Freedom at last!

On Friday August 19th, 2011, The West Memphis 3 were released from the Arkansas Correctional System after 18 years and 78 days of wrongful imprisonment for a crime they did not commit. This is by far the most exciting news of the weekend and was the cause of much celebration in my house on Saturday night. I have been following their story since about 1998 and never thought they’d actually be released. It is not an exoneration of their previous convictions, as they have taken an Alford Plea which records a guilty conviction against them whilst allowing them to maintain their protestations of innocence, while also preventing them from seeking any further recourse in the Arkansas criminal justice system. So it’s freedom, but it’s a long way from justice. Not for Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, and certainly not for Stevie Branch, Christopher Byers or Michael Moore, whose real killer has still not been brought to justice for his or her crimes. As far as I understand it, the case has been closed, so whoever killed those three little boys will never face what he or she did, and the WM3 will forever have a conviction of first degree murder against their names, despite never having committed the crimes they are convicted of committing.

So there is a long way to go yet, but on Friday Damien Echols walked out of solitary confinement and off death row. Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley walked away from life sentences. The right thing has been done, even if it’s been done in a pretty wrong-headed way.

And that is why I am happy. I saw a lot of myself in those boys when I first heard their story – they had long hair, wore a lot of black, liked to read about the occult and listen to heavy metal music. I was a similar sort of teenager and in different circumstances it could have been me hauled across the coals like that, all in the name of “Satanic Panic”.

 

Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley Jr. and Jason Baldwin on the day they were arrested – June 3, 1993.

 

Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley Jr. and Jason Baldwin, half a lifetime later, on the day of their release, August 19, 2011.

I have faced it, a life wasted.
I’m never going back again.
I escaped it, a life wasted.
I’m never going back again.
Having tasted, a life wasted.
I’m never going back again.
– Pearl Jam, Life Wasted

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