Yes, thankfully the case of the infamous West Memphis Three finally has a somewhat happy ending. Happy because the three defendants have been released after serving 18 years for a crime they did not commit, but only relatively happy, because they still had to plead guilty to the crime in exchange for their release.
In 1994, the three defendants, Jessie Misskelly, age 17, Jason Baldwin, age 16, and Damien Echols, age 18, were all found guilty of capital murder. Misskelly and Baldwin received life imprisonment, and Echols was sentenced to lethal injection. The charges stemmed from the gruesome killing a year earlier of three eight-year-old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. The boys were brutally beaten to death, and one victim was severely mutilated with a knife. Rightfully so, the case created an immediate uproar and call for justice in the small Arkansas town.
But not rightfully so, the call for justice translated to a rush to judgment in terms of the investigation and trial. There were countless examples of this throughout the State’s case, but the most damaging was the false confession obtained from Jessie Misskelly. After initially targeting Damien Echols based upon allegations of his involvement in a satanic cult, the best opportunity to procure the case against Echols quickly became obtaining a statement from his “friend” Jessie.
On its face, it was just that, not only a statement, but a full confession. So what was the problem with that? It is hard for most of us to imagine ever confessing to any crime we did not commit, let alone a heinous murder. So how could he admit to such a thing if it were not true? That is the exact reason why statements are so desperately sought by investigators, but fortunately also why a suspect’s right to refrain from giving one is fastened so hard in our Constitution.
So what does a defense attorney do when presented with such damning evidence as a confession? I am sure Jessie Misskelly’s attorney initially thought his case looked pretty bleak. However, he was able to look past the face of the confession and argue that the confession was really false. He presented expert testimony which included a multitude of factors that cast serious doubt upon the statement. The police had offered a reward to Jessie for information about the murder, confronted him with a false positive polygraph result, and lead him through much of the interrogation. In addition, Jessie, despite being only 17, was questioned without a parent, and the interrogation lasted several hours. Unfortunately, much of the expert testimony was barred in trial, but the confession was nonetheless admitted.
False confessions might sound like an oxymoron, but it is actually a phenomenon that has been prevalent throughout the history of our criminal justice system. It has only been brought to light recently through defense attorneys and expert psychologists like those in Misskelly’s case. Even as a defense attorney myself, I have been guilty of the natural rush to judge a client’s confession without fully exploring the surrounding circumstances.
The best example was a client charged with Aggravated Sexual Assault, who faced a likely fifteen (15) year prison sentence and Megan’s Law. He gave a statement which included multiple answers in which he stated that he did not recall doing it, but if the police and victim
said he did, he had no reason to doubt them. Not a direct admission, but as close to a confession as you can get. It was a real struggle initially to come up with an explanation for that kind of statement.
However, once I got past those words and explored not only the rest of statement, but also the surrounding circumstances, the explanation started to appear. First, prior to the statement, the police asked him to take a Voice Stress Analyzer (VSA), and of course, he failed. After doing some research and obtaining an expert, it turned out that the VSA was a much lesser, and not scientifically reliable version of a polygraph. Despite the unreliability, the police confronted him with graphs and charts showing his failure, and they also confronted him with the rest of the “overwhelming” evidence including nonexistent DNA evidence. Combine that with an interrogation that lasted over 3 hours on a day where my client had just finished a 12 hour shift with one meal after only 3 hours of sleep. A psychologist also examined my client and concluded he suffered from depression and low self esteem and had an especially high level of trust for police based on his relationship with policemen in his family. Lastly, I was able to look past my clients supposed admission and determine that the officer actually asked 14 times whether he did it in order to get that answer.
In the end, what started as insurmountable hurdle of a confession became a perfect storm for a false confession. Thankfully the jury saw that and acquitted my client, and the State has finally recognized the same in West Memphis.
For more on the psychology of false confessions, check out the following:
For more details about the West Memphis Three, below is a great summary:
Timothy Farrow, of Dash Farrow, LLP, is an experienced criminal defense attorney and former Prosecutor who handles these offense and crimes, misdemeanors, and traffic offense of all levels. When you need experienced, focused, and responsive legal help, call Dash Farrow, LLP at 856-235-8300 or contact us online. We serve individuals and businesses throughout Burlington and Camden County and all of South Jersey.