West Memphis Three: Three men convicted, DNA evidence reopens case
For the first time in Arkansas, convicted murderers prevail in seeking review of DNA evidence. Such reviews have exonerated 261 others, but will it help West Memphis Three?
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Last year, however, the Boston Bar Association called for such a law to be enacted after a 20-person task force created a road map to reduce wrongful convictions.Skip to next paragraph
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"It's quite common in our experience to find prosecutors who stonewall the most persuasive evidence and cling to a conviction," says Rob Warden, executive director for Northwestern University's Center on Wrongful Convictions. "Once you have been convicted of a crime, the standard of proof is infinitely higher to acquit you than it was to convict you in the first place."
Groups like Northwestern's and the Innocence Project have cast a spotlight on efforts to reform the judicial system. Earlier this year, members of Congress introduced bipartisan legislation to create a commission to study the causes of wrongful convictions and to recommend strategies for reshaping the criminal justice system. There is a similar bill in the US Senate. The American Bar Association is also pushing for reform.
According to the website False Confessions, police-induced false confessions are among the leading causes of wrongful convictions, especially in murder cases.
In the West Memphis Three case, Mr. Misskelley, who was later diagnosed as mentally handicapped, confessed to the crime and accused Mr. Echols and Mr. Baldwin. He later recanted that confession.
A similar high-profile case has been made into the feature film "Conviction," about Betty Anne Waters, whose brother Kenny was convicted of murdering a Massachusetts woman in 1980. In a quest to prove her brother's innocence, Ms. Waters attended law school and fought to win his release after 18 years in prison.
Retrials can be complex and costly, say legal experts, for both the state and the defendant. A judge will likely hear the West Memphis Three evidentiary hearing early next year and decide if new trials should be granted. The state attorney general's office will have to defend the convictions.
The West Memphis Three case has attracted high-profile attention over the past 17 years. HBO has produced two documentaries about it. Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder has been lobbying for a new trial since 1994, and actor Johnny Depp is a West Memphis Three advocate. He appeared in Little Rock this summer for a benefit concert along with Vedder and Dixie Chicks singer Natalie Maines.
The recent Arkansas Supreme Court ruling could open the door for similar cases, but defendants, especially the 42 on the state's death row, will need lawyers, DNA testing, and money for both. Not every case is fortunate enough to have celebrity backing that helps to pay for new hearings, says Ms. Epps.
"People in prison who don't have celebrity connections and money don't have a prayer," she says. "If they hadn't had that documentary at the first, it would be over. The West Memphis Three would be just more people in prison claiming they didn't do it."