2011: An Alford plea & the release of the WM3
from jail. "Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory" movie.
Activities during: 2011:
The WM3 were all teenagers when they were arrested. They spent about half their
life in jail. Although their innocence has now been shown beyond reasonable doubt, their release from
jail was still in doubt until the summer of 2011.
A compromise agreement was reached that preserved the reputation of the faulty "justice" system of Arkansas while allowing the three innocent men to go free. Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley entered an Alford plea (a.k.a. Kennedy plea and Alford guilty plea). This is a plea in which the defendant(s) claim their innocence of the crime. However, they acknowledge that the state has sufficient evidence so that if a trial were conducted, the prosecution could probably convince a judge or jury of the defendant(s) guilt. It is considered a guilty plea by the courts, and is rarely used. The the WM3 were heavily motivated to agree to the Alford plea in order to get Damien Echols released from death row. The families of the three victims, Steve Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore, were informed in advance of the agreement but were not asked to approve it.
Damien Echols told the judge: "I am innocent of these charges but I am entering an Alford guilty plea." Later, he discussed the deal, saying: "It's not perfect. It's not perfect by any means. But it at least brings closure to some areas and some aspects."
In a press release, he said:
"I cannot believe that this day has come. Despite my innocence, I doubted whether the system would ever actually set me free. I have spent half my life behind bars as Prisoner No. SK 931. To my wife Lorri Davis, my attorneys, friends, and supporters from Little Rock to Seattle to New Zealand, thanks to all of you who have stood by us and helped make this day a reality."
Jason Baldwin said,
"As an innocent man, this is not what I thought justice would look like. But I am incredibly grateful for our freedom, and for all those countless people who worked so tirelessly to help us obtain it."
Jessie Misskelley said: "Although I am innocent, this plea is in my best interest."
They were released on 2011-AUG-19 after having spent almost half of their life in prison for a crime that they didn't commit.
Lorri Davis, Echols’s wife, said:
"We could not have gotten to this point without the support of so many of our good friends and family, the incredible legal work, and all those who have stood behind us throughout this entire ordeal. I would not have been able to do this without the strength, tenacity, discipline and intelligence that Damien has exhibited over all these years. That is the man who he is."
Echols’s attorney. Stephen Braga, of the law firm of Ropes & Gray, said:
"This is a compromise resolution which brings an end to eighteen years of litigation and, most importantly, frees the West Memphis 3 to reclaim their lives. Damien, Jason and Jessie maintain their innocence, but recognize that it was in their 'best interests' to accept a certain resolution like this before another eighteen years passed while they were fighting for their freedom in an imperfect criminal justice system." 4
As part of the agreement, they are free and are not subject to parole restrictions. However, they have been placed on ten years' probation. 5
Prosecutor Scott Ellington said: "I believe that it would be practically impossible after 18 years to put on a proper trial in this case. ... I believe this case is closed and there are no other individuals involved."
The WM3 plan to continue working in the future to clear their names.
Damien Echols issued a personal letter of thanks to his supporters:
"To all my friends and family, my attorneys and advocates, and to those of you from every corner of this earth who have stood beside us these long years, please know that I will forever be indebted to all of you for helping me to become a free man. Each and every day I was the beneficiary of acts of kindness and humanity from people of all walks of life, of all ages, nationalities, religions and political persuasions. The enormity of the support Lorri and I received throughout this struggle is humbling.
I have now spent half my life on death row. It is a torturous environment that no human being should have to endure, and it needed to end. I am innocent, as are Jason and Jessie, but I made this decision because I did not want to spend another day of my life behind those bars. I want to live and to continue to fight for our innocence. Sometimes justice is neither pretty nor is it perfect, but it was important to take this opportunity to be free.
I am not alone as there are tens of thousand of men and woman in this country who have been wrongfully convicted, forced into a false confession, sentenced to death or a lifetime in prison. I am hopeful that one day they too will be able stand with their friends and family to declare their innocence.
This whole experience has taught me much about life, human nature, American justice, survival and transcendence.
I will hopefully take those lessons with me as I embark on the next chapter in my journey and along the way look forward to enjoying some of those simple things in life like spending Christmastime, Halloween and my birthday with those I love." 6
The following is a one and a half minute trailer from the documentary movie Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory.
The documentary had its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in 2011-SEP. It was also shown in the New York City film festival in the Fall. 7 On AUG-19, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky -- the creators of all three HBO documentaries -- were back in the courtroom, creating a new ending for the movie that includes the WM3's release from prison.
Berlinger and Sinofsky were originally asked by HBO to make a single documentary, based on media articles. The Toronto Star reports:
"Initially, it seemed an open and shut case: a brutal crime with the eight-year-olds murdered, hog-tied and mutilated in a drainage ditch.
Originally they had planned to tell the tale of a story of disaffected youth, exploring how three kids could be so rotten and murder three children, reports Deadline.com. But then they met Damien Echols and observed what was going on and reached a very different conclusion. The story became one about the miscarriage of justice.
'The local press found it much easier to tell a devil-worshipping story than to do hard journalism, and in a Bible-thumping part of the country, prosecutors painted this picture of satanic panic,' said Berlinger in an interview. 'It led to the convictions.'
According to Berlinger, Echols was his own worst enemy – a narcissistic teen who enjoyed the attention of the case because he didn’t think it was possible he could be convicted. The filmmaker described him as an outsider who would have been normal in New York or L.A. His love of heavy metal music and dressing in black made him seem weird and at odds with the fundamentalist community he lived in.
The first HBO film, Paradise Lost, documented a trial that was short on evidence but full of allegations that police coerced testimony and jury misconduct. They had expected it to blow the lid off the case, but not much happened. So they made the second and the third film in hopes of getting the trio freed. 8