Alford Pleas for Smug Defendants: Michael Peterson vs. Damien Echols

Michael Peterson and Damien Echols are easily two of the most famous main characters in true crime documentary history. Peterson is the leading man in The Staircase with Echols appearing as the primary defendant in the Paradise Lost trilogy alongside Jason Baldwin and Jesse Misskelley. 

Peterson and Echols have more in common than their Errol Flynn-like ability to get top billing in a true crime documentary. Each was smug on the stand to the point where it may have eventually hurt them in the trial.

Peterson and Echols couldn’t be much different yet the same. They thought they knew better than everyone else. Both would serve time behind bars before eventually agreeing to an Alford Plea.

Going completely off just what we saw in the documentaries, who was the smuggiest Alford Plea true crime character in film history?

The case against Michael Peterson from The Staircase

Peterson is so unlikable that he comes across as the type of person who doesn’t even realize what a jerk he is and may have never experienced it a day in his life. What made The Staircase so compelling was how we could see him interact with his family and lawyers during and after the trial. At very few points does Peterson ever seem like an endearing fellow. He does appear to care about his children in some way. Aside from that, it’s his personality that makes him a true crime documentary legend for all of the wrong reasons.

Peterson even seems to hold back at times from being the entitled person he believes he is. He has done well in life. He really does appear to be someone who thinks he is better than everyone else and could commit the perfect crime then get away with it.

To the credit of the filmmakers, it’s not editing to create this villain. Peterson is nearly Robert Durst level of buffoon. In the end, I’m still not convinced of his guilt or innocence. Am I too blinded by his character?

The case against Damien Echols in Paradise Lost

In the Paradise Lost films, we see how Echols doesn’t come from a rich family nor has he experienced enough life to have a full understanding of how people might perceive his cockiness. Echols is a teenage goth in the early 1990s who has to live out his healthiest years in a prison. He puts up a front. I’m not sure Paradise Lost ever shows his real personality at any point. He goes from an arrogant teenager to whatever character it is he creates for himself as a prisoner in the second two films.

For a kid to go on the stand and present himself this way, I think it absolutely helped convict him. Misskelley and Baldwin were always the far more timid defendants whose personalities felt more innocent. Echols comes across as the friend who would say “Don’t worry, I got this” and then try to belittle the judge. Echols has swagger in all of the wrong places. He’s not likable. He only became a folk hero because so many others who felt misrepresented in society could relate.

In the latter two parts of Paradise Lost, we do see a more mature version of him, partly because he has a haircut. There is some personal growth as one would naturally think there is for someone aging behind bars. Has he learned his lesson in prison that smugness gets you nowhere or is he the ultimate manipulator?

The Verdict: Michael Peterson is more annoying

I don’t know who is more smug but Peterson takes the cake when it comes to annoyingness. There’s just something about certain people. Although my feelings about the guilt or innocence in both cases are about the same, this isn’t about the trial and evidence in the crimes. This is about being a kind human being with a sense of how people feel about you.

Peterson, the far older of the two challengers in this true crime fight, should know better. Echols has the built-in excuse of being a kid. Misunderstood youth is a far better defense than “an owl did it so why are you looking at me?”

Let’s hand the trophy to Peterson. He’s the smuggest of the two.

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