Before the hearing on Friday, longtime West Memphis Three advocate Jene’ O’Keefe was walking around the courthouse in Jonesboro, showing a printed-out email to other supporters who had gathered. The email was from Pearl Jam publicist Nicole Vandenberg. It read: “Eddie Vedder is really interested in this case. He saw ‘Paradise Lost.’ What can we do to help?”
Since then, Vedder has thrown his support behind Jason Baldwin, Jessie Misskelley and Damien Echols, footing the bill for legal counsel and using his platform as a singer in a high-profile rock band to raise awareness about the case.
That support, from Vedder and others including filmmaker Peter Jackson and Dixie Chicks singer/songwriter Natalie Maines doesn’t end with Friday’s plea bargain, advocates say.
Capi Peck leads Arkansas Take Action, a group formed in 2007 to raise awareness about the case. She says supporters of the WM3 are committed to making sure the three men make a smooth transition to their life outside prison walls and to one day proving their innocence.
“Until they’re truly exonerated, we’re going to still fight the fight,” Peck says. “The long-time financial supporters are going to continue to see this through. Nobody pretends that this is all over. We can take a few days to celebrate, but it’s not over till the person or persons responsible for this crime are incarcerated. I don’t want anybody to think for one second that anybody is signing off right now. We have to find who is responsible. Until they’re pardoned it’s just not going to sit right, it’s not going to feel good. They had to plead guilty to something they didn’t do.”
Peck says the most direct line to a pardon would be to prove the three men’s innocence. Until Gov. Mike Beebe leaves office, it will likely be the only way. At the hearing on Friday, Baldwin, Misskelley and Echols were sentenced to more than 216 months of time served, with a 120 month suspended sentence. Echols and Baldwin pleaded to three first-degree murder counts and Misskelley to one first-degree and two second-degree murder counts. These facts virtually guarantee Beebe will not grant clemency.
“I can tell you three things,” says Matt DeCample, spokesman for Beebe. “One, we don’t even have a pardon request active right now. No request has been made. Two, in general terms, the pardons we’ve done, and there have been several hundred since we’ve been in office, have occurred once all terms of someone’s sentence is complete — that means all probation, parole, fines, etc. And third, we have never granted a pardon on a homicide case.”
Jeff Rosenzweig, attorney for Jessie Misskelley, says although it is true the governor will be reluctant to consider a pardon while the three men are serving suspended sentences, it’s a matter of policy. There are no legal prohibitions to considering clemency. However, he believes a pardon is “highly unlikely.”
“Of course, I did not expect this result at this point, either,” he says. “But pardons are a completely political process. I don’t mean a necessarily bad process. It’s political in the sense that, in the end, it is up to a politician, not a judge. And he can grant or deny as he wishes. There’s no appeal from the denial of a pardon.”
In the meantime, supporters of the three will continue to fund investigations, DNA testing and other efforts in an attempt to prove the three men are innocent, says Lonnie Soury, a spokesman for the WM3.
“I know that people who have contributed to their cause, like Peter Jackson and his partner Fran Walsh, want to continue investigations,” he says. “We’re going to be collecting information. We’re actively putting our files together. We’re compiling information to advance this case legally and to clear the names of these young men.”
Soury says he’s confident new leads can be found, even though the murders were committed 18 years ago.
“We still have the confidential tip line. We’re still accepting calls. In fact we received a call this weekend from someone that had some interesting information. People are still out there and we would hope that they would come forward.”
“In wrongful conviction cases, time is your best friend. People change, they get less and less connected to the case. You take an 18-year-old kid who was involved in the murder or knew somebody who was, now he’s 36 and maybe he’s got religion [and wants to come forward]. Those are very real things. The more time you have, the more opportunities you have for new evidence.”
Peck says one immediate concern is making sure all three adjust to life after prison and have the resources they need to do so. The WM3’s biggest financial supporters are making sure the three men are taken care of for the time being and Arkansas Take Action has set up a trust fund to try to help Baldwin, Misskelley and Echols get back on their feet.
“They don’t have any money. They probably have debt. None of them has a job. We’d like to continue raising money for them. I think that’s important,” Soury says.
Peck says all three men will need time to figure out what they’ll do now that they’re free. Baldwin would like to go back to school. Misskelley is happy to have been reunited with his family. Echols, who has already published a memoir called “Almost Home,” would like to write another book based on his experiences.
But there is some question if Echols would be allowed to collect money raised by book sales. The state of Arkansas has a “Son of Sam” statute that prevents a defendant who has been convicted of or pleaded guilty to a crime from making any profit off of “any book, motion picture, magazine article… or from the expression of his or her thoughts, opinions, or emotions regarding the crime.” Money made from such efforts to “reenact the crime” will go to the circuit court, according to the law. But Patrick Benca, Echols’ attorney, says the law has no application here. He also says the state has not sought any money generated by the sale of “Almost Home.”
“There’s no way in the world that the statute would have any application to [the West Memphis Three], because they’ve maintained their innocence and they have no idea about the crimes, that’s their position,” Benca says. “What the statute would prevent them from doing is to sit down and write a story about how they killed these little boys.”
The issue will certainly be a point of contention. Although the three men maintain their innocence, they are still guilty in the eyes of the state of Arkansas. Peck hopes to see that change one day.
“A plea bargain is a plea bargain,” she says. “The state just wanted this to go away. But it’s not going to go away. I think we’ll try to stay as high-profile as we possibly can and just switch one word from ‘free’ to ‘pardon.’ We’ll continue to raise awareness and put pressure on political leaders, because this ain’t over, baby.”