Like most of Arkansas, I have watched the events taking place in east Arkansas during the last 24 hours in fascinating disbelief. The sudden agreement reached between Prosecutor Scott Ellington and the defense attorneys for the “West Memphis Three” that allowed them to plead guilty while proclaiming their innocence in exchange for their release from prison is shocking.
With all the questions that surround the events, one thing is absolutely certain – the Arkansas criminal justice system completely failed to bring justice for the brutal killing and torture of Stevie Branch, Michael Moore, and Christopher Byers – the three young boys who were brutally killed in West Memphis. The failure is clear and it is inexcusable.
I have absolutely zero idea if Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley are guilty or innocent. When the crime took place, I was student at Wynne High School about a 30-minute drive from West Memphis. The coverage was non-stop, and at that time, everyone believed they were guilty. But that is the fickle court of public opinion, which has dramatically shifted in the past 18 years.
What astounds me is the explanation from Ellington on behalf of the state of Arkansas.
“A 2010 Arkansas Supreme Court ruling brought to light the very real scenario that each of the defendants could likely receive a new trial. I believe that allegations of misconduct on behalf of a juror in the Echols-Baldwin trial would likely result in a new trial being ordered either by the circuit court or federal court. I further believe it would be practically impossible to put on a proper case against the defendants in this particular case after eighteen years of extended litigation. Even if the State were to prevail in a new trial, sentences could be different and the appeals process would begin all over again,” said Ellington in a statement released today.
Ellington explained that the unusual legal process called an “Alford plea” allowed the accused to enter a guilt plea, but still proclaim they are innocent of the crime. This plea protects the state from later being sued for wrongful imprisonment. Ellington still held firm that he believes all three – and only these three – were guilty of the crime of murdering Branch, Moore, and Byers. (Video of Ellington press conference from KAIT in Jonesboro.)
These second grade boys were around the same age as my oldest son when they were killed. The sad truth is that whoever is responsible for brutally killing them is free today. Ellington, speaking on behalf of the broken criminal justice system he represents, made it painfully obvious that the state is more concerned with protecting the state from a wrongful imprisonment suit than they are with bringing justice to their true killer or killers, whoever they are.
This is not justice, no matter how you view it.
UPDATE – Attorney General Dustin McDaniel released a statement saying, " I continue to believe that these defendants are guilty of the crimes for which they have now been twice convicted." He goes on to say that the plea argeement is the responsibility of Scott Ellington.
Arkansas State Rep. Hudson Hallum (D-West Memphis) released a strong statement today as well via Facebook saying he "has lost all faith in the justice system! They confessed after it happened, were convicted by a jury, and now admitted guilt but they were set free…that is (the most) pathetic thing I have ever heard. However, they will get their justice when they meet their maker."