The Injustice System: The West Memphis 3

Today, the West Memphis 3 (Arkansas) were freed after spending 18 years behind bars.  One of the three men was on death row.  The case against them was built on circumstantial evidence, the coerced (and later recanted) testimony of one of the three men, and the need of a community to make sense of the brutal murders of three young boys.

This whole fiasco is a massive injustice for many reasons, including (but certainly not limited to):

  • These men (who were young when they were arrested and convicted) have lost decades of their lives and certainly the trust in the system and the state that is supposed to protect the innocent (holy shit, one of them was supposed to be KILLED by that system and state).
  • Instead of locating and putting behind bars the actual killer(s) of the three boys, money, resources, and many years were wasted prosecuting and keeping the WM3 in prison.
  • The deal that got the WM3 out of prison today.

According to MSNBC, here are the legal machinations that were at play in order to free these men:

Friday’s move was a complicated legal proceeding that protects Arkansas from a potential lawsuit should the men win a new trial, get acquitted, and seek to sue the state for wrongful imprisonment, Prosecutor Ellington said.

The men agreed to what’s known as an Alford plea. Normally, when defendants plead guilty in criminal cases, they admit that they’ve done the crime in question.

But in an Alford plea, defendants are allowed to insist they’re innocent, says Kay Levine, a former prosecutor who now teaches at Emory University in Atlanta.

In summary: The WM3 were allowed to go free by pleading guilty so that if they are ever able to prove their innocence in a court of law, they cannot sue the state of Arkansas for fucking them over and holding them in prison (and on death row) for decades.

This makes me literally sick.

The way modern nation-states function is most often through the implicit threat of force.  But there are moments (like today’s plea deal) where that threat becomes explicit.

Even if we don’t recognize that threat of force and violence all the time, we always have a vague understanding that it exists out there in the ether.  We know that breaking the law could mean that we could end up in jail, our hands bound by handcuffs, our cavities searched, our bodies encased in tiny, dangerous, dirty spaces.  Some (illegal?) acts can even cause you to be tasered, beat up, shot at, raped or killed by the police (or other groups that exist in order to keep people “safe” and “secure”).

Certain groups, of course, are much less likely to be aware of this threat from the state than others (that is a HUGE privilege for those with the right skin color, the luck to be born into the right class, etc.).  But the threat is ALWAYS there.  Don’t pay your taxes, you could (theoretically) go to jail.  Run the red light and fail to pay the ticket, you could (theoretically) go to jail.  In the wrong place at the wrong time, you could go to jail.  Falsely accused and happen to be an outsider in the community, you go be scapegoated and go to jail (of course, the forces that come together to delineate insider and outsiders in a community are a whole mess in and of themselves).

When the WM3 were offered a deal, they were told by the state (via the prosecution) that if they wanted their freedom they had to plead guilty despite their innocence (which doesn’t seem to be a point that is up for debate).  All so that they couldn’t sue the state if they ever prove their innocence.  Failing to do this, they had to stay in prison and take their chances in a system that had already royally fucked them over.  Damian Echols was making this decision from the incredibly weak position on death row (is that a position at all?).

In reality, these men had no decision.  The state was metaphorically pointing their guns at the heads of the WM3 and telling them that they either plead guilty or the state would continue to use physical force and the real threat of death against them. Who chooses the latter?  No one.  And Arkansas knows that.  The state knows that.

The state had already abused the power it had.  It had jailed these men for decades.  It had promised one of them death.  When finally it admits its error, instead of attempting to offer some sort of reparation or a fucking apology, it continued to use and abuse its power to protect itself from having to ever say it did anything wrong to these men, the families of the victims, and the victims themselves (those 8-year-old boys deserve an apology as much as the WM3).

The state exists because it has guns.  The state exists because it can threaten to throw us all in prison and then can use the system that is in place to keep you there (reminds me of this recent This American Life report about the psychopath test).  The state exists because if you go up against it, it can fuck up your life without ever having to admit it that it did so (and if you demand that admittance, it will just force you into a position where you have to keep your mouth shut or it will fuck your life up even more).

These realities were on full display today in the plea deal for the WM3.

The other side of this, of course, is that there are communities in this country who experience this violence and force of the state MUCH more often, including and especially the state-sanctioned death penalty (and who don’t have stars like Eddie Vedder and Johnny Depp vocally fighting for them).  Their relationship with the government is predicated on the reality of this violence.  They expect it and they know it and they see it in their daily lives.  For them, it is mundane, explicit, obvious, everywhere:

I hope and pray that all of the good people who fought so hard for the WM3 remember that, were Damian Echols, Jessie Misskelley Jr., and Jason Baldwin black, all three of them would have received the death penalty, and all three of them would have been executed years ago, quietly and with little fanfare.

I hope and pray that everyone who followed this case so closely understands that the WM3 situation is more likely the rule than an anomaly for black and brown people in the United States. The same small-town, good-ole-boy, kangaroo, star-chamber system that railroaded the WM3 in the name of mob justice because they were “weirdoes” has done the same thing to black and brown people for years and years and years, with no cause célèbre attached. Few HBO documentaries are made about these other cases (The Execution of Wanda Jean is the only one I can think of off the top of my head, and it should be obvious how that one turned out. Spoilers: she dies).

As Zathara says in the post I just quoted, if you want to know about all of this, start with the Innocence Project.

And keep paying attention.

And keep advocating for a just system, a system that doesn’t have a death penalty, a system that fights for the innocent and doesn’t privilege the wealthy, a system that protects everyone.

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