This past Friday morning saw a fascinating collision of my three past lives with the release of the West Memphis 3.
Back in ’94, I was a law student, closely following this (and other, to be sure) major trials across the country. But something about this one nipped at my core in ways OJ and Susan Smith just didn’t. Probably because I, like the defendants, had listened to Metallica (hell, I got backstage at one of their concerts) and had read everything I could get my hands on regarding a variety of religions, including Buddhism, Wicca, and Judaism.
Through the years, I went from “skeptical of their innocence” to “rationally certain the verdict was against the weight of the evidence” to “absolutely convinced of their innocence,” and there I stayed for the last several years, particularly after the DNA evidence was tested and failed to connect any of them with the crime scene or the victims. (But did link one of the boys’ stepfather, a strange man named Terry Hobbs, to the scene.)
So when I first saw the web rumblings of a “mystery hearing” scheduled for Friday morning in this case, I was immediately intrigued. The rumors from an unnamed source “closely linked” to the case seemed to be suggesting something called an Alford plea was in the works, but damned if I could figure out how that would be the case.
Here’s a little legal tidbit for you: Alford pleas are a weird little hybrid in American criminal law. What a defendant who takes an Alford plea is saying, essentially, is “I am 100% NOT GUILTY, however I recognize that the state has enough evidence that a jury might find me guilty, and I’m not willing to risk that.”
In my view, this is not a guilty plea. A guilty plea has a common requisite across state lines: that the defendant allocute in court to how he committed the crime. That’s not possible in an Alford plea.
However — and this is where it gets truly weird — the Alford plea istreated like a guilty plea for sentencing purposes.
So my inner ex-lawyer was trying to puzzle all this out Friday morning, seated at an imaginary table, surrounded by imaginary law books, pounding back the Peets Dark French Roast, sorting out what the ramifications of this kind of resolution might be, and where (if anywhere) there was any precedent for it.
(Answer: to my knowledge, none. Certainly folks have been released from death row — usually due to DNA evidence, often pending retrial. But that’s not what happened here — there was no finding of innocence or a grant of a new trial. Arkansas corrections officials have verified this hasn’t happened in that state before. I’m still looking at other states. I can’t help it. You can take the girl out of the law…)
So that was my inner ex-lawyer, and we’ll leave her there, surrounded by books and notes and a half-empty coffee cup.
My inner writer, on the other hand, was just captivated by the circumstances these three guys found themselves in. Four days before, one was on death row, having been there for over 17 years and thus almost certainly facing the needle sooner rather than later. The other two were serving life sentences, and had been in prison half of their lives.
Now, they were facing release. Into this world, this world that had changed so dramatically since they last saw a sunrise. This world has smart phones, iPods, an internet that would have dropped jaws back in 1994 … One (Damien Echols) was married in the intervening time, and the others have families whose lives revolved around freeing their sons and brothers, but otherwise continued after their incarceration.
Damien, when asked for one televised interview what he missed the most, said, “Rain. I miss the feel of rain on my face.” Fitting, then, I suppose, that it was threatening to storm all Friday morning while they were going through the legal two-step that would let them walk free.
People are different. Everything’s different.
My inner writer found herself wondering, “What happens when the camera crews leave? What happens tomorrow morning? The morning after that?”
We’ll leave the inner writer-me sitting in an imaginary hammock, enjoying the mountain breeze with her pen and her comp book, furiously scribbling thoughts and impressions and character studies.
Now, meet my inner ex-actress. She was wondering one thing: “Who’s gonna play Echols’ wife, Lorri, in the movie?”
Yeah, my inner ex-actress is a shallow little bitch.
Moving back to the bird’s-eye view for a moment: all of these competing lines of mental inquiry converged in my head Friday morning and bounced off each other like some random game of laser tag was going on up there, when one thing above all others jumped up, leaping out of the fray, hovering up there like the sun.
And it was this: “Jessie Misskelley needs some help, fast.”
What I saw that prompted that thought: At the press conference following the hearing, the focus jumped from Echols to Baldwin to the lawyers back to Echols back to Baldwin back to Echols hugging Baldwin … skipping right over Misskelley, who sat huddled in the middle, in between Echols and Baldwin, hugging himself, his head bowed.
Then reports of what-happened-next came filtering in. Apparently Baldwin and Echols and their families/friends/lawyers spent the night in a posh hotel over the weekend.
Misskelley? Went … shopping for sunglasses.
If you know anything about the case, you’re probably aware that it was Misskelley’s “confession” that led to their convictions (completely improperly but that’s another post). He was interrogated for 12 hours, he had an IQ of 75, he had the equivalent mental functioning of a five-year-old, according to this current lawyer. What he said in that “confession” at least initially was so far afield from the facts known at the time that the judge refused to issue a warrant on its basis — it was that off the mark. Only after the police plied him with the answers they were seeking did he eventually (after two more tries) get it “right.”
OK, that much we know. Now, eighteen years later, what I want to know is: Does he blame himself?
Do the others blame him?
Is that why he was so silent at that press conference? Why he looks like he’s about to cry every time the camera panned to him? Why he wasn’t at the hotel with the others?
As for the way my brain worked on Friday, I guess, ultimately, that’s the way it should be — that people should matter more than issues or intellectual debates or creative projects, even, and that’s why this thought jumped over all the others.
On a more basic level, though, I hope I’m wrong in my suspicions. I hope he enjoys all the support the other two do. I hope they allget whatever help they need to readjust themselves to living in the rain and shopping for sunglasses.
(I’d have gone with the mirrored aviators, personally, but maybe that’s too close to “prison guard” for his comfort.)