West Memphis Three’s Release Raises Concerns of Prosecutorial Bias

The "West Memphis Three," a group of three men convicted of brutally murdering three young boys as teenagers, were released from prison this past summer after spending 18 years behind bars for a crime most now believe they did not commit.

Their release raises questions about how the men were could have been convicted in the first place. Many blame the conviction on an array of prosecutorial cognitive biases - namely, the human brain's tendency to see what it wants to see and take special notice of evidence that confirms prior beliefs.

Police Looked For Evidence That Confirmed Prior Suspicions

In the case of the West Memphis Three, police initially suspected that the murder was a satanic cult killing. Their attention thus turned to Damien Echols, a local teen who wore black clothes, listened to heavy metal and described himself as a Wiccan.

The conviction hinged on the apparently coerced - and most certainly flawed - confession of Mr. Echols' friend, a man named Jessie Misskelly. At the time, Mr. Misskelly was 17 years old and had an IQ of just 72. Yet, he was questioned by police for hours without his parents or a criminal defense attorney present.

Ultimately, Mr. Misskelly confessed, implicating Mr. Echols and another man named Jason Baldwin. Mr. Misskelly told the police what they wanted to hear. However, there were a number of problems with his confession. For example, he told police the murders happened at noon, a time at which the other men were known to have been at school. He said the victims had been tied up with a brown rope, when in fact the perpetrators had used the victims' own shoelaces. He also said the victims were raped, when in fact they had not been.

Mr. Misskelly later recanted his confession, but to no avail. The three men were convicted, not based on physical evidence, but rather on Mr. Misskelly's statements. One of the men, Mr. Echols, was sentenced to death row.

Cognitive Biases Part of Human Nature

Many observers now find themselves wondering how these three men could have been convicted of and forced to spend half of their lives in prison when there was so little evidence to tie them to the murder.

Unfortunately, their case is not all that rare. Psychological studies show that the once the human brain has made a decision or hypothesis, it will actively seek out evidence to confirm its prior belief. This so-called "confirmation bias" can lead investigators and prosecutors, once they have focused on a suspect, to exaggerate the relevance of evidence supporting guilt and downplay evidence that supports innocence.

Psychologists also implicate a phenomenon called "hindsight bias," in which prosecutors and investigators use evidence to construct a more definite chain of causation than is objectively warranted by the facts.

These cognitive biases can be extremely difficult to combat. A defendant's best bet is to seek the assistance of a skilled and experienced criminal defense attorney who knows how to effectively rebut the prosecution's case.