Monday, October 10, 2011
I'm somewhat of an expert when it comes to the criminal justice system. I don't mean to brag, but I've seen at least 200 episodes of "Law and Order." When it comes to murder, I know how things go down:
A body is found. The victim -- a pillar of the community whose tragic death shocks the neighborhood -- is loved by everyone. Then the police investigate and discover that the victim is a philandering drug abuser with secret lives, shady business dealings, multiple spouses, a fixation on the underground world of dog fighting, and/or one, if not many, shockingly deviant fetishes. Suspicion will immediately fall on the most likely suspect, who, after a short commercial break, will always be completely exonerated of the crime. The REAL murderer is always the least likely suspect and/or best actor on the show. From there, it's up to Jack McCoy to put the criminal away while teaching us valuable lessons about morality and ethics by ending every episode with an overstated but unsaid: "we win... but at what cost?"
Reality never works that way.
The same fiery addiction for bad TV like "Law and Order" is what led me one channel-flipping Sunday to an HBO documentary called "Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills." This documentary would grab me so hard that researching this case would become one of my favorite pastimes. After two decades of confusion, condemnation and frustration, the case "closed" last week in the same unjust manner in which it began -- but that's what you come to expect when you're a supporter of the West Memphis Three.
On the afternoon of May 6, 1993, a search team discovered the bodies of three 8-year-old boys in a muddy wooded creekbed in the Robin Hood Hills neighborhood of West Memphis, Arkansas. It was a tragic and horrible crime that shocked the sleepy community, and local police were eager to make an arrest.
Suspects were plentiful. Two local teenagers with a history of drug arrests suspiciously packed up town and left four days after the bodies were found. When the two were given polygraphs, both indicated deception when they denied involvement in the crime. Reports also came in from a nearby restaurant that a man had shown up covered in mud and blood and locked himself into the ladies restroom for over 45 minutes.
Instead, though, the police focused their suspicion on a local boy -- 18-year-old Damien Echols. Based on the murder scene, investigators theorized that the boys had been killed as part of a Satanic or cult ritual, and if there was one person in West Memphis who had cultivated a reputation for the occult, it was Echols.
I don't pretend to know anything about the occult, but I do know a thing or two about rebellious teenagers. When I was in high school, a teen dance club opened downtown. As one of the regular DJs at that club, I had a front row seat to the year punk rock hit Galesburg. It started with a group of kids from Peoria who drove out to the club. Within days, the craze had hit our school.
Seemingly mild-mannered teens suddenly dressed in torn clothes, safety pins, and mohawk hairdos. It was adolescent rebellion at its finest, and our newfound punks wore it with pride. One of them was my friend Brian, who decided one day that the easiest road from nerd to cool was a can of green hair dye and a Dead Kennedys t-shirt. I'll never forget the day we were at his house and spotted his mom not-so-discretely reading a self-help book, "Help! My Son Is A Punk Rocker!"
Soon, rumors swirled all over school. So-and-so is a devil worshipper. So-and-so sacrifices chickens. All I know is that it would have made an excellent Sociology 101 paper. As a fringe member of this newfound scene, I knew the truth. This was just another way for kids to tick off their parents and assert their individuality. Another of my friends announced she was Wiccan and bought a handful of spell books and candles. Today she's probably a rep for Partylite. She called herself a witch back then, but last I heard, she's living in Chicago with a husband and a doctorate.
That same teenage rebellion grabbed Damien Echols. He had long hair, dressed in all black, read horror novels, told people he was a pagan, and listened to heavy metal music. And that, apparantly, was enough for police to focus their suspicions. Within days, Echols and everyone in his circle were brought in for questioning.
Eventually, the police questioned a neighbor, Jessie Misskelley. Echols claimed they'd never met, but after being interrogated for 18 hours straight, Misskelley CONFESSED. He told police that he, Echols, and Daniel Baldwin had stalked, tortured, and killed the three boys in the woods. Arrest warrants were soon issued.
The trials were quick. Prosecutors used Misskelley's confession along with testimony of classmates who claimed Echols had bragged about the crime. A knife was found behind Baldwin's house that could have been used in the killings. Misskelley and Baldwin were sentenced to life in prison. Echols? Death row.
But things started not to fit. Witnesses recanted their statements and blamed police intimidation. Forensic experts proved that the supposed knife marks on the victims could have been bites from animals. Absolutely no DNA evidence from the crime scene implicated any of the three alleged murderers. As for Misskelley's confession? It turns out that he got hardly any of the facts right, and his IQ of 72 (borderline mentally challenged) made him a easy candidate for police coercion.
After the HBO documentaries aired, the public began to rally. Celebrities like Johnny Depp, Eddie Vedder, and "Lord of the Rings" director Peter Jackson became involved. "Free the WM3" became a rallying cry and popular t-shirt slogan. I should know - there's one hanging in my closet.
Finally, Echols' defense won the right to a hearing on the lack of DNA evidence. That hearing was to occur this coming December. Knowing that the tides might be about to turn, prosecutors made a surprise offer. On August 19th, after 18 years behind bars, the West Memphis Three walked out as free men. The condition? They had to take what's called an Alford plea: no contest to murder charges, conceding that prosecutors had enough evidence to convict while reserving the right to maintain their innocence.
The good news is that the West Memphis Three are free, something I never thought I'd see. The BAD news is that they essentially had to plead guilty to achieve it, thus ending the police investigation of the case and finding out what really happened to the boys.
It's a bittersweet ending to a bittersweet case. Do I think the WM3 murdered those boys? Maybe they did, maybe they didn't. What I've rallied against for years, though, is the way those kids were railroaded into guilty verdicts on little more than bad reputations and Satanic panic. Hopefully one day the truth will come out and real justice will be had for three little boys and three grown men. For now, I'll take the Jack McCoy ending: We won, but at what cost?