Three murder cases in the news recently would seem to have little in common. Michael Morton is a Texas pharmacist convicted in 1986 of murdering his wife. Jeffrey MacDonald is the Princeton- and Yale-educated Green Beret medical doctor in prison for the 1972 murder of his wife and two small children. The “West Memphis Three” are the teenagers convicted of the 1993 killing of three boys in Arkansas.
One aspect all these cases share, however, is the inordinate attention paid to them. Next month, for example, “West of Memphis,” a documentary produced by Oscar-winner Peter Jackson, opens ‑ at least the third film about the case. As for MacDonald, adding to the stack of books and hours of television already devoted to him, the celebrated documentary filmmaker Errol Morris recently weighed in with a 500-page book, “A Wilderness of Error,” arguing that MacDonald was “railroaded” by “unethical” prosecutors. Morton’s case, meanwhile, has been featured on “60 Minutes” and NPR’s “Weekend Edition” as well as in a New York Times editorial and a recent Times op-ed column by Joe Nocera.
Something is amiss when you compare the media’s fixation on these cases with that of Edward Lee Elmore, a South Carolina man who served 25 30 years for a crime he did not commit. There have been no editorials, no “60 Minutes” reports and, most disturbingly, no investigations. Yet the evidence of prosecutorial misconduct makes what happened to Elmore look far more egregious.
Elmore was sent to death row at age 23 and spent more than half his life there, convicted for the murder of a 75-year-old widow in Greenwood, South Carolina.
Morton was released last year, after 25 years in prison, when his lawyers found exonerating evidence that the police and prosecution had withheld at the time of his trial. He was falsely convicted, his lawyers said, as the result of a “sin of omission.” Similarly, in the West Memphis Three case, the police and prosecutors ignored evidence that the three men were innocent. (They were released last year in a legal agreement that allowed them to maintain their innocence while pleading guilty.)