Monday, February 20, 2012
The West Memphis Three: An A-Z List of Justice Gone Wrong
The following opinion by Meghan Lalonde was originally posted at Law As She Is Spoke, an online project of Program in Law and Journalism at New York Law School, on February 16, 2012.
West Memphis, 1993: Three 8-year-old boys brutally murdered in small-town Arkansas. Three satanic teenage “punks” to blame it on. When looking for suspects, these teenagers fit the bill – long hair, heavy metal fans, all dressed in black. There was even a confession. The story caught the attention of two HBO filmmakers, who decided to make a documentary about the horrible crime that traumatized the community.
The film that introduced the world to defendants Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley – the West Memphis Three (WM3) – wasn’t supposed to be about wrongful convictions. It wasn’t supposed to be a project that led to two additional films over the next 18 years. It just turned out that way.
Last month, HBO premiered the third and final chapter of the documentary, “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory.” I’d heard about it and thought it seemed interesting so on a rainy Friday afternoon I turned on the TV to give the first one a shot. Six hours, two sandwiches, and a full liter of Diet Coke later, I was reeling.
Searching for order in all the disorder, I’ve boiled it down to an A to Z list of some of the haunting and perplexing aspects about this terrible miscarriage of justice. There will be no “Spoiler Alert” here. Google the film and you’ll see that the three convicted murderers are free, released in August 2011 after entering into Alford Pleas (see “P” below). As with so many epic stories, knowing the ending doesn’t minimize the gripping nature of the journey.
Alternative suspects. One of the many critical shortcomings of the West Memphis Police Department was failing to search for leads on additional suspects. First, police never investigated Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of one victim with a history of violence. Mr. Hobbs claimed he hadn’t seen the children the day they went missing, but his neighbors are certain they saw him with the kids after school, around the time they were last seen. In 1993, these neighbors were never questioned. Police also botched the investigation of an unidentified black man who was seen at a local restaurant covered in mud and blood on the evening of the murders. They collected blood samples from inside the restaurant, then lost the evidence.
Blood. When the bodies of the three boys were discovered in a stream they were found naked, hogtied, stabbed, and mutilated. The prosecution argued that the murders occurred near where the bodies were found, but if that were true, wouldn’t there have been blood found at the scene? There wasn’t. Not even a drop. The use of a knife and ritual bloodletting thought to be part of satanic rituals were integral to the prosecution’s theory against the WM3 and yet there wasn’t any blood to be found. Recent forensic analysis has explained that the scratches and skin flaying of the victims were actually due to animal predation.
Celebrity support. Celebrities figured among thousands of supporters who learned about the WM3 from the first film. In 2010, Johnny Depp and Eddie Vedder hosted a benefit concert in their support. When the WM3 were released in August, Damien Echols, the defendant who had spent 18 years on death row, said he wanted to go to Disneyland. Mr. Depp made it happen.
Death row. “Welcome to where time stands still/No one leaves and no one will” are the lyrics to one of Damien Echols’s favorite Metallica songs, “Sanitarium.” It’s a fitting description for solitary confinement at Varner Super Maximum Security Unit in the Arkansas Department of Correction. “You have to create your own world in there or else you’ll go insane from that stuff,” he said in an interview with Piers Morgan after his release. See “S” for more on sentencing.
Eleven. Perhaps the most chilling quote from the entire case came from Chief Investigator Gary Gitchell. At a press conference in the early stages of prosecution, Mr. Gitchell was asked how strong he thought the case was on a scale of 1-10. His answer: “Eleven.” Mr. Gitchell has not spoken publicly about the release of the WM3.
Freaks. In a town filled with bible thumpin’ Christians, you might be able to guess how well three longhaired heavy metal-loving teenagers fit in. They didn’t. “Just look at the freaks,” said Pamela Hobbs, the mother of one victim. “They look like punks.” Damien Echols had even dabbled in Wicca, a religion historically tied to witchcraft, easily making him the strangest and most targeted member of the bunch. At the time, he said, “What people don’t understand they try to destroy or ridicule, try to make it look bad or wrong. West Memphis is a second Salem right now.” He was only 19 at the time but he was right.
Guilty. The WM3 were all found guilty of murder. Given the lack of evidence to tie them to the crimes, these guilty verdicts are both astonishing and frightening.
HBO. Every now and then a documentary can have a direct impact on its subjects (see “The Thin Blue Line”). The WM3 will tell you that if not for the first “Paradise Lost” film they would not be free today.
IQ. One of the WM3, Jessie Misskelley, had an IQ score between 72-73 and functioned at the level of a third grader. When questioned by the police about his friends, he stated he committed the crimes along with them. According to experts on coerced confessions, Jessie is the type of person who is likely to give a false confession — easily confused and wanting to please his interrogators. See “Q” for more.
Justice. As of now, there is no justice for the WM3 because they remain convicted murderers in the eyes of the law, “They sent us to prison for the rest of our lives,” said Jason Baldwin after he was released, “Then we had to come here and the state says ‘we’ll let you go only if you admit guilt.’ That’s not justice no matter how you look at it.” (See “P” to learn more).
