Damien Echols. Jason Baldwin. Jessie Misskelley. These are hardly household names. You probably never heard of them – a shame, really, considering that they are the main protagonists in one of America’s most astonishing cases of blundered police work and shoddy judicial prosecution.
They are known as The West Memphis Three, a group of young men who were arrested as teenagers in the murders of three 8-year-old boys in the spring of 1993. According to the prosecution, the three boys were murdered and subsequently mutilated – one of them had the skin around his genitals completely and precisely removed – in a drainage ditch in the now infamous Robin Hood Hills neighborhood of West Memphis, Arkansas.
In a dramatic display reminiscent of the Salem Witch Trials, the three teenagers were accused and tried for the murders without a single piece of material evidence, in a trial featuring tales of satanic rituals and occultism. Fabricated testimony after fabricated testimony, the three teens were convicted simply because they wore black clothing and listened to heavy metal. The prosecution’s main argument rests on the confession made by Jessie Misskelley himself, who has an IQ of 72 and is borderline mentally impaired.
Jessie sat for 12 hours of interrogation at the West Memphis Police Department without his legal guardians and without representation, without food or water, and under constant pressure by the cops. He finally caved in and provided a disconnected — and clearly coerced — account of the murders, implicating himself, Damien and Jason as perpetrators. Jessie and Jason were sentenced to life in prison. Damien, the supposed ringleader, was sentenced to death by lethal injection. It is noteworthy that Jessie was tried separately from Damien and Jason, and at the time the prosecutor’s office considered Jessie’s testimony in the case against the other two accused to be absolutely paramount for a conviction. Yet, even after being offered a plea bargain, Jessie refused to testify against his two friends. He refused to lie, even to save himself.
The documentary Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills and the follow-up film Paradise Lost 2: Revelations, both produced by HBO, depict with painful and exhaustive exactitude the events that lead to the conviction of Damien, Jason, and Jessie. One cannot watch them without a sense of complete and utter disgust and hopelessness.
How could this happen in 20th century America? How could the judicial system fail in such a blatant and horrifying manner? But the most compelling revelation is that under the right circumstances, it could happen to anyone. This was a very combustible, volatile combination of satanic panic, public hysteria, and slapdash police work that concluded with the conviction of three teenagers whose only ‘sin’ was a penchant for dressing in black and their taste in music.
The extraordinary mobilization this case has created in all sectors of society — from artists, lawyers, to politicians and forensic experts – attests to the significance and the injustice brought forth by the ruling, and just how far-reaching the scope of the case really is. An insurmountable amount of money and resources have been utilized to clear the West Memphis Three from the killings. Donations have poured in from all corners of the globe; local WM3 chapters have organized concerts and other fundraising events; and lawyers have worked tirelessly (some pro bono). And after more than 15 years of angst, anger, and sometimes bleak resignation after every appeal for a retrial was defeated in the Arkansas Supreme Court, their efforts seemed to have finally paid off.
After conducting exhaustive DNA tests in dozens of pieces of evidence, the concluding results shows no link whatsoever to any of the accused, but rather single out the father of one of the slaughtered boys and possibly implicates him in the murders. For all of us who have shared the fear, the inconformity and the indignation that have desolated Damien, Jason, and Jessie, this comes as extraordinary news. We also mourn for the three innocent boys whose lives were so brutally interrupted, who are now vindicated as true justice will finally put the real perpetrators behind bars.
But the scars remain and can never be fully healed. The three young men who have paid dearly for a crime they did not commit have been subjected to 15 years of hell in the Arkansas Corrections System. Damien has confessed that he has been raped several times while in prison – a practice sometimes reserved to inmates who commit crimes against children. But through it all, he remained optimistic. He has written a book called Almost Home: My Life Story Vol. I which chronicles his time spent imprisoned while waiting for an absolution that sometimes seemed so far away. Jason spends most of his time reading books from various authors, as has Jessie. Always waiting, always hoping, always faithful. It appears impossible to fathom the exhilaration they will feel when they are finally set free. Justice, albeit belated, seems finally achievable. And not a minute too soon.
“Remember, Red: hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things. And no good thing ever dies.”
- Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption
The fight for justice in the WM3 case had reached a pivotal point. The new DNA evidence is definitely an astounding accomplishment, but the struggle is far from over. For more information on the case, please watch Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, and Paradise Lost 2: Revelations, both available in DVD and VHS at your local video store. Also, please visit http://www.wm3.org for updated news, media files, court documents, and the a comprehensive coverage of the case.