Friday, August 19, 2011

The day so many people have hoped for for so long has come. The West Memphis Three are free. I first saw the rumor last night that the three had left prison for a local jail and that they had packed up all of their belongings. That was a remarkable turn of events. First, it was a surprise that they had a hearing set for today. Second, it is highly unusual for an inmate to pack up his cell before being transferred to a county jail for a routine court appearance. So we knew something big was coming.

Then the first thing I saw this morning when I got up was the news that they had, in fact, been released. They were out, free men. I don't know about the rest of you, but I know I am enjoying today's sunshine, my yummy lunch, pretty much everything just a little bit more today knowing that they are also free to enjoy these simple pleasures of life with their families, wherever they want to be.

I am pleased that this happened for them while they are all still young enough that they have some hope for a normal life. They are 36 and 34, all younger than I am. Damien Echols is already married. There is reason to believe they can still have children, find jobs, live life. Ronald Cotton, who co-wrote a book with the woman who wrongly identified him as her attacker, is the best example of what kind of life is possible after exoneration. I hope that these 3 will be able to follow in his footsteps.

Of course, their story isn't quite that happy right now. They are not going to be fully recognized as among the exonerated. They had to accept the bitter pill of pleading guilty (while maintaining their innocence) to secure their release. This plea is a sham, designed solely to save the state the expense of a wrongful conviction lawsuit and the prosecutors the embarrassment of admitting a mistake. And it's ridiculously unfair because no one in their shoes could have turned the deal down. It wasn't a plea they wanted to enter, but what still young defendant, having spent 18 years in prison facing either life in prison or the death penalty, could possibly have turned down this deal, knowing it came with the promise of release TODAY? I am confident I could not have turned that deal down, no matter how offensive it was to me to technically plead guilty to a crime I had not committed.

So these young men aren't entirely free. They are out of prison, but they're on probation. For 10 years. With the understanding that a probation violation can land them back in prison for another 21 years. I would hope that this will be probation in name only. That they won't truly face many conditions or any real possibility of revocation. But we can't know. I would like to think that many people will recognize them as exonerated, innocent, but we can't know that, either. Undoubtedly, there will still be many, many people who will view them with suspicion at best. Ask Tim Masters of Colorado how easy it is to find work even after full exoneration. There will always be people who cling to belief of guilt. Being on probation might make it more difficult for these men to build new lives if they are required to stay in the state of Arkansas, where it will be harder for them to escape the case's shadow.

But today, I don't want to dwell on the negative, on the bitter aspects of this release and the difficulties they will face. Today, I just want to focus on the fact that they are free, able to sit at a dinner table with each other and their families, able to hug their mothers, eat a steak, go see "Cowboys and Aliens," and sleep tonight on a real bed, in a dark, quiet room, with no one demanding they get up at 4 am tomorrow, and with the knowledge that for the first time in 18 years, they will wake up tomorrow to a world full of possibility.

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Location:What a beautiful day

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