Knives. A knife was (conveniently) found in a lake behind Jason Baldwin’s house (months after the WM3 were arrested), and played a critical role for the prosecution, which suggested the knife was used to mutilate the young victims. A second knife was given to HBO filmmakers by John Mark Byers, the stepfather of one victim, just days before his home was searched. This knife was turned over to police after a producer at HBO noticed there was blood on it. Much of the first two films dealt with the suppositions on both sides that one or the other of these knives was the murder weapon. As noted earlier (see “B”) today it seems knives were not involved in the murders.
Love. It’s probably the last thing you’d associate with death row, but here we are. Three years into his prison stay, Damien Echols started receiving letters from a woman in Brooklyn who’d seen “Paradise Lost.” They began exchanging letters and just over a year later, Lorri Davis, the architect turned activist, visited him in prison and moved to Little Rock. In 1999 they were married in the prison visiting room. Ms. Davis has worked tirelessly for his release.
Media coverage. From the moment news broke of the murders the story made national headlines. But back in 1993, the media’s coverage of the arrests painted the WM3 as satanic killers. They were fighting an uphill battle, one that in hindsight, they had no chance of winning.
Natalie Maines. The lead singer of the Dixie Chicks was an active supporter of the WM3 during their time in prison. In fact, she was so vocal that one victim’s stepfather, Terry Hobbs, sued her for defamation after she made remarks suggesting he was involved with the murders. It was in defending her for defamation that her attorneys interviewed Mr. Hobbs and gleaned facts that further incriminated him. Today, he is seen as the most likely murderer, but he has not been arrested. In any case, his suit against Ms. Maines was dismissed.
Occult expert. Prosecutors for the state used the “expert” testimony of Dr. Dale Griffis to show the WM3 were conducting a satanic ritual. The retired police officer who started a second career as an occult expert stumbled on cross-examination when he admitted that he hadn’t taken a single class to receive his PhD from Columbia Pacific University. The university was sued by the state of California and shut down in 1999 for failure to meet minimum academic standards.
Plea, Alford. This plea allows a criminal defendant to plead guilty without admitting guilt and maintaining innocence while still acknowledging that prosecutors have enough “evidence” for a conviction. The plea gets its name from 1970’s North Carolina v. Alford and was proposed by defense attorneys for the WM3 as a way to finally get their clients out of prison. The State of Arkansas agreed to the deal to avoid being sued to the tune of several million dollars for its mishandling of the case and the years of their lives the WM3 lost because of it.
Questioning of Jessie Misskelley. When police picked him up for questioning, Jessie Misskelley told them he had been at a wrestling match in another town. After 12 hours of questioning, for which the police mysteriously only have 45 minutes of audiotape, Jessie offered police a confession that implicated the WM3. “I don’t like people keep on asking me questions when I done told them once,” Jessie said in a recent GQ article. “That’s what they did, they just egged it on. And finally, I just told the cops, look, you know, I did it. I killed them and everything.” This was the all the police had linking Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin to the crime. Jessie Misskelley was convicted for the crimes at his separate trial, but then refused to repeat this confession during the Echols-Baldwin trial — despite being offered considerable time off his own sentence if he agreed.
Robin Hood Hills. This small patch of woods where the neighborhood children conjures innocence and play but sadly, this is where the victim’s bodies were found: naked, hogtied, and submerged in water.
Sentencing. All three defendants were found guilty for the murders of Christopher Byers, Stevie Branch, and Michael Moore. Jessie Misskelley was sentenced to life in prison plus forty years, Jason Baldwin to three consecutive life sentences, and Damien Echols was sentenced to death by lethal injection.
Trailer parks. At one time or another, each of the WM3, lived in or near the Lakeshore and Highland Trailer Parks in northeastern Arkansas. “We were nothing but poor trailer trash,” Damien Echols said of his upbringing while incarcerated. The community was poor and uneducated, and had it not been for the film that shocked its viewers and roused a grassroots protest, it is doubtful that Damien Echols would be alive today.
Unusual supporter. In the first two films, John Mark Byers seemed to be the likely murderer. He figures largely in all three installments, castigating the devilish nature of the WM3, despite mounting evidence of their innocence of the crime. He has since apologized and worked actively on their behalf.
Villains or victims? It’s still a split decision in West Memphis.
West of Memphis. The title of Peter Jackson’s spin on the case made its debut at the Sundance Film Festival last month and it isn’t shy about suggesting Terry Hobbs committed the murders.
Xmas 1993. In the first “Paradise Lost,” the parents of victim Christopher Byers visit his grave and put a small Christmas tree on his tombstone. As strange as Mr. Byers appears to be (you have to see the film to understand what I mean by this) I couldn’t help but grieve with the Byers, celebrating the first Christmas without their son.
Youth. A lot changes in 18 years, just ask the WM3. Damien Echols, reflecting on all his years in prison, said, “It’s odd now when they tell me things like, ‘you’ve got arthritis,’ or when I see my hairline’s receding and my hair’s thinning.” Three teenaged boys were tried as adults, and lost their youth inside maximum-security prisons… for crimes they did not commit.
Zero. Nothing in evidence points to the WM3 being involved with the 1993 murders. Nothing ever has.
Legal As She Is Spoke is an online project of the Program in Law and Journalism at New York Law School. Our site reports on the state of legal journalism and encourages conversation about the accuracy and felicity of reporting on law.