Many readers will be familiar with the basic facts of the case. On May 5, 1993, three Cub Scouts went missing. The bodies of Michael Moore, Christopher Byers and Stevie Branch were found murdered and mutilated in a ditch. Investigators believed the crime to be the work of a satanic cult, and a juvenile case officer provided the name of then-18-year-old Damien Echols, whose trouble with authorities culminated in a stint in a psychiatric hospital.
Authorities questioned an acquaintance of Echols’ — Jessie Misskelley, a mentally handicapped teenager with an IQ of just 72. During the 12 hours of investigation, Misskelley implicated himself, Echols and Jason Baldwin. Although Misskelley recanted his confession and refused to testify against Echols and Baldwin, a juror’s notes revealed the jury foreman added Misskelley’s “confession” to deliberations. All three were convicted, with Misskelley and Baldwin condemned to life in prison and Echols to death row.
The West Memphis 3 were recently freed through a rare legal device called an Alford Plea. The upshot is that, although Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley could continue to maintain their innocence, they were required to plead guilty. And, although prosecutor Scott Ellington stated he believes the men to be guilty, the three were required to sign a waiver promising not to sue the state.
For a death row inmate, Damien Echols was comparatively lucky (although I’m reluctant to apply that word to someone who lost years of his life due to a flawed law enforcement system). Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley were the subject of the HBO documentary “Paradise Lost,” showcasing the flaws in their cases and trials. Since it aired, DNA evidence and new witnesses have “not only supported the innocence of all three men, but have pointed to other people who were not investigated when the murders occurred. More important, the crucial theory of the case was, in large part, debunked by leading medical experts. The mutilation of the bodies of the boys — believed by investigators to be caused by knives as part of a ritual — was more likely to be the result of animal predation that occurred after the children were killed.”
Furthermore, despite an unsurprising suicide attempt via overdose, Echols was able to maintain a modicum of sanity. As he reported during a televised interview with Piers Morgan, “The only thing you can do to maintain your sanity is not think about the case and not think about what’s happening to you. You have to create your own world in there or you’ll go insane from that stuff.”
Still, states practicing the death penalty are hardly reluctant to apply the ultimate punishment to the mentally ill, despite the fact that Ford v. Wainwright ruled such punishments to be unconstitutional. Moreover, according to Amnesty International, “The National Association of Mental Health has estimated that five to ten percent of those on death row have serious mental illness.” To paraphrase Echols, despite the media’s attempt to paint those on death row as evil Hannibal Lecter-type geniuses, the capital punishment ranks are packed with the mentally handicapped, schizophrenics and lost souls.
In 2009, the United States executed 52 inmates. America ranked fifth out of countries carrying out the death penalty, preceded by China, which executed thousands, Iran at 388, Iraq at 120 and Saudi Arabia at 69. None of these are countries whose company we want to keep in terms of human rights. While it is commendable that our justice system finally found a means through which to release the West Memphis 3, many other innocents (and even guilty) incarcerated men and women face an end that much of the rest of the civilized world has already dismissed as barbaric.