Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelly are finally free men. Eighteen years ago, they were convicted of a horrible crime none of them committed.
The mutilated bodies of three little boys were found dumped in a creek in West Memphis, Arkansas. Untrained for this “sort of thing”, the local police destroyed the crime scene, left behind their own fingerprints, shoe prints and even cigarette butts. The outrage was immediate. Just as quickly, it turned into hysteria.
Because of the nature of the crime, the speculation, the “had to be”s, erupted throughout the neighborhood. It “had to be” Satanists—who else would cut up a little boy that way? Faggot Satanists. Shouldn’t be allowed around decent folk. Obviously, it “had to be” the three weirdoes, the freaks who wore black and listened to that head-banger music.
Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelly.
The three men were respectively 18, 16 and 17 years old when the crime was committed.
Most of my friends and I were just in our 20s. We all wore black. We listened to that ‘devil’s music’ and watched ‘them slasher movies’. None of us were religious, unless you count “recovering Catholic” as a religion. None of us, despite our trappings and obsession with the morbid, were Satanists. What we were is what the WM3 were: misfits surrounded by the ignorant and the hysterical—both real and imagined. In your 20s, everyone is an uneducated asshole to be feared or mocked. From 14 until about 25, you learn backwards—you go from knowing everything to the realization that you weren’t only wrong about it all, but you can’t even fathom what the reality might be.
It happened, right there, in Arkansas. A bunch of hicks rounded up the “art fags” and tied them to a stake. But you expect that kind of shit from those banjo-playing mouth breathers down in the Bible Belt. Don’t’cha?
There was no evidence to tie them to the crime scene. Not before the cops jumped up and down all over it, not later. Not 18 years later.
The reason many of us knew of the case was due to the two documentaries, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills and Paradise Lost 2: Revelations. Those of us in film school had tenuous ties to the filmmakers, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky. They had made another film about justice miscarriage called Brother’s Keeper, and that was mandatory viewing in our doc class. Plus, they became popular rentals from the local video stores. Because these three guys were so much like us. Or we were so much like them. It was our first glimpse at the real world. Our first taste of real moral outrage. Our first sense that “it can’t happen here” is complete and utter comfort bullshit.
“Free the West Memphis Three!” became our “Attica!” We wore t-shirts emblazoned with the young men’s mug shots. It was the cause of our generation, whatever-the-hell generation we were. (What were we? Gen-X? Did it matter?)
The West Memphis Three showed us humanity in group-form: a powder keg of pitchforks waiting to be lit, to turn into a Simpsons mob, to march down on whatever scared them most that day.
My rhetoric doesn’t come from prejudice, or, not entirely. “Them faggots” and “them freaks” were used a lot by the Arkansas neighbors in both docs. The word “God” is used a lot too. As in “didn’t have God in ‘em.” “They need to see the Wrath of God.”
We were guilty of snap judgments too. While neither doc took a definite stance, preferring to let the evidence and the people speak for themselves, it was “obvious” to us that it “had to be” John Mark Byers, the admittedly abusive (“Not overly so”) father of one of the dead boys. By his own ranting, we painted him as a psychotic at worst, bi-polar at least. He didn’t show much in the way of grief, but he definitely loved the cameras shoved in his face.
But none of us had any evidence before us either. It was just “obvious” that this dumb, slack-jawed hick “had to be” the killer. I mean, he gave the filmmakers a blood-crusted utility knife that he said had never been used. He’d had his teeth voluntarily extracted not too long after the murders, when dental impressions could be used to match the bite marks found on the little boys. He passed a polygraph but while on anti-psychotics.
What the fuck were those asshole “authorities” missing?
Eighteen years of new evidence. New theories proven and disproven. The only “real” evidence was a signed confession from Jessie Misskelly, a borderline-retarded man with a 72 I.Q. who had been questioned, alone, by police for more than four hours. With obvious gaps in the audio recordings indicating that the machine had been turned off for periods of time. While They fed him what they wanted him to say? His details never matched, no matter how many times he told the story. Because they were innocent or because he had a 72 I.Q.?
The prosecutors only had to “aw shucks” the jury, spout some “lack of God” and everyone was out for blood. The same yer-honor, Circuit Court Judge David Burnett, presided over the first trial and each subsequent hearing. The convictions were upheld each time: Baldwin and Misskelly would serve life in prison; Echols was to get the death penalty. He was, after all, the weirdest of the three. At 18 years old, he knew everything. So he smirked at the flimsy evidence during the first trial. In later ones, he never smiled. You age quicker in prison. Particularly if you’re in there for child murder.
We grew up with our eyes on their status. We continued to shout “Free the West Memphis Three!” We wore their shirts, donated to their defense, waited for another documentary. The latter is coming, soon, but now Joe and Bruce will have a new ending.
The State of Arkansas admitted that there wasn’t enough evidence to proceed with a new trial, but the three men still plead guilty. Key word: plea. They took a bargain to get out of prison. Even though the deal says they can still maintain their innocence, they’ll be on the books as child murderers for the rest of their lives. They said “We’re sorry, we’ll never kill little boys ever again, even though we didn’t really do it”, to get Damien off death row, and Jason and Jessie out of their cells. And by doing this, the Great State of Arkansas Wins. Justice has been served, but more importantly, the West Memphis Three cannot sue the state for wrongful imprisonment, cannot and will not be compensated for eighteen lost years. They cannot say that the Great State of Arkansas was wrong.
But the West Memphis Three are now free!
That’s our new battle cry and some of us are breathing a sigh of relief, but we’re all breathing fire. This isn’t justice, but it is freedom. What’s more important? It’s a long time between 20 and 40, as any of the Three can tell you. Closer to 40, you learned and relearned what the world is. It’s money. It’s finding blame. “It’s not my fault”.
Jury tampering, evidence mishandling, leaking of evidence, a prejudiced judge and jury foreman.
Three dead little boys. Three men who grew haunted behind bars, facing stuff that would make the worst episode of Oz look like Happy Fun Time.
There’s no justice to be had today. There’s the freedom that open-air brings, but that doesn’t sponge away the pain the Great State of Arkansas caused those three men. It won’t erase what they’ll be carrying around with them. They plead guilty, though the law knows, understands, supports, that they didn’t really do it. Everyone is getting what they want in this scenario, fellas. You go free and the Great State of Arkansas can finally prove to the world that we was right all along and maybe tourism will pick up a little around here. Seems to be a big gap in the 30-50 year olds visitin’.
What’s worse, the Great State of Arkansas couldn’t care less who killed those three little boys, whose lives were less than a third of the Three. Of ours.
Welcome to the outside, guys. You have a legion of supporters who, I hope desperately, won’t turn its back on you now that you’re free. You need jobs? We’ll help you out. We know you didn’t do it. You survived this long in that horrible hole. Don’t let the real world stomp you down further. Be brave. It might get harder from here.
But forgive us, U.S.A., if we’re not up to waving the American Flag today, if we’re not hugging cops or judges today.
Tomorrow we’ll mourn the still-decaying corpse of the American Judicial System. Today, we celebrate.
The West Memphis Three are Free.