Aug 27, 2011

WM3 Panel Discussion in Little Rock

Crossposted from Reflections Journal.

A West Memphis Three panel discussion held at the Clinton School of Public Service in Little Rock Arkansas was filled to capacity with over 1,200 people. Both the panel and the audience seemed to be heavily tilted in the direction of WM3 supporters, but that's probably a reflection of public perception more generally. There are a lot more people who think the three are innocent than think they are guilty. Prosecutor Scott Ellington was the lone representative from the guilty camp, on a panel that was filled out by the three defense attorneys, Devil's Knot author Mara Leveritt, and Capi Peck of Arkansas Take Action.

The reflections of moderator Max Brantley can be found here. I watched the entire 1:42:02 program last night and I think it's well worth the time investment.

The take-away from the program is Scott Ellington's promise to test the DNA when the lab hired by the defense is done with it. He said they would run it through the data-base and cross-check it for contamination by police and lab techs. That could be important as DNA from three unidentified men has been detected.

"Once Bode labs gets their reports done, the state crime lab has agreed to run those through CODIS," Ellington said, referring to a database of known criminals as well as crime lab employees. "If there are any hits, then that evidence can be brought to the defense attorneys."

Ellington later told The Associated Press in an interview: "If the defendants have evidence they didn't commit the crime, let them prove it. That's why the crime lab is willing to test DNA results provided by the defense."

Prosecutors have contended that the absence of the three men's DNA at the crime scene does not prove their innocence, pointing out that jurors convicted the three on other evidence. Ellington said that although the DNA does not match the three men's, it may not be traceable to other suspects.

"The DNA they keep talking about has never been cross-checked with DNA from the law enforcement officers on the scene and has never been cross-checked with lab employees. ... We believe the right results are there, but we would be willing to run those and see if there are any matches," Ellington told reporters.

In other highlights, Mara Leveritt, who has a positively angelic voice and manner, fielded an audience question about the racial implications. Would there be so much interest in the West Memphis Three if they had been men of color? It's a good question and it's one I've pondered for years. Leveritt makes the point that the primary divide in this country is economic and with that and I heartily agree. It's not for nothing that advocacy for the poor of all races was Martin Luther King's primary focus shortly before he was assassinated. There is no question that if Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley, had come from wealth and social stature, this case would never have gone to trial. And not just because of better legal representation. I still have to wonder, though, if this case would have gotten so much traction had they had been three black men.

I was very impressed by Jessie Misskelley's attorney Jeff Rosenzweig. I don't know what it is but for some reason, since their release, it's Jessie Misskelley who is tearing at my heartstrings. I looked at closeups of his face during their initial press conference and just burst into tears. He just seems so vulnerable. Rosenzweig spoke at length about his deficiencies, surmising that saying his IQ is 72 seems generous. He reads at third to fourth grade level and was most likely "socially" promoted through school until he dropped out after the ninth grade. And now that we know so much more about false confessions and their high correlation with low IQ it's incredibly clear how this happened.

Rozenzweig also had a lot to offer on the question of whether or not the West Memphis Three will be able to profit from writing or other art regarding their ordeal with the justice system. He questioned the Son of Sam law on First Amendment issues. More to the point, he said the law pertains to profiting from the crime not other observations about the overall experience of trial, incarceration, etc. They may be able to tell their stories about this Kafkaesque journey and earn income. I would hope so, considering that having lost out years of education and employment in prison, they can't even sue under their plea deal.

Also discussed was the disturbing issue of the blood evidence, um, misplaced (???) by the West Memphis PD immediately following the crime. That would be the blood recovered from the restroom of the Bojangles' [sic] near the crime scene left by a bloody, disheveled man. It sure would have been helpful to have that particular DNA?

Jason Baldwin's attorney Blake Hendrix had this to say:

To me the Bojangles' is a perfect exemplification in this case that this is one of those cases that it's a, an entire systemic failure. The system entirely failed. The system failed from the law enforcement ground up. The system failed in how the prosecution treated the case. The system failed in how the state forensic people treated this case. The system failed from the defense lawyers' standpoint. It is a total systemic failure…. There are a lot of people in my business who go around thumpin' their chest that this is the greatest system of justice on the planet earth. I don't necessarily agree with them. I think it is a flawed system and just like this case there are failures across the board…. Being a criminal defense lawyer is one of the greatest jobs on the planet. I am shocked that I lucked into this job. Because my function is to balance power -- prosecutorial power over here. My job is to get up every morning and make sure, just like in our constitutional system of government, checks and balances. We balance power.

These are defense attorneys at their absolute best, speaking as champions, not just of civil liberties, but of justice. After months of seeing defense attorneys at their most unholy during the James Ray trial, such genuine idealism gladdens my heart.

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