Sunday, December 16, 2007

Guest Shot: That West Memphis Case -- Again

The following Op-Ed column was published in the Bentonville, Arkansas Morning News on December 15, 2007.

Truth in Justice notes that its directors believe Damien Echols, Jesse Misskelley and Jason Baldwin are innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted. If you want to understand why we have reached that conclusion, see We present the following opinion to demonstrate that even those who attempt to cloak themselves in "objectivity" have reached the same conclusion.

That West Memphis Case -- Again

Look for a flurry of activity in the next few days from people supporting Damien Echols and those two other men from West Memphis who got sent to prison 14 years ago in part for being very weird, very eerie teenagers.

Most likely, though, this will remain for now a criminal justice matter insulated from any exercise of media and politics. There probably will be a costly and time-consuming legal process before Echols and the others might get freed.

But I predict their release, maybe full exoneration, even if not for years.

It is always possible, I guess, that Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jesse Misskelley, clad in black and talking about witchcraft as they wandered around as misfit 18-year-olds, did in fact torture and kill those three little boys in West Memphis in 1993.

It's too uncertain, though.

The prosecution had no physical evidence and relied solely on sometimes imaginative circumstantial evidence. It extracted easy guilty verdicts from juries predisposed by fear and rage.

Now there are new DNA findings, produced by a sophisticated defense team funded by celebrities like Johnny Depp, who have rallied to Echols' cause. This evidence links none of the three men to the slain boys or the crime scene.

Maybe Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley did all that alleged sodomizing, ritualizing and blood-drinking without leaving a shred of physical evidence. The little boys' bodies were found in water; perhaps the DNA was washed away. Logically, though, I must side with the growing chorus deeming this to have been, at the least, an unsupported judgment driven by emotion stirred by the horror of the crime and the outcast oddness of Echols and the two others.

The police described this as the work of a satanic cult. But outcast kids -- adults, too -- can fancy themselves as witches without being Satanists.

Misskelley, with a low IQ, gave the police a confession laced with contradictions and errors.

He recanted hours later. But the police and prosecutors were on their way. Juries convicted all three, sentencing two to life in prison and giving Echols, the scariest-looking and scariest-acting, the death penalty.

These new findings by Echols' defense team make a case that those supposed ritualistic mutilations were actually the postmortem work of animals.

People will tell you that this was an uncommonly vexing case. Every new bit of police information would neither prove nor disprove the guilt of the three.

But convictions are supposed to rise beyond a reasonable doubt.

Anyway, things are starting to percolate anew.

From Death Row, Echols was to give a telephone interview Friday to Larry King. It was to be taped for airing Wednesday night on CNN.

That day, supporters who advocate exoneration and release for Echols and the others will rally at the state Capitol. They intend to make a presentation to Gov. Mike Beebe, or at least someone with his office. It will be of a massive banner made up of supportive postcards from around the world, stretching a city block. Natalie Maines, the Dixie Chick who is no stranger to controversy, is to be on hand.

The matter has been sent back to Crittenden County Circuit Court on pleadings either for vacated verdicts or new trials.

But the state law on new post-conviction DNA evidence allows vacated verdicts only if that evidence provides prima facie proof of innocence. In this case, what we've seen so far only makes it seems even more unlikely -- or at least unproved -- that the imprisoned men did these crimes. It doesn't prove conclusively or absolutely that they couldn't have.

Beebe is too much the cautious man to free these three until and unless the argument becomes even more compelling. But Beebe also is the kind of man who would do the right thing eventually. I cannot imagine that he would let Echols get put to death. Commuting the death sentence would seem to be the least, the very least, the state ought to do. Then we could argue about whether he and the others ought to be in jail at all.

About this columnist

John Brummett has been writing about Arkansas and national politics for three decades and as a regular columnist since 1986. Last year he won first place in commentary writing from the national Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors. This year he took second place in humorous commentary in an 11-state Southern competition sponsored by the Society of Professional Journalists. Email Brummett at Check out Brummett's blog for the latest in Arkansas political news.

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