Over 20 years ago, three young men in Arkansas were convicted of murder and sent to jail. Their crimes were heinous, the killing of their three young victims apparently part of a Satanic ritual. The murders left their small town of West Memphis, Arkansas in shock. Two of the convicted killers, Jessie Misskelly Jr. and Jason Baldwin got different sentences of life in prison while Damien Echols, the supposed leader, was sentenced to death.
And now we know that all three were almost certainly innocent.
The West Memphis Three, as these young men would come to be called, were said to be the victims of a justice system that was more concerned with making someone pay than spending time finding the responsible party. The mishandling of evidence (such as rope that was later shown to have no DNA from the supposed killers but did have a hair from another suspect), the lack of follow-up on leads (including a bloody man seen in town the night of the murders that the police never investigated), and the apparent prejudice against three boys who were expressing themselves with heavy music and dark clothing as kids (didn’t we all go through that phase?) led to what is not considered a grave miscarriage of justice for these boys who grew into men inside the prison system.
And now we know that all three were almost certainly innocent.
Several books, countless articles, and a few documentaries have been made about the young men, both while they were in jail and after their release, which would come over 18 years after their initial imprisonment. The three maintain their innocence to this day.
You think Arkansas would have learned from this upsetting error, but the state already famous for putting an innocent man on death row and two more in prison for life is slated to execute 8 men in 10 days by the end of April. Arkansas is citing expiring execution drugs as a reason for the rush to end these prisoners’ lives.
After spending nearly two decades of his life in Arkansas locked down for 23 hours a day and waiting for the day he would be executed for a crime he didn’t commit, Damien Echols is returning to the state for his longest stay since being released from prison in order to argue for the courts to stop the execution of these men. There were many protestors outside the steps of the Arkansas capitol building on Friday to hear Echols speak up for these prisoners, and actor Johnny Depp appeared in person to lend his voice to the cause as well. Depp was also extremely vocal in demonstrations to get Echols himself, along with the other two men who make up the West Memphis Three, out of prison.
But you might be wondering why there is such push back about executing convicted killers, especially in such a historically conservative state. It turns out that, according to this Harvard study, some of the men being executed might never have belonged in the prison system at all. Mental health facilities, rehabilitation programs, and counseling or therapy would have served most of these men much better than prison, but even for those who believe they belong in the system, many argue that killing these particular men is a step too far.
According to the report, three of the men set to be executed are mentally ill. Jason McGee suffers from bipolar disorder, though his mother preferred to believe he was “possessed by the devil” rather than get him help. The study goes on to cite how “Neuropsychological testing [showed] that Jason may have brain damage, with impairments in his frontal lobe [, and] Jason also started inhaling gasoline when he was only three years old, and became an alcoholic by the sixth grade. He was likely using heavier drugs by the time he was fourteen.” This is not even to mention the abuse he suffered at home, but MeGee is still supposed to be executed April 27th.
Another inmate, Bruce Ward, who has been on death row for over 20 years, has been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and believes that despite his crimes, being on death row is a mission from God, according to the voices he hallucinates. Barring intervention, Ward will be executed April 17th.
Jack Jones suffers, in addition to the domestic violence in his home and sexual violence when he was abducted and raped, from bipolar disorder and depression. He experiences extreme visual hallucinations, and has attempted suicide twice. He had voluntarily committed himself more than once before committing his crimes, as he was aware he needed help. The date Arkansas plans to execute Jack is April 24th.
The report goes on to note that two of the eight men set to be executed are likely intellectually disabled. Kenneth Williams, slated to be killed April 27th, has an IQ of 70. The study states that among other cognition issues Williams has “deficiencies of judgment and reasoning” and an expert stated “his brain is not working the way it should.”
Don Davis may also suffer from intellectual disabilities, as his tested IQ ranges between 69 and 77. The study also said “Don also endured a serious head injury, which, along with his ADHD and low IQ, likely lead to ‘double deficits’ in cognitive functioning.” He is supposed to be killed on April 17th.
Marcel Williams would be better served by a program meant to help victims of sexual abuse than he would being sent to death within our prison system. The report explains how, after becoming a “sexual partner” to his mother’s friend at the age of nine or 10 and being “pimped out” by his mother routinely by the age of 12, Marcel has had a difficult life. Unsurprisingly, “a federal judge found this evidence extremely compelling and reversed Marcel’s death sentence after finding that his trial attorneys provided ineffective assistance of counsel because they failed to present this information to a jury.” Heartbreakingly, Williams remains on death row because, as the study explains, “the federal appellate court reinstituted the death sentence, however, finding that for procedural reasons, Marcel should never have received a hearing in the first place.” Williams is set to be executed April 24th.
An additional barrier between these men and justice is poor legal representation, according to the study. Lendell Lee will be executed on April 20th, despite having the misfortune of being represented by a drunk lawyer and a mentally ill one, both of whom would go on to lose their licenses.
Stacey Johnson’s lawyers did not follow through on much investigation and the jury was unable to hear “powerful impeaching evidence” of how the sole witness, a child, was led heavily by authority figures in what to testify in order to put Stacey in jail. Johnson will also be executed on April 20th.
In a moment of light in this dark ordeal, Judge Wendell Griffen has attempted to halt the executions, citing the fact that the state obtained the soon-expiring drugs under the pretenses of medical treatment, not execution. A hearing is supposed to be held Tuesday, a day after the executions are supposed to begin, but the Arkansas Attorney General, Leslie Rutledge, is planning “to file an emergency request with the state Supreme Court to vacate Griffen's order.” If Rutledge’s order goes through, the executions could start on schedule, meaning two of the eight men could be executed as early as today.