Monday, October 17, 2011

West Memphis 3 Case Takes Shift Towards Public Relations

Check out this story from The Memphis Commercial Appeal about PR's role in the appeal of the "Memphis Three".

by Beth Warren

New Yorker Lonnie Soury isn't a lawyer or politician, but he found his own way to help pressure prosecutors to free an Arkansas death row inmate.

Soury, a public-relations guru, was a one-man dust cloud, stirring up doubt about the state's case against condemned inmate Damien Echols and codefendants Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr., who were serving life sentences in the 1993 murders of three West Memphis boys. Soury enumerated weaknesses in the state's case, especially a lack of DNA evidence, to anyone who would listen -- local and national TV and newspaper reporters, influential Arkansas residents and international readers of, which featured court records and frequent letters Echols wrote from prison.

"They had their own PR agent," prosecuting attorney Scott Ellington said of his adversary, Soury.

Little Rock attorney Dorcy Corbin asked Soury to return to Arkansas on Saturday to lecture to a state group of defense attorneys gathered in Fayetteville.

His message: "We cannot rely on just the legal issues to free an innocent man."

Public opinion and image matter, he said.

Legal experts predict the use of image strategists like Soury during the appellate process will become a growing trend.

Jury consultants, who often have a psychology background, have long been used to test defense strategies with mock juries before trial and to weed out potential jurors who might have a bias. It's a newer concept to use public-relations experts like Soury after a conviction.

Ellington said of Soury: "He was a machine, he was constantly bringing it up, asserting you have to have DNA to find these guys guilty."

Corbin, an Arkansas native, remembers the intensity of the public outrage after the nude bodies of the three 8-year-old victims were fished out of a muddy reservoir. After Echols and his two friends -- then teens -- were arrested, police fastened bullet-proof vests around them to protect them from the seething crowd.

As years have passed and more information about the case has surfaced -- in part due to Soury's campaign -- public sentiment has shifted, with many now doubting the teens' guilt, Corbin said. Local residents banded together to form Arkansas Take Action, one of the groups lobbying for a new trial for the defendants collectively known as the West Memphis Three. The group hired Soury.

While appellate lawyers advanced legal strategies, including ordering more DNA testing, Soury lobbied TV and newspaper reporters with his mantra -- the DNA at the scene belongs to someone other than the West Memphis Three.

Last year, the Arkansas Supreme Court ordered a new hearing for the defendants, and the three seemed on track for a new trial in 2012.

Ellington said he didn't like his odds.

"Lonnie Soury poisoned the jury pool," he said.

The veteran prosecutor made the controversial decision to offer a rare Alford plea deal, requiring the defendants to plead guilty but allowing them to say they did so because it was in their best interest and not because they're guilty. All three were released in August.

"Once I started getting up to speed, I realized our position was eroding," Ellington said.

In the 18 years since the murders, some witnesses have died and memories have faded, he said. And, since the initial 1994 trials, new DNA evidence has been found that appears to match a stepfather of one of the victims and the stepfather's friend. It wasn't proof of anything, but supplied more doubt -- a key commodity for the defense.

And, this summer, the defense requested more DNA tests. As new DNA results rolled in, Soury alerted reporters about the results.

Though DNA found at the scene could innocently match an officer at the crime scene or a crime lab worker, Ellington said, "The gag order was in place. I couldn't counteract."

The prosecutor called Soury's tactics "hocus pocus, smoke and mirrors and spin."

Soury was the defense's route around the gag order.

"I don't want to say it was clever, but it was pretty effective," Soury said. "I didn't taint the jury pool, I educated the public."

A lack of DNA isn't proof of innocence, Ellington said. Still, he said, today's jurors often expect DNA, especially in death cases.

"It was really quite a piece of work on (Soury's) part," Ellington said. "I know there was enough publicity out there about DNA, DNA, DNA, that the jury would have required us to present some DNA evidence."

Ellington said if he had gone to trial, he likely would have lost and could have exposed the state to a potential multi-million dollar civil suit by the teens who spent their pivotal years behind bars.

While he considered the plea deal a logical way out for everyone, Ellington said he underestimated the enormity of the backlash.

"For two weeks after the plea was done I had dozens of e-mails with people just giving me hell," he said.

Two comments from voters in his district blasted him for allowing child murderers to go free.

But most of the disdain came from East Coast, West Coast and international West Memphis Three supporters who thought the defendants should have been freed without having to plead guilty.

Ellington said among the many derisive barbs, "My favorite one was: 'You cowardly, spineless, lawyer scumbag.' "

Soury -- who maintains -- has also worked on campaigns that freed teens in two other murder cases.

In one, Long Island native Marty Tankleff, spent nearly 17 years in prison for the beating and stabbing deaths of his parents before a judge ordered his release in 2008. Tankleff said police pressured him into thinking he had killed his parents and blacked it out.

In the other, New York teen Jeffrey Deskovic spent 16 years in prison for the rape and strangulation of a 15-year-old classmate, though his DNA didn't match the semen collected from the victim.

Deskovic, who said police pressured him to confess, was freed in 2006 and was recently awarded $6.5 million for his wrongful incarceration.

Laurie Levenson, a television legal commentator and professor at Loyola Law School Los Angeles, said image makers like Soury help humanize defendants.

"I can see this as an enormous service," said Levenson, a former prosecutor. "That's not exactly what lawyers are trained to do," she said.

"But the lawyer has to be the head of the team. They can anticipate how strategy might affect ongoing proceedings."

Ellington said he believes more defense teams will begin to use image strategists like Soury.

"I think it's something we're going to see in the future in high-profile cases and death-penalty cases," the veteran prosecutor said.

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