by Max Brantley
UPDATE AT 11 A.M.: A closed hearing began in circuit court in Jonesboro about 10 a.m. The public hearing was scheduled to begain about 11 a.m. No live TV was allowed or texting from the courtroom. We'll update with outcome as quickly as possible.
Much more to come later this morning from Jonesboro, where Circuit Judge David Laser will consider a plea bargain between the state and the West Memphis 3 that could bring their immediate release from prison after more than 17 years.
If the judge approves — and this is an all-important if — the defendants will leave still convicted of first-degree murder for slaying three eight-year-old West Memphis boys in 1993. This will leave their staunchest defenders unhappy and offend even many less interested who will take offense at convictions for crimes that Jessie Misskelley Jr., Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin (L to R in photo above) will still say they did not commit.
The alternative to freedom for time served is to risk losing their appeal for a new trial and to remain in prison for life, or, in Echols' case, execution.
I mentioned yesterday that a no-contest plea is one way to produce a conviction without an admission of guilt by defendants. Another is an obscure legal maneuver, a functional equivalent of a nolo contendere plea known as an "Alford plea," which is to be made in court today, our sources say. Here's a full discussion. It is, in short, a guilty plea where the defendant does not admit the crime. Check the link for further details. It requires a case in which likelihood of conviction is high (it certainly was here, having already occurred), though this would be a novel, perhaps unique use of it after the fact.
Meanwhile: Lindsey Millar has compiled an exhaustive summary of the Arkansas Times' coverage of this case over the years. It consists primarily of Mara Leveritt's dogged and important reporting. Her reporting and her book, "Devil's Knot," were key elements in the chain of events that could lead to freedom today. Celebrity interest, HBO movies and the recent rump organizing by dozens of Arkansas lawyers in behalf of freedom were also factors that helped move events.
I encourage all to look back to Bob Lancaster's brilliant summary of the trials in 1994. He walked away then unconvinced of the guilty verdicts returned by juries.
A sample from his cover story:
The prosecutors in the West Memphis murders didn't establish a motive, and didn't try to very hard or very long. They looked foolish, and actually jeopardized their case (risked letting it slip over into absurdity) when they did try. Sporadically they portrayed Damien Echols as a novice dabbler in the occult, suggesting he choreographed the murders of those little boys as a kind of ritual blood sacrifice. Satanism would endow the case with a motive. But the prosecutors never produced any evidence to show that Echols had anything beyond a jerkoff Metallica-level interest in witchery and hobgoblins, and they could only conjecture (or hint around about it, in slightly embarrassed fashion) that his "beliefs" in regard to these matters might have inspired or driven him to contemplate murder, much less actually commit it. The one "cult expert" they put on the stand was a sad old retired cop from up North somewhere who got his expertise via correspondence courses from some California academy that's undoubtedly a post-office box, and he couldn't rightly say—though he was willing to guess—whether the murders might have been "cult-related" since there was no evidence pointing in that direction, or in any direction. The prosecutors convicted Echols of checking certain suspicious books out of the public library, and copying off dark passages ("full of sound and fury, signifying nothing") from the likes of William Shakespeare. God help him if he'd ever discovered Poe. And yet this vague proposition of the murders as an expression of an ignorant boy's conception of the demands of demonology was the state's entire case. That's all we had. And an obliging jury—and a judge as dedicated to bringing forth convictions as he was to looking good—called it enough.
Spectators began assembling before 7 a.m. this morning.
Pamela Metcalf, Damien Echols’ mother, was in the crowd. She told David Koon: “The very first thing I will say to him is I love him. He knows I’m here for him. I've always been and I always will be and it’s time to go home” She said she didn’t think justice would ever be served in the case, but she’s been very excited the last few days and she’s never given up hope. “I always believed he’d be coming home.”
On the other hand, this was posted on an Internet chat group of people opposed to the WM3's release and was said to come from Todd Moore, father of one of the victims, Michael Moore:
Yes, I met with the Pros. yesterday in Sheriff Allen's office for over an hour and we discussed in great detail the events of tomorrow and why some of his team agreed to this and also this was presented by the defense which tells me they feared a new trial and was looking for a deal. ... While I told him I did not like this one damn bit and the more I think about it the more I think this is not the best choice "right now"... It was not a given that Judge Laser would be so easy to convince of a new trial actually quite the opposite.
Remember this come tomorrow they will all stand before the judge and admit they are child murderers.
I am hurting and will most likely not attend tomorrow, it will be a circus and my presence wont matter anyway. Dana and I talked about it along with our daughter and we decided that it is just not worth it we cherish our privacy.
“Did the citizens of Arkansas realize how crazy that is?” Byers asked. “I want justice and I want the three of them to be free and I have no animosity whatsoever toward the three. I know they’re innocent and I’ve been on their side fighting hard for them since 2007 when I realized I was wrong. They did not kill my son. And this is wrong what the state of Arkansas is doing to cover their ass.”
He said, “I’m sick of it. The real killer is walking around free.” He said the DNA evidence points to a stepfather of one of the children and perhaps one of that man’s friends. “This is wrong to make three men under duress say they are guilty.”
Joe Berlinger, producer of past HBO films on the case, was on hand to capture more of the story today. He said, “If I was on Death Row and I had spent 18 years under the condition Damien had spent, I would take a deal, too. It’s amazing how quickly when there are political interests —perhaps Dustin McDaniels’ gubernatorial run at the end of the year and an embarrassing evidentiary hearing — it’s amazing how quickly things can change. The prosecutor put someone in prison for something they did not do and lo and behold, boom, they can come out.” Berlinger talked in extensive live interview with CBS about how his group down originally for a movie about evil deeds by satanic teens and it turned out much differently.
Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam and Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks, critical celebrity supporters who helped finance the Free the WM3 movement, are in Jonesboro today.
The defendants were hustled into the courthouse out of sight of most assembled press by a classic feint of sending a detention van to a front door as a decoy. The judge has been spotted wearing a body brace, a result of recent back surgery.