Thursday, August 18, 2011, at about 8:00 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time. I’d just arrived home from my night job and hooked up my laptop computer by my bed, inserting the modem and connecting to the Internet. First I downloaded my email, noting that Fiondil had returned the last chapter and epilogue for this story with suggestions for corrections and revisions. I swiftly set to work to see the two chapters amended, adding some more changes I’d decided were needed as well, and then logged onto the Many Paths to Tread archive in order to add them and the Author’s Notes to the longer work.
Once done with that and the posting of an unrelated story, I checked into the WM3 Discussion board hosted by YUKU to see if Dollparts had managed to obtain and post the transcript of a portion of a statement made by Jessie Miskelley she’d indicated she intended to acquire from Jessie’s original defense counsel, Dan Stidham. It wasn’t there, but there was a new thread entitled “Breaking: Surprise wm3 hearing tomorrow 8/19/2011.” The first post in the thread merely offered a link, and when I clicked on it I found an article from an Arkansas news agency indicating that the Honorable David Laser had announced there would be an unexpected hearing on Friday, August 19, 2011, regarding the case, and that all three of the convicted men would be attending. Laser was the judge appointed to take over the case once Judge David Burnett, who’d officiated over the original trials and all appeals and Rule 37 hearings since 1994, actively began running for a seat on the Arkansas State Senate and thus was no longer able by law to serve as an acting judge. I copied the text of the article and posted it on the board so others could see it without needing to click on the link, and posted it also to the WM3 email discussion list I’ve belonged to for the last twelve or so years.
Response was phenomenal. Suddenly everyone was finding articles by news agencies and video from television stations indicating that it was possible that at least two of the three men could be released on Friday. Then family members of the victims began making statements on the boards and to reporters indicating they’d been advised that this was possible, although all had been warned by Judge Laser not to give details prematurely to the press or other outsiders. Finally official word was given that Jason Baldwin, Damien Echols, and Jessie Miskelley had been transferred from the maximum security prisons where they’d been most recently held to the Craighead County Jail in Jonesboro, and that they had been directed to take with them all of their personal property. That such a thing would happen to one who’d spent eighteen years on Death Row was almost unprecedented; and in the few cases where this had happened in the past it had always indicated exoneration of the condemned man.
We saw the transfer orders for Jessie and Damien, and finally the one for Jason as well. Rumors were rife that they would be forced to admit guilt in the commission of the murders in return for release from prison on the basis of time served. Supporters and NONs expressed elation, frustration, suspicion, dismay, joy, and a host of other emotions and concerns. And we awaited the two hearings scheduled to take place on Friday morning, first a private one to take place in Judge Laser’s chambers in the courthouse involving the three men, their families, their lawyers, the prosecutors, and the families of the victims, to be followed at about eleven by a more public hearing in a courtroom that could possibly seat only about a hundred people.
Cruecial could not get into the courtroom as she’s always done before, so we didn’t have our usual insider slipping us tidbits via her smartphone as we waited. I managed to fall asleep while waiting for the hearings, and woke at noon to find that Damien, Jason, and Jessie, surrounded by lawyers and family, were giving a news conference explaining that they had accepted what is called an Alford plea, a move in which they admitted that the prosecution has sufficient evidence that it might lead to a ruling of Guilty should they go again to trial, but still insisting that they were factually innocent. Such plea-bargains are not uncommon—the accused isn’t admitting guilt but indicating he doesn’t want to risk the possible vagaries of a trial enough to possibly end up in prison or worse should the judge prove biased or the jury prove amenable to manipulation by the prosecution or one of their own members—both of which had proved true in the original trials for these three men.
What was unprecedented, however, was that this plea was being offered them after they’d already been convicted and had spent years in prison, with Damien in isolation in a death cell for eighteen years. This plea has always previously been offered in lieu of going to trial to begin with, not in lieu of going through the process of the scheduled evidentiary hearings in December with the likelihood of orders to retry them. In return for accepting the Alford plea, their sentences would be suspended and they would be immediately released with no restrictions on their ability to travel.
Jason had not wished to take this plea-bargain, wanting to go forward through the coming hearings and possibly a retrial, intent on having his name fully cleared. But, on hearing that Damien has not been in good health and having experience with the health care within the Arkansas prison system, he finally decided that, for Damien’s sake, he would accept the plea. It was possible that had he not done so, he would have remained in prison and the other two could find themselves returning to the custody of the Arkansas Justice System, with Damien always in danger of returning to Death Row once more.
The state of Arkansas could save face, implying that they were being magnanimous in allowing the three to go free in spite of never being proved innocent in a court of law; and they could always further imply that the three were admitting the possibility of guilt. This would save the state of Arkansas the expense of a retrial it could easily (and embarrassingly) have lost, and would prevent the three men from being able to sue the state for wrongful conviction and imprisonment. It would also, they hoped, allow the prosecutor to campaign for a seat on the U.S. Senate and the state Attorney General to make a bid for governor without further embarrassment from outside sources constantly throwing the situation of the West Memphis Three in their faces in public forums. And the three men could at last leave prison bars and life behind them and seek to forge new lives on the outside.
So, now they are free, and months before the expected December hearings, and without having to wait while the prosecutors possibly challenged Laser’s expected order to retry, followed by who knew how long before the state quit fighting the inevitable and allowed them to walk out of their cells for the final time.
The NONs are most upset with the situation, and most are trying to put the spin on it that they “admitted guilt” in signing the Alford plea, or at least that they still haven’t had their names fully cleared.
Many of the supporters have pledged to continue helping as they can, and both Damien and Jason have indicated they intend to continue working to clear the names of all three, but at least now they can do so from the outside, taking a direct role in the process.
So, most of us are feeling ecstatic, and shocked to find that, all of a sudden, our immediate goal has been reached, and Jessie, Jason, and Damien are at last out of prison. And so it is that on August 19, 2011, Damien Echols was able to take the woman he married while on Death Row into his embrace and finally know the joy of his marriage to her. She gave up a promising career as an architect in New York to move to Arkansas and pursue his freedom. I suspect he’s wondering what he can do now to fully repay her for all she has sacrificed for his benefit.
One other surprising experience I knew was an unexpected pride in the sight of big, blustering John Mark Byers, Christopher’s adoptive stepfather, insisting furiously that until the real killer is arrested and prosecuted, he won’t feel that justice is done. He’s known since 2007 that those he’d thought had killed his son were actually innocent. Now he wants the whole world to acknowledge it, and for the real killer to know the punishment he’s earned. To find that I actually now respect him is a bonus I’d never expected to know. But there’s no question that for the last four years he’s worked tirelessly toward clearing the names of Jason, Jessie, and Damien while seeing the actual killer publicly recognized and made to stand trial, and he does not want for that man to continue to go free.
And now we need to remember those three little boys, Michael Moore in his Cub Scout uniform; Steve Branch on that shiny new bike his grandpa had just given him; and Christopher Byers and the two dollars worth of candy he’d just kiped from his older brother. Someone killed them by striking each repeatedly on the back of their heads, and that someone has not yet been arrested or prosecuted. Until that day comes, the questions will continue to remain, and their families will always feel that their sons are unable to truly rest in peace.