The West Memphis Three case was one of the most extraordinary in Arkansas history, if only for the amount of international attention it commanded and the events leading up to its bizarre conclusion — the now infamous Alford plea that allowed Jason Baldwin, Jessie Misskelley and Damien Echols to walk free after simultaneously pleading guilty and maintaining their innocence. But the details of the case, the events surrounding it and the media coverage of it all, from beginning to end, was very ordinary indeed.
Lonnie Soury knows a thing or two about wrongful convictions. Before signing on as a spokesman for Damien Echols, and now the rest of the WM3, Soury created the website falseconfessions.org and worked to free a New York man who spent 17 years in prison for a murder he did not commit. He says media coverage usually comes “full-circle” on these types of cases.
“My experience with two major wrongful convictions that I have worked on is that the media contributed to their wrongful convictions early on,” Soury says. “Then the media and the public came to look at the evidence like they hadn’t before and the reporting changed. The objectivity of the press changed and it made all the difference in the world. [In this case] it helped convince the people of Arkansas that maybe they needed to look at this case again. Once the people started doing that, then elected officials started doing it.”
David Protess says that’s typical. Protess is a professor of journalism at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and the president of the Chicago Innocence Project, a nonprofit investigative reporting group that looks into wrongful convictions. His reporting over the last 25 years has led to the exoneration of 12 innocent men, five of whom were on death row.
“There’s a predictable cycle and it happens in virtually every case, and it certainly happened in the West Memphis Three case,” Protess says. “It starts off with media hysteria. A horrific crime has been committed. Three young boys are slain and the story shocks the sensibility of the community. Often, journalists, who are part of that community, will report the most lurid details of the crime and the information presented to them by police and prosecutors, who are under tremendous pressure to solve the crime and solve it quickly.”
And that “predictable cycle” is inevitable, Protess says. No matter how many similar cases surface, it always turns out the same.
“There will be yet another case tomorrow where there’s a horrific murder and people will jump to the same conclusions because we need a scapegoat. We need resolution. The idea that these three young boys could have been killed by an unknown person or persons is almost as awful as the deaths themselves, because the entire community is petrified by the idea of the killers roaming loose,” Protess says.
In the case of the West Memphis Three, early media coverage was buoyed by Jessie Misskelley’s confession. Misskelley gave a confession to police after hours of questioning, with no lawyer present. Misskelley’s statements didn’t match up with evidence and his low IQ called into question police interrogation tactics.
“At that point in time, when the authorities announced they had a confession, journalists and the public are going to believe it,” Protess says. “In a small town, that’s particularly true because journalists often have a close working relationship with law enforcement officials. That’s how they get their stories. And the people in the community want to hear that, because then their fear of the horrible crime that’s been committed goes away and it’s tied up nice and neat with a bow. Also, the public doesn’t understand how people confess to crimes they didn’t commit. So when journalists write that story, ‘Confession in West Memphis Three Case,’ the public breathes a sigh of relief.”
But that’s just the first stage of the cycle. After some time, and with the help of outsider involvement — in this case the “Paradise Lost” documentaries and celebrity advocacy — public opinion starts to change and mainstream media coverage follows. Protess says that happens everywhere, from small towns like West Memphis to larger cities like Chicago.
“When we go into the second cycle of investigative reporting, the public begins to revisit its original assumptions,” he says. “That forces police and prosecutors to often reinvestigate the case. It brings to bear high-powered criminal defense lawyers. There’s distance from the original crime and then you get nationally prominent criminal defense lawyers and experts coming forward. You get celebrities coming forward.”
When it comes to wrongful conviction cases, time is a defendant’s best friend and worst enemy, Protess says. On one hand, the truth has a tendency to surface over time. On the other, the clock is ticking on an execution.