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.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Acceptable Error Rates

On December 7, 2007, the Associated Press reported that Harris County, Texas is getting help in reviewing cases with questionable blood analysis work done by the Houston Police Department crime lab. The Innocence Project of Texas will assist in the review of 180 cases identified as having "major problems" related to shoddy serology work by the crime lab.

Three inmates have been released because of sloppy work and, potentially, forensic fraud by the Houston Police Department crime lab. The DNA section of the crime lab was so rife with problems that it was shut down in 2002 (although it has since been re-opened). Inaccuracies were also found in lab divisions that test firearms, body fluids and controlled substances. These issues are not included in the current review, which is limited to problems with blood analysis.

The AP report goes on to say that some of the 180 cases being reviewed go back to the 1980's and include death row prisoners. In October of 2007, Bob Wicoff, one of the defense attorneys leading the review, held video conferences with 160 of the inmates who are still in prison.

And then came the most chilling sentence: "Of the remaining 20 cases, half are inmates who have been executed and half have been freed from prison."

Let me translate the pertinent part into plain English: Ten of the inmates whose cases have "major problems" with the serology work that convicted them have been executed.

They are dead, killed by the State of Texas, the most efficient death machine in the nation. No apology can bring them back. But, then, we doubt any apology will be needed, because no matter what evidence of innocence is produced post-mortem, the Texas authorities will deny that it proves anything. Intractable denial is essential to the continued operation of the death machine. As long as the public wants blood – or, more appropriately these days, lethal injection – politicians, prosecutors and police will make sure they get it. Little has changed since Aztecs offered human sacrifice on the steps of the Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlan "so that others may live."

Keep in mind that the ten executed inmates whose convictions were obtained by bogus blood work do not represent a statewide figure. This is just Harris County. There is another batch under review in Dallas. And neither of these groups include Gary Gilmore, Cameron Todd Willingham or Rubin Cantu. And, of course, similar cases in other states are not represented here, either.

Which brings us to the questions each person must answer for himself or herself: What is an acceptable error rate in death penalty cases? How many innocent people are you willing to execute in order to get the guilty ones? One per hundred? Two? Three? Ten? Do you really believe science makes the process error-free? Are you willing to be put to death yourself, or hand over your innocent spouse or parent or child in order to feed the death machine?

When you answer these questions, act accordingly.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Guest Shot: Innocent Inmates – Legislation would benefit wrongly convicted

This editorial was published by the Salt Lake City (Utah) Tribune on December 3, 2007.

"Innocence is the weakest defense. Innocence has a single voice that can only say over and over again, 'I didn't do it.' Guilt has a thousand voices, all of them lies." - LEONARD F. PELTIER, Prison Writings

The Greek philosopher Diogenes spent his days walking the streets of Athens with a lighted lantern, looking for an honest man. As the story goes, he never found one.

The lawyers at the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center are hoping they have better luck as they look for innocent men and women among prison inmates in three states. They won the release in 2004 of a man who had spent 19 years in prison for a Salt Lake City murder, but whose conviction was put in doubt by DNA testing. Three other cases are being reviewed. Nationwide, 208 inmates have been exonerated by DNA testing, and in 77 of those cases, the real perpetrator was found.

Along with its commendable work in exonerating innocent prisoners, the Rocky Mountain center is promoting legislation in Utah that would make restitution to innocent people who have had their lives derailed by wrongful convictions. It also would outline a way that inmates can be found innocent based on evidence other than DNA.

The legislation would provide an exonerated person $40,000 for each year spent in prison, and an additional $30,000 a year for death-row inmates, if they agreed this would be the "exclusive remedy." That means they would give up their right to sue the state for damages. Other compensation would be allowed in "exceptional circumstances"; for example, if an inmate were injured while in prison.

The Legislature should consider this proposal, which is supported by the Utah Attorney General's Office.

First, of course, is the moral imperative: In cases of wrongful conviction, the state may have taken years of a person's life, ruined a reputation and inflicted pain and suffering on friends and family members, all because of a miscarriage of justice. The state should do what it can to make it right.

In addition, the state would be wise to offer immediate cash compensation to avoid the possibility of having to pay a huge award if an exonerated person sued for damages. Nationwide, such awards have ranged from $300,000 to more than $10 million.

If convicted criminals owe a debt to society, does society owe a debt to the wrongly convicted?

We believe it does, and this legislation may be the answer.