Case background on the freeing of the "West Memphis Three"
Statement of the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth, Co-Counsel for Damien Echols
Eighteen long years ago, three teenagers from West Memphis, ArkansasDamien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley, Jr.were arrested and charged with the horrific murders of three eight-year-old boys.
After hours of police questioning, seventeen-year-old Jessie Misskelleywhose mental retardation made him think and view the world like a seven-year-old confessed to the murders and implicated Jason and Damien too. His confession was the primary evidence against the Three.
Jessie Misskelley's confession is not and has never been believable. He was not able to describe the murders with any accuracy. In fact, his confession was littered with mistakes, including the following:
- Jessie claimed that he, Damien, and Jason accosted the victims in broad daylight at 9:00 AM on May 5, 1993, despite proof that the victims were all safely in school at that time. The crime actually happened at night, between 6 PM on May 5th and the early morning hours of the 6th.
- Jessie could not describe the bizarre way in which the victims had been tied, foot-to-hand, using their own shoelaces. Instead, he told police that their hands had not been bound at all and that rope was used to restrain their feet.
Why did Jessie Misskelley confess to a crime he did not commit? Like many juveniles, he couldn't withstand the pressures of police interrogation. Police officers are trained to apply intense psychological pressure tactics during interrogations; but as the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized, those tactics are so powerful that they can cause even the innocent to confess.1 In Jessie's case, we know that the following tactics were used:
- Jessie's interrogation appears to have lasted over twelve hoursfar longer than the average interrogation, which lasts only 1.6 hours.
- Before Jessie confessed, the police told him (falsely) that he had failed a lie detector test. This interrogation tactic has been linked to many infamous false confessions, including several from children.
Importantly, Jessie's interrogation was not electronically recorded in its entirety. Only bits and pieces were recorded, while the main pressure tactics occurred after police turned off the recorder. If the entire interrogation had been recorded eighteen years ago, we could have identified all the different types of pressure that police applied to Jessie Misskelley, Jr. and all the different facts that police fed to Jessieand eighteen years ago, we would have known to throw that confession out because it was coerced and unreliable. Right now, the Arkansas Supreme Court is considering whether to adopt a rule that would recommend that all interrogations be recorded, start to finish. We urge West Memphis Three supporters and Arkansans to write the Court in support of a rule that would require, not recommend, that all interrogations be videotaped.2
Despite all the problems with Jessie's confession, this case was considered closed from the moment Jessie Misskelley opened his mouth. Most people think of confessions as extraordinarily powerful evidence of guilt; indeed, it doesn't make sense to many of us that an innocent person would falsely confess. Yet Jessie is far from the only one. Of the 273 Americans who have been proven innocent by DNA evidence so far, a full quarter of them falsely confessed during police interrogations. And as the U.S. Supreme Court has also recognized, juveniles are far more likely than adults to falsely confess during police interrogations.3 In fact, research conducted by the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth has found that juveniles are between two and three times more likely to falsely confess than adults.4
The Constitution guarantees every one of us the right to face our accusers in court. Because Jessie bravely refused to testify against Damien and Jason, the law of the land prohibited prosecutors from using Jessie's confession against them. Without that confession, however, there was no real evidence against Damien or Jason. So why were they convicted? We have recently learned that the jury foreman was so frustrated with the lack of evidence that he brought Jesse's confession into the jury deliberations and persuaded the jury to convict Damien because of the confession. Of course, if Jessie had taken the stand and accused Damien and Jason under oath and in person, then attorneys could have cross-examined him in open court to show the jury the problems with his confessionbut since that never happened, the jurors never learned about all the reasons to disbelieve it. The frightening result was a death sentence for Damien Echols and life in prison for Jason Baldwinnot to mention life in prison for Jessie Misskelley as well.
The injustice of the West Memphis Three's convictions galvanized a global movement to free them. Since recent DNA testing has showed that none of the Three were at the crime scene, this movement has only gained in power and moral authority. We are proud to say that today, the State of Arkansas has finally realized that the only decent thing to do is to release Damien, Jason, and Jessie. After so much faith and work from so many people who have written, blogged, sung, spoken, prayed, and believed the words "Free the West Memphis Three", we can now finally say together: The West Memphis Three are Free.
For more information on the West Memphis Three, juvenile interrogations, and false confessions, please contact Laura Nirider, Staff Attorney at the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 312-503-2204.
1 Corley v. United States, 129 S. Ct. 1558 (2009) (citing Steven A. Drizin & Richard A. Leo, The Problem of False Confessions in the Post-DNA World, 82 N.C. L. Rev. 891, 907 (2004), for the proposition that "mounting empirical evidence" shows that "a frighteningly high percentage of people" falsely confess during police interrogations).
2 For the proposed rule as currently drafted, visit http://courts.arkansas.gov/announcements/ In%20re%20Sup.%20Ct.%20Comm.%20on%20Crim.%20Prac..pdf.
3 The U.S. Supreme Court has found that the risk of false confession "is all the more troublingand all the more acutewhen the subject of custodial interrogation is a juvenile." J.D.B. v. North Carolina, June 16, 2011, slip op. at 6 (citing Brief of the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth et al. as Amici Curiae).
4 See Joshua A. Tepfer, Laura H. Nirider, & Lynda Tricarico, Arresting Development: Convictions of Innocent Youth, 62 Rutgers. L. Rev. 887 (2010).