapped across the back of her head and called a stupid liar.
The abuse went on for hours until Knox was finally broken and desperate to end the questioning. Suffering from extreme exhaustion the twenty year old college student gave in to the interrogator’s demands by describing an imaginary dream or vision. In this vision, she was in the kitchen covering her ears to block out screams while the man she worked for, Patrick Lumumba, was in Kercher’s bedroom. In accordance with Italian law, along with Lumumba, Knox implicated herself by stating her presence at the crime scene.
In both cases, statements obtained during coerced confessions were quickly recanted as soon as the suspects were out of the hostile environment. Information obtained during the interrogation of both Jessie Misskelley and Amanda Knox contradicted the evidence and was found to be unreliable. It cannot be stressed enough that coerced confessions do not provide reliable information. Unfortunately the erroneous information was accepted in both cases.
Both crimes were horrific, leaving many citizens fearing for their own safety, creating an environment that led to a rush to judgment. Authorities have been unwilling to admit mistakes in both cases leading to drastic measures in an attempt to save face including but not limited to; the manipulation of evidence, providing misinformation to the media, and neglecting to investigate other possible suspects. In the Knox case, the real killer, Rudy Guede has already been convicted but authorities refuse to see that all credible evidence points to him as the lone attacker. In the West Memphis Three case there are several possible suspects that have not been properly investigated.
One possible suspect is Christopher Byers’ stepfather, John Mark Byers. Christopher’s injuries were more violent than the other boys. His body showed signs of previous abuse. It appeared that more aggression was aimed at Christopher during the attack. John Mark Byers admitted at trial to striking Christopher with a belt as a form of punishment in the past. Another possible suspect is Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of Steven Branch. A hair found tied in the knots used to bind one of the victims may belong to Hobbs. Another possible suspect is a black man that was sighted at a restaurant not far from the crime scene covered in blood and mud. The suspect became known as Mr. Bojangles, named after the restaurant. He left the restaurant before authorities arrived. The truth is there were several leads that should have been more thoroughly pursued. Due to inexcusable negligence, this crime may never be solved.
The thought of spending 18 years in a cage for a crime you did not commit is enough to make anyone sick but the long timeframe also played a factor in the West Memphis Three’s freedom. The deal to release the three was made possible by DNA testing that showed definitive proof that they were not present at the crime scene. Testing of this nature was not available in 1993. The newfound DNA evidence prompted the Arkansas Supreme Court to schedule a hearing in November to take another look at the case. Thankfully that hearing will no longer be necessary.
Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito have spent nearly 4 years in prison for a crime they did not commit. On appeal the court has finally heard from independent experts regarding crucial DNA evidence. The defense request for independent testing was refused by Judge Giancarlo Massei in the first trial. If Massei would have allowed an independent review, Knox and Sollecito would have never been convicted in the first place.
The presiding appeals court judge, Claudio Pratillo Hellmann, appointed forensic experts Stefano Conti and Carla Vecchiotti, from Rome’s Sapienza University to review the DNA. Conti and Vecchiotti, appeared in court July 25, unleashing a scathing attack on the prosecution, detailing gross negligence on the part of lead forensic scientist, Patrizia Stefanoni, regarding the key DNA evidence used to secure convictions in the first trial. The alleged murder weapon and a DNA laced bra clasp have been fully discredited by Hellmann’s experts leaving absolutely no credible evidence to confirm the convictions of Knox and Sollecito.
When court resumes in early September, Judge Hellmann will be obligated by Italian law to fully exonerate Amanda Knox and Raffaelle Sollecito as he cannot confirm convictions without evidence. For the West Memphis Three the fight to clear their names will continue. Hopefully all three will be able to find happiness and finally begin to live again. The same well wishes go out for Amanda Knox, Raffaele Sollecito and many others who have been wrongfully convicted.
My work with Injustice in Perugia no doubt led me to compare these two cases but the sad reality is that the same comparisons can be made with many wrongful conviction cases throughout the world with many found right here in the United States; Marty Tankleff, The Norfolk Four, Kelly Michaels, and Christopher Ochoa, to name a few.
Please take time to learn more about wrongful convictions. When a person has an injustice done to them, it is the responsibility of the masses to stand up for that person; for one day that person just might be you. Even worse, that person might be your son or daughter.
To learn more about Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito’s fight for freedom please visit www.injusticeinperugia.org.
To learn more about wrongful convictions please visit www.innocenceproject.org.
I have recently taken interest in another case involving an American named Jason Puracal and encourage everyone to do the same. Jason is currently wrongfully imprisoned in Nicaragua. Please visit Jason’s website to learn more about his fight for freedom: www.freejasonp.com