The West Memphis Three are free. Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley Jr.—who have been in jail in Arkansas for eighteen years for the murders of three little boys in 1993—were released from prison on August 19th. Baldwin and Misskelley were serving life sentences. Echols was on death row.
Their case became famous, in part, because of the film Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills. Documenting the investigation around the gruesome murders of three eight year old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas, the film showed how a lynch-mob mentality soon focused on three teenagers (Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley) who wore black clothing, listened to heavy metal music, and read Stephen King thrillers.
The film is an amazing document of Southern injustice and satanic paranoia. After the three teenagers were convicted, a second film, Paradise Lost: Revelations, followed. Convicted in large part because of their interest in certain music and books, they ironically became a cause celebre for people with similar interests. Headbangers all over the world thought, “That could have been me and my friends on trial because we liked Metallica.”
I won’t use this space to examine all the compelling evidence of the innocence of the WM3. For more on the details of the case, I refer you to Mara Leveritt’s book Devil’s Knot: The True Story of The West Memphis Three and Echols’ memoir Almost Home: My Life Story Vol. 1. You can read a short primer on their website.
What I want to talk about is the odd feeling I have right now. I was living in Arkansas the summer of 1993, and I remember the case well. Although I was graduating from high school, looking out on an uncertain future, and was therefore naturally distracted, the case dominated the news for months. It was all but unavoidable. And what did I think back then? I thought they were guilty.
Now that they’ve been released, many will rush to say they always had doubts. But let me tell you, back then, everyone I knew in Arkansas thought these three guys were Satan-worshiping child-killers. Simply put, they were not presumed innocent. They were presumed guilty.
Of course, I now know that there were people back then who had doubts. And I wish I could say I was one of them, but I wasn’t. I read a few stories in the paper, listened to some radio commentators, watched a few minutes of a newscast here or there. The narrative in the Arkansas media was that these three guys were child-murdering Satan-worshipers. Without thinking much about it, I accepted that story.
Just a few years later, once a friend of mine encouraged me to look at the facts of the case, I realized that a miscarriage of justice had taken place. The state of Arkansas was going to murder Damien Echols. Not execute. We were going to murder him in cold blood for something he did not do. I became convinced of this to a moral certainty. So I did what I could. I sent in money to help save Damien’s life. I wrote a letter to then-governor Mike Huckabee. I spread the word when I could. Not too long ago, I finally got around to writing Damien a letter—something I’d been meaning to do for years.
Now, the WM3 are free, and what do I feel? Many things. Anger for one. The absurdity of their convictions has been matched only by the absurdity of their release. The WM3 copped what is known as an Alford plea, which is a legal paradox in which the defendant asserts his innocence but concedes that the prosecution could still convict him of the crime. Logically, this development is ridiculous. These three men were already convicted in court of multiple acts of murder. If they’re guilty, they should be in jail. If they’re innocent, they should be set free and the real killers should be brought to justice. This plea allows Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley to go free—which is wonderful—but it also allows the state of Arkansas to wash its hands of the whole matter. Knowing the impending retrial that was just over the horizon would almost certainly exonerate the defendants and leave the state of Arkansas open to a bank-breaking lawsuit, the state made the defendants an offer they couldn’t refuse: You get to go free, you get to maintain your innocence, but you’ll be guilty in the eyes of the court, sentenced to time already served and ten years probation. The whole thing stinks. Worse still—and unforgivably so—it closes the book on the murders of Stevie Branch, Michael Moore, and Christopher Byers. With the case now officially “solved,” who will find the person or persons responsible for killing these three young boys?
The whole thing’s a damn disgrace. Which is where the anger comes in. West Memphis botched the case, and Arkansas kept three innocent men locked up for nothing. The beatings and rape they endured in jail have now been shrugged off. The fact that the state has been actively trying to kill Damien Echols for eighteen years can now been ignored. One assumes that the plea was put in place to shield law enforcement and governmental officials in West Memphis and, higher up the food chain, in the Arkansas Statehouse and governor’s office. Everyone in power in Arkansas has kicked this can down the road for nearly twenty years (yeah, I’m lookin’ at you, Mike Huckabee).
But past anger, to be honest, what I feel is a certain sense of guilt. Eighteen years ago I just assumed these guys were guilty, and then I looked away. I’m ashamed that my home state robbed these men of nearly twenty years of their lives, and I suppose that the only consolation is that this debacle could have been much worse. A system that allows the state to execute people is, by necessity, a system that allows the state to execute an innocent person by mistake. Not to put too fine a point on it, Damien Echols might well be dead right now if a couple of filmmakers from HBO hadn’t decided to make a movie about him. He is, in a grotesque sense, an extremely lucky man.
Jake Hinkson, The Night Editor