Something a little different and wordy, but I would love to discuss. Please share your thoughts!
The WM3, probably from the early 2000's
In my travels over the years, I’ve met more than one person who has not even known that Arkansas is a state (“Is that in Texas?” – true story) or at best supplanted their ignorance with gross jokes about President Bill Clinton. That’s what we’ve got going for us here in Arkansas. The Clintons, college football, and now this… A situation in West Memphis that is both a great reeling tragedy and a demonstration of what a clusterfuck our judicial system is.
For the uninitiated, on May 6th, 1993, three boys around the ages of 8 were found murdered by a wooded creek in West Memphis, Arkansas. A small, largely poor community was left horrified. Between this sense of panic, the limited resources of the WMPD, and a bizarre “confession” from Jessie Misskelley Jr. (who was 17, interrogated for well-over 10 hours without a lawyer or his parents present [only 45-ish minutes of which were recorded], and is mentally handicapped with an I.Q. of 72), three men were arbitrarily arrested about a month after the murders: Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley Jr. Rumors about Satanism and ritualistic killing engulf the case. In 1994, Jessie Misskelley Jr. was tried, convicted, and sentenced to life +40 years. Damien Echols (18 at the time) and Jason Baldwin (16 at the time) were tried together. Damien was sentenced to death; Jason was sentenced to life imprisonment. The main source of evidence was Jessie’s so-called “confession”, the well-known fact Damien was interested in/practiced Wicca, largely circumstantial “hear-say” evidence (“Well, I HEARD him say that he killed those boys.”), and the boys love of wearing black and listening to metal. They would become to be known as the West Memphis Three.
This case gained major notoriety due to the HBO doc Paradise Lost, which filmed their entire trials. I would highly recommend it if you are interested in the case (it’s basically required viewing and was entered in as EVIDENCE at an appeals trial), but it is not for the faint of heart. It is really quite strange how the documentary process became A PART of the situation. The documentary was everything. There would be no Free the WM3 movement without it.
Paradise Lost: Revelations was a second installment filmed in the early 2000’s. It presented new forensic evidence omitted due to budget/intelligence constraints in the first go-around. I believe this one is arguably one to pass on. It focuses largely on one of the victim’s step-fathers, Byers, who’s mentally ill and weird at the best of times. The film also has, what I feel is, gratuitous use of crime scene film reels which are just down-right degrading to the victims.
**Edit: Upon reflection, I think focusing so much on the erratic behavior of Byers (at the time) is interesting in that why was he not ever a person of interest with so much circumstantial evidence surrounding him? Damien Echols was sentenced to death with more than enough gray area to feel there was a reasonable doubt. Yet Byers, as far as I know, was never a person of interest. He had a bloody knife, all of his teeth removed, was on heavy psychoactive drugs and on and on... WTF?!**
A third installment was being completed, Paradise Lost: Purgatory, when something amazing happened. They were released.
Last fall, a benefit concert was held here in Little Rock (my only great regret in life is not skipping out of work to attend it). A month later, the WM3 were granted permission to a new evidentry hearing; they had been given the legal run-around-fuckyouverymuch up until this point. That hearing was supposed to be this Fall/Winter, but then the state prosectution did something very interesting…
An Alford plea/deal. A WHAT?! Basically, the WM3 had to assert that the state had enough evidence to convict them in the first place (thereby pleading “guilty”) and they cannot sue the state for false imprisonment or wrongful conviction. In exchange… freedom. 18 years later.
Now my legalese may be off in some places, but that is the gist of the thing. It’s much more complex. A whirly mess really. And for what? There’s now 6 victims of this crime, plus a stabby McAsshole perp who is long gone by now. Everyone loses, except for the State of Arkansas – who dodged a political bullet by blackmailing the WM3 into accepting a deal to avoid going into a new hearing that the State would lose because THE WM3 ARE INNOCENT. THERE IS LITERALLY NO HARD EVIDENCE LINKING THESE MEN, WHO WERE ALSO CHILDREN THEMSELVES AT THE TIME, TO THIS HORRIFIC CRIME. JUSTICE HAS NOT BEEN SERVED FOR THE VICTIMS OR THEIR FAMILIES.
I’ve followed this case off and on for about 10 years. I think people relate to this case for several reasons. Mainly, if someone looked through our books or Google search histories and used that as evidence to send us to jail forever – we would all be fucked. And also, many of us have been the literal “black sheep” in our families or communities. The witch for burning.
This case is also a testament to why the death penalty is bullshit and how our judicial system has been whittled down to a bartering system. Everything is a plea-deal, nothing is about truth. It’s about what you can “prove” or pay for.
I am all at once ashamed of my state (“Oh well, case-closed … again. That’s all folks!”), elated that the WM3 are finally free, and in love with Eddie Vedder and really all of the people who stood up and gave a damn.
Eddie threw the WM3 a party in Memphis the evening after they were released.
This is Eddie Vedder, Damien Echols, and Damien's wife Lorri Davis.
The take-away for me is to be aware, be grateful for your life and privileges (The Arkansas Times reported that Damien had fresh pineapple and a bagel for breakfast on his first morning as a free man… which he had never tasted before in his life), and VOTE. Be aware of the assholes in power and what the fuck is going on. The one power we have is to VOTE. VOTE DAMMIT!
This is definitely something that will be talked about for the rest of my life. Thanks for listening.
** EDIT: 09/19 Here's a link to the full episode of CBS's 48 Hours Mystery West Memphis 3: Free that has recent interviews with Damien and his wife. I also learned that, at the original trial, Jason was given the option to testify against Damien in return for a 5 YEAR SENTENCE. JASON COULD HAVE GOTTEN 5 YEARS, OMFG. But, yeah, you should watch this! **