Columns » John Brummett

We aim for closure, not perfection

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I applaud the new freedom for Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley.

That is not to say I am certain of their innocence in the murder of those little boys in West Memphis 1993. I only suspect it. I believe 18 years in prison are 18 too many for suspected innocence.

What I am certain of is that the state rushed to unjust judgment because of community emotion and on account of the political pressure that the community emotion brought to bear. I am certain there was woefully insufficient evidence for conviction, and, in its place, impatience, fear and prejudice.

Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley, late teens at the time, dressed strangely and listened to heavy metal music and talked about witchcraft. They, Echols mainly, went around sneering and scoffing at convention. Fearful people, minimally informed, said this awful crime was all about their supposed Satan worship and human sacrifice.

Sometimes belief is a personal choice, not a logical deduction. Sometimes people would rather be finished with something than right about it. You hear people talking more about closure than about perfection.

It's a soiled little open secret of our criminal justice system: The police are imperfect. The prosecutors work with what they've got. Sometimes prosecutors don't prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Sometimes the prosecution presents a perfunctory circumstantial case and hopes the jury will conclude that the police wouldn't have arrested the guy if he hadn't done it or at least was a bad guy who might have. Sometimes the jury decides it would be better to err on the side of putting the guy in prison than to err on the side of putting him on the street.

Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley got set free not so much for legal reasons as for political and financial ones. Politicians needed to be shed of them. The state needed to head off retrials that were likely and that they probably would lose. The state wanted to avoid having to pay steep damages in federal court lawsuits for wrongful imprisonment.

The three got set free because documentary filmmakers took up their case. They got set free because a smart and resourceful woman from New York saw the documentary and fell in love with one of them.

They got set free because rich celebrities of liberal causes contributed and raised large sums of money to hire expert investigators, expert lawyers and expert public relations consultants — to retain professional skill exceeding that to be found among local officials. This superior expertise held the further advantage of being blessed with the freedom to pick its case and obsess thereon, liberated from having to work on whatever latest crime just came across the scanner.

"We weren't going away," Lonnie Soury, the public relations agent from New York hired by Echols' wife, Lorri Davis, said outside the Craighead County Courthouse.

Soury said a wrongful conviction case was like a political campaign in some ways. He said sound legal arguments and new evidentiary discoveries weren't the end of it. You had to tell the public about them.

If every inmate in the state prison could receive the same exposure and advocacy on HBO, the same alliance with Johnny Depp and Eddie Vedder and Natalie Maines, the same money for the same talented, singularly focused and unrelenting investigators, lawyers and public relations agents, the same Internet-driven movement — how many, we can only wonder, would turn out to have been convicted dubiously because of fear and prejudice and over how they looked, maybe because of skin color, and acted?

How many of those might the politicians want rid of if they were making internationally renowned nuisances of themselves and weren't going away?

It's best not to think too long on that.

On Friday, Attorney General Dustin McDaniel boasted that Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley had now been convicted twice of this horrific crime.

That is technically true, but audaciously spun.

The first conviction was unjust and the second a transparent charade.

If a guy running to be your next governor wants to brag about something like that, then let him. If you want to vote for him as a result, then we'll let you do that, too.

After all, when it comes to political choices, we tend in November of even-numbered years to be more interested in being finished than in being right, to be aiming for closure, not perfection.

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