I have never been interested in the crime genre, true or otherwise, unless you count the whodunit novels of G.K. Chesterton’s ‘Father Brown’ or Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘Sherlock Holmes’, because it encompasses aspects of human nature I’d just rather not be exposed to.
Roughly nine months ago I was loitering in the lounge room while my dad was watching the Crime & Investigation Network on pay TV when I found myself being sucked into a documentary about three young boys accused of the horrific murders of three children. That documentary was called ‘Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills’ and it has changed my life forever.
In May 1993 three eight-year-old boys, Christopher Byers, Michael Moore and Stevie Branch, were found dead—suspended in a creek in West Memphis, Arkansas. Due to an almost comically botched and corrupt police investigation a month passed without any suspects. The local residents, baying for blood, seized on the nationwide concern about the rise of satanic activity which resulted in a modern day witch hunt. As a consequence of desperation and lies police attention turned to Damien Echols, an 18 year old local boy with an interest in Wicca, who dressed all in black and listened to heavy metal music.
It was upon questioning an associate of Damien’s, Jessie Misskelley, that the police finally received a confession implicating Damien Echols and his best friend Jason Baldwin leading to their arrests.
What was not common knowledge at the time was that Jessie, only 17 and with an IQ of 72 rendering him mentally handicapped, was questioned for 12 hours without a parent or a witness and only 45 minutes of that interview, towards the end, was recorded. In the confession he provides incorrect information a number of times and there is evidence of police coercion. He later recanted the whole confession however the damage was already done as it was leaked to the press.
EVERYONE believed the boys were guilty, including their defence teams and the documentary film-makers (who later went on to direct Metallica’s ‘Some Kind of Monster’), which is why the first documentary ‘Paradise Lost’ may seem biased against them. Yet throughout the course of the legal proceedings many began to realise that a terrible injustice was being committed due to complete lack of evidence. However Damien, considered the ringleader, had not been properly schooled in the ways of behaving in court and feeling himself to be an outsider, clung to his desire to be different which cast him in a negative light. The prosecution pounced on this and pushing the devil worshipping angle convinced the jury that Damien was evil and completely capable of murder.
Damien Echols has been on death row for 16 years. Jessie was sentenced to life plus 40 years and Jason to life imprisonment. In subsequent years much evidence has come to light which first pointed at Christopher’s disturbing stepfather, John Mark Byers (the main subject of the second documentary ‘Paradise Lost 2: Revelations’) and now at Terry Hobbs, Stevie’s father. No evidence has ever directly linked Damien, Jason or Jessie to the crime.
Judge Burnett, who proceeded over the original trials and has overseen every appeal and request for retrial since, is so convinced, suspiciously so, of their guilt that they continue to rot in jail even when the world is certain of their innocence. Evidence that could prove it has always been ruled inadmissible.
After seeing the first documentary I immediately went to Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/West_Memphis_3 to learn more about the case. Obsessed, I tracked down the second documentary, read many of the original court documents and considered opinions of those both for and against their innocence. I have read Mara Leveritt’s ‘Devil’s Knot’ which goes into explicit details of the case and also Damien Echols’s autobiography ‘Almost Home: My Life Story Vol 1’. I own a ‘Free The West Memphis Three’ T-shirt and bumper sticker and rant about the case every opportunity I can.
I’m not sure exactly why I’m so drawn to it. Maybe it’s because their innocence is undeniable to the point that the quest to free them has become so much bigger than the need to find the real killer(s) and I can’t stand by while these men are stripped of their freedom. Maybe it’s because I, too, dressed all in black, listened to gothic music and explored witchcraft around the same time and just as easily could have been the subject of a witch hunt. Or maybe it’s because I feel a real affinity with Damien Echols, a creative and sensitive soul, a gifted writer with an inquisitive mind, utterly incapable of the horrors he’s been accused of.
For this resolution I was originally going to write Damien a letter to express my support but after reading his diary entry here: http://freewestmemphis3.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=104:ebruary-12th-2010&catid=38:letters-from-damien&Itemid=89
I learned that Damien’s eyesight now gives him trouble so I decided to show my support in other ways. Unfortunately I can never give the WM3 the kind of publicity their more famous supporters can, celebrities like Johnny Depp, Ozzy Osbourne, Henry Rollins, Eddie Vedder, Winona Ryder, Chris Cornell, Marilyn Manson, Trey Parker, Margaret Cho and many, many others. But I can talk to you about it here. And I can show my support in other ways.
Firstly I have downloaded the track ‘Justice At Last’ by A Sound of Thunder from iTunes for AU$1.69 because, even though it isn’t great, 100% of the proceeds go to the WM3 legal defence fund, so sorely needed because justice is expensive.
I have added my photo to their supporter’s Photowall which requires a US$6 donation with the option to donate more. http://wm3.org/Photowall
I have also sent a postcard to their support fund to add to their postcard project.
Their next appeal will be heard on September 30, 2010 by (thankfully) a new judge and may be the first real chance they have to prove their innocence.
A quote on the WM3 forum says, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” I hope I have at the very least piqued your interest in the case so you will consider offering your support too.