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The West Memphis Three, and the Two Women Fighting to Free Them

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LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – In a historic Gothic church in downtown, more than 150 people from Arkansas, around the country and the world gathered Wednesday night to show their support for the West Memphis Three.

The West Memphis Three are Jason Baldwin, Damien Echols and Jessie Misskelley Jr. While teenagers, they were charged with the murder of three 8-year-old boys, who were found in 1993 naked and bound in West Memphis, Ark. The case immediately made national headlines and was the focus of two HBO documentaries.

Echols was sentenced to death, while Baldwin and Misskelley received life sentences.

Since 1993, the case has received attention from celebrities, including a rally and concert in August that featured Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, Dixie Chick Natalie Maines, Patti Smith and Johnny Depp.

On Thursday morning, the Arkansas Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Damien Echols’ case. His attorneys asked for a new trial based on claims of juror misconduct and new DNA evidence – DNA testing was unavailable in 1993 – that they say proves his innocence. Attorneys for the state attorney general office argued that DNA testing wasn’t enough to warrant a new trial. More than 100 people packed the Supreme Court chamber and an overflow room where West Memphis Three supporters viewed the proceedings on a closed-circuit television.

Two women are at the heart of the West Memphis Three activism — Capi Peck, a Little Rock restaurant owner, and Lorri Davis, the wife of Echols. Together, they have become a force to be reckoned with as they have pushed for a new trial and more grassroots activism in Arkansas, the one place where attention on the case has been minimal.

“Arkansas voices needed to be heard,” Peck told Politics Daily. “I’ve taken flack for getting involved since I own a restaurant and been told it wasn’t wise because the public position was divisive and polarizing. But this is social justice. It is a black mark on our state and judicial system.”

Peck met Davis through her restaurant four years ago. Back then, Davis, who is shy, didn’t publicly talk about the case or her relationship with Echols. The two women never mentioned the case as they began to hang out on Saturday nights. Peck, who was aware of the case, says see initially saw their friendship as a way for Davis to relax and put the case out of her mind. Then Davis started opening up to Peck.

Davis told Peck the story about how she had seen “Paradise Lost,” the HBO documentary about the case in 1995. At the time, Davis, a West Virginia native, lived in New York where she worked as a landscape designer. She became fascinated with Echols and began writing him in prison. Two years later, she moved to Arkansas. In 1999, they married.

Through that time, Davis has fought to get legal and financial help for the cause. She has become friends not only with Peck but Vedder, who has visited Echols numerous times in prison, and Depp.

“It’s not so much my own stress, but the stress of what Damien has had to live with,” Davis says. “It’s horrible to see people you love suffer, to watch their life slipping away.”

Peck says she’s watched the “emotional strain” take a toll on Davis as she tried every avenue to get Echols – and also Misskelley and Baldwin – free and keep focus on the case. Davis never takes a vacation because she doesn’t want to miss her weekly visit with Echols. They talk every day on the telephone.

Some would call Davis crazy for falling in love with a man on Death Row. She dismisses it.

“I felt this kinship with Damien,” she says without further explanation.

Peck realized that while celebrity and global netroots support existed in the case, few in Arkansas seemed to care about the issue. Davis, too, had very little community support, even after she began seeking it. Peck, along with a handful of friends, began Arkansas Take Action to educate the public on the facts of the complex case and generate a grassroots push for a new trial.

The West Memphis Three case is a complicated one. The murders of Stevie Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore rocked the small eastern Arkansas town of Robin Hood Hills, a wooded area near their home in West Memphis. Local and state police were pressured by the community to quickly find the murderer.
Some believed it to be a case of an occult killing. Echols was singled out because he wore black clothes, listened to heavy metal and read horror novels, although he did not know the three boys.
Less than a month later, Misskelley, who was later diagnosed as mentally handicapped, confessed to the crime and claimed Echols and Baldwin sexually abused, cut and beat the victims. The confession and facts of the crime never matched. No DNA taken from the crime scene matched that of the West Memphis Three.

In 2007, Peck and Davis invited Natalie Maines to a rally on the steps of the state capitol in Little Rock where they presented petitions and letters to Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe asking for a new trial. The governor does not have the power to do so, but can commute sentences and grant pardons. He has ruled out both. That rally spawned a controversy when Maines said then that new DNA evidence implicated one of the stepfathers of the dead boys. Maines also posted a note about the new evidence to the Dixie Chicks website.

The stepfather, Terry Hobbs, filed a lawsuit in 2008 against Maines for damages that included “loss of income, injury to his reputation and emotional distress.” The suit was dismissed in December. In April, the court ordered Hobbs to pay Maines’ attorney and court fees.

Peck, who says the last time she was involved in politics or a cause was George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign, placed petitions and informational cards Trio’s, her popular restaurant, about the case. Her group held candlelight vigils, which seldom garnered any local press attention. She became friends with Echols and began writing letters to him.

“I am an eternal optimist,” Peck says. “I ultimately have faith in people. I believe that if we are adamant and vocal we can make a difference.”

The group recently sent a letter to former President Bill Clinton asking for him to lend support to the “tragic injustice.” Clinton’s Harlem office wrote back that the case was a local issue.

The August rally and concert, attended by 2,500 people, was a sell-out. Many had never paid attention to the case but are now involved in Arkansas Take Action, gathering signatures on another round of petitions to take to the governor. A video was also produced for the rally.

The event also focused on the new evidence that will be presented at Thursday’s hearing — new DNA found in one of the ligatures used to restrain one of the victims.
Experts believe that Misskelley’s confession was coerced. The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, along with the Northwestern University School of Law’s Center on Wrongful Convictions, filed an amicus brief with the Arkansas Supreme Court asking the court to grant Echols a new trial. According to that group, there have been 257 post-conviction DNA exonerations in the United States. A quarter of them involved a false confession.

Aside from DNA evidence, defense attorneys argue that the jury foreman engaged in “blatant misconduct” by having improper conversations with a prominent Arkansas attorney that led to Echols’ and Baldwins’ murder convictions.
If the Supreme Court refuses to grant a new trial, lawyers plan to fight the case in federal court. The Supreme Court will likely rule on the case in the next two to six weeks.

At the vigil Wednesday night, letters and journal entries by the West Memphis Three were read by activists. White candles were lit and a silent meditation occurred for 17 minutes to symbolize the 17 years that the three have “endured a grave injustice.”

Supporters – some of whom came from as far as Canada and California – plan to pack the courtroom Thursday morning as the state and Echols’ attorney present their two sides to the state Supreme Court justices, who previously upheld Echols’ conviction.

Peck and Davis take issue with those who say they are fighting a lost cause. “The tide is turning. Whatever happens tomorrow, our work is not over,” Peck says. “Regardless of what happens, we are not going to go away until these three young men are home.”

Davis echoes her friend. “The world is watching Arkansas and its judicial system and politicians now,” she says.

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Written by suziparker1313

March 8, 2011 at 10:00 pm

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