Reason prevails–but not in Arkansas

The cases bear remarkable similarities: A man who was a teenager at the time, convicted of a murder and sexual mutilation, without a piece of physical evidence tying him to the crime. The defendant’s drawings used against him at trial. Allegations that a public official lied under oath and failed to turn over to the defense crucial evidence that could have changed the verdict. Years spent in prison. Tireless supporters who believed that justice had not been served. New DNA tests. And, finally, evidence that pointed, not to the convicted man, but to someone else who was close to the victim.

Supporters of Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley will recognize those aspects of the case that has kept them in prison for the past 15 years. The other case is that of a Colorado man, Tim Masters, shown here with one of his lawyers. Fortunately for Masters, this is where the similarity between his case and that of the WM3 ends. That is because when prosecutors in Colorado were faced with the highly problematic conviction that had been won against Masters plus the new DNA evidence that pointed to someone else, they took the decent and logical step of asking a judge to release Masters from prison.

The judge agreed, and last January, Masters left the prison where he had been held for the past nine years. Prosecutors said they would then turn their attention to the suspect whose DNA was found on the victim. An investigation was also begun into allegations of official misconduct by the lead police investigator in the case and two former prosecutors who won the conviction against Masters. (Read more about the Masters case here)

What a shame that Arkansas officials have not seen fit to take similar reasonable action in the case of the WM3. Prosecuting Attorney Brent Davis, who won the convictions of Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley, still insists that those convictions were fair, despite innumerable flaws in the case—and now, even despite DNA evidence that points to different suspects. Arkansas’s attorney general, Dustin McDaniel, is equally dug-in.

Recent laboratory results from evidence collected at crime scene where three West Memphis children were found murdered failed to tie any of the three convicted men to the murders. Instead, two hairs that were collected at the scene were found to belong to the stepfather of one of the victims and a friend of that stepfather, who was with him on the night the children disappeared.

It would not have taken much beyond a quotient of courage for Davis and McDaniel to do what the prosecutors in Colorado did: admit that their case had fallen apart and ask a judge to allow the convicted men to be freed from prison. Instead, they bowed up and responded by claiming that Echols, whose case was at bar, must prove his “actual innocence.”

Never mind that there is still no evidence linking the WM3 to the murders, while there is DNA that links someone else to the very knots that bound the boys. “Those unremarkable results do not (and cannot) demonstrate [the convicted men’s] actual innocence,” state and local prosecutors argued in court documents earlier this month.

The American historian James Harvey Robinson wrote: “Most of our so-called reasoning consists in finding arguments for going on believing as we already do.” That appears not to be the case in Colorado, but sadly, it could be the motto of a number of Arkansas officials.