West Memphis Three's Freedom Means Hope to Innocents in Prison Everywhere

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Today's news that the West Memphis Three -- Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, and Jason Baldwin -- have been freed from prison in Arkansas after agreeing to an extraordinary plea deal, should give hope to all those falsely accused and imprisoned, including those in Arizona's prisons.

Since these three men were tried and found guilty of the 1993 homicides of three young boys in West Memphis, Arkansas, the case has been notoriously known as a modern Salem Witch Trial, with accusations of Satanic rituals and appeals to the prejudices of the conservative Bible belt, where wearing black, listening to heavy metal and/or reading Aleister Crowley was (and sometimes still is) evidence of Devil-worship.

The WM3 trials have resulted in two mesmerizing documentaries, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills and Paradise Lost 2: Revelations, as well as the non-fiction account Devil's Knot, by crusading investigative journalist Mara Leveritt, and appeals by countless celebrities and activists, petitioning for the release of the WM3. These have included Henry Rollins, Eddie Vedder, Margaret Cho and Winona Ryder, among others.

The WM3 were released a little before noon today, under the conditions of an agreement with prosecutors, described by Leveritt in an item for the weekly Arkansas Times:

"Circuit Judge David Laser accepted a plea agreement worked out between the state attorney general's office, the local prosecutor and attorneys representing the men, who have spent nearly 18 years in prison. Under the agreement, called an Alford plea, Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley told the court they would plead guilty to reduced charges of first-degree, rather than capital murder, while continuing to maintain that they are innocent. An Alford plea allows defendants to assert their innocence, while conceding that the state has enough evidence to convict them."

She further explained that,

"With this agreement, Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley leave court as convicted murderers who have served an amount of time in prison that state officials accept as sufficient. However, all three preserve the right to attempt to clear their names in the future by bringing new evidence to court."

That agreement is unusual, especially given that Echols had been sentenced to death. 

Though for many Echols has been an icon, a symbol of the price of nonconformity in small-town America, Baldwin may be the real hero, as Max Brantley at the Arkansas Times noted of a news conference the three held today following their release:

"At the news conference, Echols embraced Jason Baldwin, who refused a deal to testify against Echols in their 1994 trial and who joined the plea deal on Echols' behalf though he objected to being forced to plead guilty."

I feel honored to have visited Echols in prison for a piece I did for the LA Weekly back in 2003 on the effort to free him. I also interviewed Echols in 2000 for Salon.com, though I'm not tooting my horn. Scores of journalists have written about this case, Leveritt being the most important, bar none.

To be honest, after all these years, I doubted if the WM3 would ever walk the earth as free men.

But this result, though imperfect, is a lesson to all of us that such injustices can only be overcome through constant vigilance and advocacy. There are innocents, too, in Arizona's prison system. 

The first that comes to mind is Courtney Bisbee, currently doing 11 years in the Arizona Department of Corrections for a child molestation that did not occur. Though she is not on death row, as was Echols, her case is a shocking example of how dishonest cops, indifferent judges and incompetent attorneys can all conspire to put innocent persons behind bars and keep them there indefinitely.

For more on her case, please see the Free Courtney Bisbee Web site.

As any defense attorney will tell you, it is extraordinarily difficult to free someone from prison after they have been convicted. The trial's the thing, and what comes after it can shuffle along for years or decades without satisfactory results.

That's why activists such as Phoenix's Peggy Plews of the Prison Abolitionist blog, are so important. They fight for the humane treatment of the imprisoned, whether guilty or innocent. 

And considering that one of those innocents could one day be you or me, we should all be grateful to Plews and others who do similar work.

As Jesse Jackson was wont to say, "Keep hope alive." The freeing of the WM3 just did that, for all of us.

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