Why Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe won't pardon the West Memphis Three

Supporters of the West Memphis Three are pushing for full exoneration now that the trio is free. But Gov. Mike Beebe, for one, will not consider pardoning them until they finish their 10-year suspended sentences or new evidence comes to light.

Danny Johnston/AP
Damien Echols (r.) and his wife, Lorri, attend a news conference at the Craighead County Court House in Jonesboro, Ark., Aug. 19, after Echols and two other men known as the West Memphis Three entered guilty pleas to to crimes they say they did not commit in order to be set free.

Now that the West Memphis Three are free after 18 years in prison, supporters who insist they are innocent are pushing for the trio's complete exoneration.

Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley Jr. were released last week at a surprise hearing in Jonesboro, Ark., after important questions emerged about crime scene evidence and juror misconduct in their murder trial. The trio agreed to a legal maneuver that allowed them to maintain their innocence while acknowledging that prosecutors had enough evidence against them to find guilt.

In 1994, the three, then teenagers, were convicted of killing three 8-year-old Cub Scouts in West Memphis, Ark. Mr. Echols was sentenced to death row, while Messrs. Baldwin and Misskelley received life sentences without parole.

But the movement that helped to free the West Memphis Three is now demanding that Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe (D) pardon them.

So far, the governor has dismissed such an idea. The plea bargain includes a 10-year suspended sentence for each man, and each will have to serve the time before Governor Beebe considers a pardon, says Matt DeCample, the governor’s spokesman. Beebe, now in his second term, leaves office in 2014.

Pressing for a pardon is just one way that supporters of the West Memphis Three are trying to clear the group's names.

The three themselves intend to continue an investigation into the crime to "develop new evidence of their innocence,” says Lonnie Soury, spokesperson for West Memphis Three and an adviser to the defense team.

Peter Jackson, director of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, said this week that he will continue to pay for more evidence testing and investigations. Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, Dixie Chicks singer Natalie Maines, and actor Johnny Depp have also offered support over the years.

Meanwhile, supporters from around the world continue to make $5 and $10 contributions to the cause, says Capi Peck, founder of Arkansas Take Action, a local activist group.

Ms. Peck and her allies face headwinds.

As for a potential pardon, the process is lengthy. An application must be filed, which the parole board then examines. The board makes a recommendation to the governor, who has 240 days to respond. He can request the pardon, deny it, or take no action. If he takes no action, the applicant can reapply immediately. If he denies it, the applicant must wait four years to reapply.

“He has issued more than 400 pardons, but every one of those pardons have been someone who has completed all terms of their sentence, be that parole, probation, fines, or suspended sentences,” Mr. DeCample says. “He has never given a pardon in a homicide case.”

So far, the three have not filed any paperwork for pardons.

DeCample says if someone else is convicted of the crime, the governor will take a fresh look at the case.

Prosecutor Scott Ellington says he, too, is willing to study any new compelling evidence offered by the defense team – and not individuals trying to solve the crime on their own – that shows someone else is involved in the case. He says that the state crime lab is willing to run the results from the defense team against the Combined DNA Index System, or CODUS, to exclude crime lab employees and all criminals in the system.

But Mr. Ellington still believes the three men are guilty.

“I do not plan on reopening this case,” he says.

But that only fuels activists, especially on the Internet, where a virtual vigil continues to burn for the West Memphis Three.

“We are not going away,” Peck says. “I can promise you that.”

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