SCOTTSBLUFF — Admitting your shortcomings is difficult to do. But that’s what attorney Paul Ford needed to do to help his client.
Ford represented Jason Baldwin in the West Memphis 3 case, which received national attention. Baldwin, Damien Echols and Jessie Misskelley Jr. were convicted of killing three 8-year old boys. Ford was in Scottsbluff on Thursday to speak with a group of lawyers at the Bob Chaloupka Trial Skills Seminar about the importance of confirmation bias, reexamining your own bias and how it can affect a case before it ever reaches trial.
Ford said confirmation bias, or framing, played a part in the community believing the young men were guilty. When the boys went missing and were found the next day submerged in water, naked, bound and mutilated, it gripped the town with fear. The killings were labeled a satanic ritual murder in the Bible Belt.
“That’s a bad place to be if you’re representing someone who’s supposed to be a satanic ritual killer,” Ford said. “So, they go looking for the weird kids and the weird people in town.”
Thirty days passed and Detective Gary Gitchell was under pressure. The problem was there were no clues, DNA, fingerprints, footprints, tire tracks or witnesses. A reward was offered and increased. A lottery mentality began to set in.
“Rumors abound, particularly about an unusual suspect (Echols) with a satanic name,” Ford said.
Misskelley had an IQ of 62. He thought he was going to get the reward, but he was set up by a woman who thought Misskelley would give the reward to her.
“The problem is, his facts are wrong,” Ford said. “He had the wrong time, location, rope, knot and injuries.”
When Gitchell held a news conference, someone asked him how strong a case he had on a scale of one to 10 against Misskelley. Gitchell replied 11 and nothing else. Gitchell helped frame the case with his comments. The media framed it as a satanic cult ritual, printing part of Misskelley’s confession.
“The confession has only the horrific parts,” he said. “Nothing about the wrong information is published.”
Ford said the media framed the case and the media won the case. Confirmation bias was on display once Misskelley, who was tried first, was convicted.
“Everyone in Arkansas knows the case,” Ford said. “The confession was front page news and was constantly in the news.”
Baldwin and Echols were tried together. They are convicted. Baldwin needs to file an ineffective assistance appeal, also known as a Rule 37 petition, within 30 days, but doesn’t have the money. Ford files it himself. In order to help his client, he must admit he failed.
When documentary filmmakers come to town, things begin to change, he said.. HBO airs the documentary. The documentary used Metallica’s music, a band once accused in the past of being devil worshipers.
“They (Metallica) were incensed and enraged,” Ford said. “They opened their pocketbook for these gentleman.”
The money helped the young men hire lawyers who could dedicate 100 percent of their time to the case. Ford worked with Baldwin’s new lawyers, telling them every way he failed. The new lawyers amended the Rule 37 petition.
“I didn’t do a good job on that either,” he said. “I was accused of ineffective counsel because I agreed to allow the documentary to be made and I volunteered to take the case.”
Still, Ford wanted to help. He knew these powerful lawyers with their large staffs could change things. This went beyond his failings as a lawyer.
“It’s not easy to admit your inadequacies as a trial lawyer,” he said. “You want to be bigger and badder than everyone else, but that won’t help your client.”
At the Rule 37 hearing, he was cross-examined for six hours about what he should have done better.
“The most powerful part of it for me is not on film,” he said.
As Ford left the witness stand, Baldwin was sitting in the room, shackled, listening.
“I walked by Jason. He stands up and he hugs me and said, ‘Thank you for all that you did for me,’” Ford said.
Baldwin was 16 years old when he was arrested. He walked free on Aug. 9, 2011. Ford said it is even more important today to know the powerful influences that frame a situation. He urged the lawyers he spoke with to think about their cases and how they are framed.
“In criminal cases, you have to frame it before you ever get to the opening statement,” he said. “What frames the case is what wins the case.”