Mon
Aug 22 2011 2:00pm

The Unsettling Case of the West Memphis Three

Devil’s Knot: The True Story of the West Memphis ThreeThe 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. 

Damien Echols at the time of his arrestJust 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?

Damien Echols on the day of his releaseThe 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

Subscribe to this conversation (must be logged in):
9 comments
MaryC
1. maryc
It's sad to think of other people who are still incarcerated even though there is evidence that they did not commit the crime. All of it seems to stem from a state not wishing to admit it made a mistake and the costly lawsuits that would follow. I watched part of a press briefing the three did wherein one of the three did not wish to accept the deal and only did so because he realized that Echols had been in solitary confinement for eighteen years.
Neliza Drew
2. nelizadrew
Our system still largely depends on whose lawyer can tell the best story to a group of largely-dimwitted "average Americans" on a jury. And yet, it's sadly still the best we could come up with.
Kristin Centorcelli
3. MyBookishWays
Very well written and thought provoking. When I heard the news of their release, I was at the same time happy, and devastated. They'll be freed, but the fact that the killer goes free and an enormous miscarriage of justice was perpetrated, just devastates me.
4. Dee
this was an absolutely obscene, miscarriage of justice. I am delighted that they are now free, but disgusyed that they had to make that plea. They should be able to sue the state...not that there would be adequate money to compensate them for all of the horror
5. victims
What about the dead children..I guess no one cares about them anymore. I guess they were all too poor for anyone to care about.
Christopher Morgan
6.
I don't think that anyone is dismissing the victims. The murders were horrible and horrific and I'm comfortable in saying that all of us hope whomever is/was responsible is brought to justice and held accountable.

The issue here was that there were three men who were falsely accused and villified solely because of how they chose to dress and the taste of their music. That's not cool at all. It is a gross miscarriage of justice and does absolutley no honor to the memory of the victims. I think MyBookishWays sums it up for a lot of us.
Jake Hinkson
7. JakeHinkson
The three men falsely imprisoned 18 years for this crime were also poor. All three lived in the same trailer park in fact. Putting innocent people in prison isn't justice. Justice is finding the person or persons actually responsible. That outcome seems unlikely to happen now that Arkansas has chosen to let the WM3 go free while absurdly still calling them guilty, all in order to duck a civil lawsuit the state would surely lose. People SHOULD be angry--they should be uncontrollably furious in fact--but there are six victims in this case: the three children murdered and the three teenagers robbed of nearly two decades of life for a terrible crime they did not commit. Anger should be pointed where it belongs: the West Memphis police force and the state of Arkansas.
8. julz
Very well written. The thing that is so horrific is the crimes committed to those little boys and we all know that as its a haunting nightmare. To top it off, the prosecutors and Driver, who was teasing Damien for years, decided that he was the one who did it along with two side kicks, one of whom barely knew Damien and the other a god fearing school boy, who had nothing to do with wicca or interests in other religions but nooo the state lumped the three young men altogether as satanic cult members. Horrible misjustice and inprisonment has been dismissed, not to mention the "lack of evidence" of any beatings, rape or torture in prison according to the haters and prison system, but why would they tell the truth? like they are going to turn around and say "yeah we enjoyed physically torturing and abusing these three men" i mean come on. Guilt has been walking free since 93 and still walks free.... those men have not been able to live normally for 18 yrs and Echols suffers health problems and all three have PTSD and one would. Awful does not begin to describe it. Amanda knox, rubin carter etc are other examples of wrongful convictions... will it ever end?
9. #myopinion
I think that the boys that were convicted of this crime are innocent.I think that man that was in that fast food restaurant killed them boys.
Post a comment