Saturday, August 27, 2011

WM3: A Personal Perspective

Even on weekend mornings, in which I could stay in bed and sleep, I wake up a bit after 5am. It's still cold and dark, and the pool is not open yet, so there is no hurry. This evening we have dinner guests and are planning to watch Paradise Lost, a documentary about the recently released West Memphis Three. Next week I'll be showing the same movie to my seminar students. It's not an easy movie to watch, and for the most part what I remember from the last time I saw it are the horrifying crime scene photos, shown at the very beginning with a Metallica soundtrack. This is why I don't buy the radical criminology paradigm wholesale, but find myself more in Jock Young's camp of radical realism. Crime is real and victimization is real. It's not all socially constructed. Someone did murder those kids and abuse them in horrifying ways, leaving them in the woods, their little bodies in deplorable condition. But I believe, as do many others, that that someone was not Damien Echols, nor was it Jason Baldwin or Jesse Misskelley.

I don't remember whether I knew about the case when I was in law school in Israel. It was in the early 1990s, and Damien Echols and his supposed accomplices were arrested when I was in my second year. Echols and I are the same age. Since 1993, I graduated law school, worked criminal defense for five years, changed countries several times, finished two advanced degrees, handled health and family changes, made many new friends, and have been very blessed in a life of research, pedagogy, political action, endurance sports, and music of all kinds. Throughout this time, Damien Echols lived on Death Row in Arkansas, his skin turning translucent white from the lack of sun. He seemed almost extraterrestrial last week, giving interviews, pale as death itself and wearing dark sunglasses to protect himself--from what? The sun, the people, the abundant stimuli of which he was deprived for eighteen years?--sitting by his wife and co-defendants and quietly proclaiming his innocence, as he had done throughout his arrest, trial, and lengthy incarceration.

The documentary is rather long and includes extensive in-court footage. Seeing it years before the Alford plea that released the three defendants was like witnessing a dreadful train wreck in progress. Richard Ofshe, an expert on false confessions and memory fallacies, testifying about the many problems with Jesse Misskelley's confession; the Arkansas prosecutor sneering at him, saying, "we're not in Berkeley." The "cult expert", on the witness stand with his mail-order degree, blaming the defendants for a murder showing supposed Satanic features, as they were the only kids in town who wore black and listened to heavy metal. The complete lack of physical evidence.

Several commentators said this week that the DNA evidence "excluded" the defendants' involvement in the crime .That's not true, but it's as good as true. DNA was found at the crime scene, and it does not belong to any of the defendants. It is, of course, possible that the defendants were at the scene of the crime and did not leave DNA there, but it is highly unlikely. It was a messy set for extensive, cruel carnage, and high school boys would probably not have the sophistication and know-how to avoid leaving any marks. So, the convictions rested on the confession of Misskelley, a frightened boy with low IQ, pushed and manipulated by the police, who planted details of the crime within his confession.

The big mystery, of course, is the Alford plea. It doesn't exactly mean the defendants have pled guilty. Alford pleas allow defendants to maintain their innocence while acknowledging that there is factual basis for their convictions. Why the state offered the deal is a no-brainer. The plea explicitly rules out the possibility of a 1983 lawsuit, which would entitle the three defendants to a hefty sum in damages. Moreover, it allows the state actors to escape accountability for what appears to have been a terrible miscarriage of justice. The defendants' decision to accept the plea makes sense when considering the alternative, but raises some serious questions. Their new hearing, complete with DNA evidence, was to be held in a few months (and might still be held.) I can only imagine the horrors of repeated miscarriages of justice would drive one to admit anything, as long as it entails a certain release from prison, and particularly death row, rather than take one's chances on one more hearing. Nonetheless, odds seemed better than ever that the miscarriages would finally be examined and fixed. One can only imagine the set of cost-benefit considerations that went into deciding whether to agree to this plea.

So, this week my friends, my students and I will revisit a particularly dark chapter in the book of American criminal justice, and will have an opportunity to ponder upon the inevitability of human cruelty, alienation, and hatred, and the destruction it brings to lives and communities.

"This planet upon which I live is ostracized from God." --Jacob Wassermann, Das Gold von Caxamalca

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