Advanced Criminal Law :: West Memphis 3
Documents & Resources
In this course we will focus exclusively on the West Memphis 3 murder case. In law school, you are typically, in criminal law and other courses, asked to read appellate court opinions that review a trial judge's decisions and the judge or jury's determination of guilt on grounds that some legal error requires that the conviction be overturned. In this course, we work, not with appellate opinions, but with transcripts of the pretrial and trial proceedings that resulted in the conviction of Jessie Misskelley in 1994, and then, at a second trial that same year, Jason Baldwin and Damien Echols were convicted. Echols received the death penalty. In studying the trial transcripts we view the case from the "bottom-up," rather than the more typical "top-down" approach in traditional law school courses.
We will review selected parts of the pretrial hearings and the trial transcripts in the Misskelley trial and the Bladwin/Echols trial. Reading and reviewing the trial transcripts, you will have a bird's-eye view of the decisions made by the trial judge, prosecutors, and defense counsel in what became one of the widely-followed "innocence" cases in the United States.
For an excellent journalistic account of and commentary on the case, see: Mara Leveritt, Devil's Knot: The True Story of the West Memphis Three (New York: Atria Books, 2002) [Mara Leveritt's website]
See also: M.W. Anderson & Brett Savory, The Last Pentacle of the Sun: Writings in Support of the West Memphis 3 (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2004)
There are four major documentaries that focus on the WM3 case:
A series of three award-winning documentaries by Joe Berlinger & Bruce Sinofsky:
The fourth film, is by Amy Berg:
To properly evaluate the work of defense counsel in the WM3 case, the best source is: Gerry Spence, Win Your Case (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2005) [For a trial advocacy course based on the work of Gerry Spence, taught by Professor Elkins: The Art of Advocacy] [In my view, Spence's Win Your Case is one of the best art and skills of advocacy books ever written. I can't imagine trying a criminal case within having read and studied Spence's book and his ideas about trial litigation.]
Damien Echols's Memoir/Autobiography: Damien Echols, Life After Death (Blue Rider Press, 2012)
Summary of the WM3 Case: Wikipedia
Legal Proceedings That Resulted in Freedom for the WM3: On November 4, 2010, the Arkansas Supreme Court ordered a new hearing in the WM3 case that would have allowed the defense to present evidence not presented at the original trials. The Court's ruling allowed Damien Echols, a death row inmate, and Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley who were serving life sentences, to present new DNA evidence, along with new forensic evidence to disprove the state's theory that the killings were part of a satanic ritual. The defense at the new hearing would also have allowed evidence of juror misconduct. [For the Supreme Court's ruling, see: Echols v. State of Arkansas, 2010 Ark. 417] [on-line text of the opinion] [video :: oral argument on the motion for new trial]
Following the 2010 decision by the Arkansas Supreme Court regarding newly produced DNA evidence, the West Memphis Three reached a deal with prosecutors. On August 19, 2011, the WM3 entered Alford pleas, which allowed them to assert their innocence while acknowledging that prosecutors had enough evidence to proceed to trial. Arkansas Circuit Judge David Laser accepted the Alford pleas and sentenced Misskelley, Baldwin, and Echols to time served--18 years and 78 days--and were released with ten-year suspended sentences.
History of the Course: Background