When professor Steve Drizin learned that Chris Tapp had taken a deal that would let him out of prison but leave a murder conviction on his record, he took to Facebook to share his thoughts.
“Make no mistake. It’s a bittersweet day,” he wrote.
Drizin is one of the nation’s foremost wrongful conviction attorneys, the former head of the Center on Wrongful Convictions and assistant dean of the Bluhm Legal Clinic at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law. Several of his clients have been exonerated. He currently represents Brendan Dassey, whose conviction was featured in the Netflix documentary series “Making a Murderer.”
Drizin also investigated the Tapp case, producing a report focusing on evidence of a false confession.
“I feel the same way I felt when Damien Echols and the West Memphis Three were released,” Drizin wrote on hearing of the deal. “It’s not a day to celebrate the justice system.”
The West Memphis Three were a group of teenagers from West Memphis, Ark., who were convicted of a triple murder in 1994, about three years before Tapp’s conviction. The story of the three teens — Jason Baldwin, Jessie Misskelley Jr. and Echols — was detailed in the three-part HBO documentary series “Paradise Lost.”
Prosecutors told the jury that the three teens, misfits in their Bible Belt town with long hair and a taste for heavy metal music, had killed and mutilated three young children in a satanic ritual. Echols was sentenced to death. Baldwin and Misskelley got life in prison.
Prison was an experience totally beyond the ken of ordinary people, said Baldwin in a phone interview. At 16 years old, weighing 112 pounds, he found himself in an adult prison branded a satanic child killer.
“It was very barbaric, very brutal when I first went in,” Baldwin said. “I had so many bones broken, my skull shattered, everybody wanted me dead.”
And for 18 years, the West Memphis Three stayed in prison, even as public pressure for their release mounted and some members of the victims’ families became convinced that the wrong men had been convicted.
Then in 2011, new DNA testing was performed that excluded Baldwin, Misskelley and Echols. It instead matched two unidentified men, according to Reuters.
Prosecutors came to the West Memphis Three with a deal. All three would take Alford pleas in which they maintain they are factually innocent but do not contest their convictions, and all three could get out of prison. All would give up the right to sue for compensation.
All three had to take the deal, or none of them could get it.
Baldwin was the most reluctant of the group. He wanted to fight the case until the end. He wanted to fight until his name was clear.
“When the Alford plea was offered, I turned it down,” he said. “I thought, ‘It’s not justice for me. It’s not justice for my family. It’s not justice for those little boys that were murdered or their families. They deserve to know the truth.’”
Then he began to understand what life was like for Echols on death row.
While prison had initially been horrific for him, Baldwin said he had eventually been able to build a meaningful life. He worked in the prison school, helping to educate other prisoners. Most inside had come to believe his protestations of innocence, so he got respect and sympathy instead of beatings.
But Echols didn’t have that. He was living in a coffin, Baldwin said, facing execution and watching the men near him make their final walk.
Baldwin decided he had to take the deal. The West Memphis Three were never formally exonerated.
“It was the worst decision in the world to make,” Baldwin said. “Time was slipping past. Our lives were being taken away from us. Take all of your memories from age 16 to 34 and replace them with prison and brutality.”
The West Memphis Three were freed in 2011.
“Under the terms of a deal with prosecutors, Mr. Echols, Mr. Baldwin and Mr. Misskelley leave as men who maintain their innocence yet who pleaded guilty to murder, as men whom the state still considers to be child killers but whom the state deemed safe enough to set free,” the New York Times wrote.
In an interview, Tapp said he made his decision because there were just too many “what ifs.” What if the expert testimony didn’t produce enough evidence to prove his innocence? What if they won but prosecutors appealed the case? Would he get out during the appeal or remain in prison?
“Is there going to be enough?” Tapp said. “If there’s not then I’m stuck in a box.”
And to Drizin, that underlines a major problem with the criminal justice system.
“People plead guilty to crimes they did not commit because they lack faith in the ability of our justice system to accept the truth,” Drizin wrote. “It’s a sad commentary on the state of our system; in fact, it is an indictment of our system.”
“It’s the worst choice to face as an innocent person,” Baldwin said.
Baldwin said he met many people in prison who he believes are innocent. He co-founded a group called Proclaim Justice, which works to fight wrongful convictions. He’s pursuing a college degree, and he plans to become a lawyer.
Reporter Bryan Clark can be reached at 542-6751.