Film

The Last Witch Hunt: The Legacy of the West Memphis Three

Teenage outcasts often feel like the world is against them; in 1994, three adolescents in West Memphis, Arkansas, experienced proof that it actually was. Now, despite being freed after 18 years of wrongful imprisonment, the battle of the West Memphis Three is not concluded.

"Adolescence is enough suffering for anyone."

-- John Ciardi

A little over a year ago, it was difficult to think that the story of the West Memphis Three might finally be at an end. Since it began in 1993, its narrative had gradually turned into a minor legend -- a grim, resonant, infinitely sad legend -- and legends are never-ending. Those of us who grew up with the case's infamy dancing around the fringes of our awareness had never known it as anything other than ongoing and unresolved; an injustice in perpetual action, no matter how much outrage it inspired.

'Free the West Memphis Three', the slogan, rallying-cry and point of cultural identification, became very, very familiar in certain circles over the course of almost 20 years, partly because it felt as though the phrase -- like 'Save the Wales', or 'Legalize It' -- would, unfortunately, never lose its relevance. The words would always need to be said because, some of us suspected, the demand at their core might never be fulfilled.

Nevertheless, against all odds (as well as a justice system that seemed stubbornly uninterested in examining the illogic of its own conclusions), Damien Echols, Jesse Misskelley, Jr. and Jason Baldwin, were finally released from prison on 19 August 2011. After 18 painful years of wrongful imprisonment for the horrific murder of three children, which ever-mounting evidence has demonstrated they did not commit, the West Memphis Three... were actually free. But this was not yet justice.

This year and next, several interesting attempts will be made to once again bring public attention to the epic mistakes and dishonesty which led to the West Memphis Three's incarceration and the ruination of much of their lives. Peter Jackson, a longtime campaigner for the West Memphis Three, has produced West of Memphis, a new documentary directed by Amy Berg and releasing this December, which takes a toothcomb approach to the evidence surrounding the case and proposes startling new theories regarding the identity of the anonymous murderer who has walked free while Echols, Misskelley and Baldwin stewed in prison. It's currently being re-edited to include their release.

This follows last year's Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, the third in Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky's gripping, powerful series of HBO documentaries (the first made in 1996, the second in 2000), which were among the first media investigations to pierce the hysteria and sensationalism that surrounded the case and delve into its murky details. In 2013, we will see the release of Devil's Knot, auteur Atom Egoyan's return to cinema, starring Reese Witherspoon and Colin Firth and adapted from Mara Leveritt's book on the murders which led to the West Memphis Three's arrest and conviction. As Egoyan proved with Ararat, his elegant, impassioned exploration of the Armenian Genocide, there are few directors who can better dramatise an injustice.

Meanwhile, Damien Echols himself has so far garnered excellent reviews for his prison memoir, Life After Death, much of it written in the long years he spent waiting on death row (and furiously absorbing every book he could get his hands on), and published this September after some minor revision. "You start to reach the point where you don’t even have an identity anymore outside the case," Echols, now 38, told Pitch.com. "That’s sort of what I’ve been living with for 18 years. I’m not the case. I have a life. That’s what I wanted to express in this book. That’s what I wanted to show, that I’m not simply a number. I’m not simply a tragic injustice."

"You see, feeling screwed up in a screwed up place, in a screwed up time, does not mean you are screwed up, if you catch my drift."

-- Christian Slater, Pump Up the Volume (1990)

The nightmare that, for some, has never ended began with the disappearance of Stevie Branch, Michael Moore and Christopher Byers, three eight-year-old boys from West Memphis, Arkansas, on 5 May 1993. A massive search and rescue operation, combing the Red Robin Hills where the boys were last sighted, found nothing until a juvenile parole officer saw a child's shoe floating down the mud-creek that led away from one of the hills' drainage outlets, and made the kind of horrible mental connection we all hope never to have to make. The bodies were discovered shortly after; they had been tied up with their own shoelaces, mutilated and drowned.

A mere two days later, the police were questioning the 18-year-old Damien Echols, something they would go on to do more than with any other suspect or person of interest. He was, they felt, a good fit for what they had quickly decided were ritualistic, cult-like murders; a high school dropout from a working-class family with a criminal record -- albeit for a few minor teenage hi-jinks such as shoplifting -- who had previously been institutionalised and medicated for depression. But these details were simply used to add credibility to a perception that, for the West Memphis Police Department and much of the local community, required no evidence: Echols was a sick, twisted deviant whose attitude, appearance, opinions and tastes -- in essence, his entire personality -- pointed to the evil they were sure he had committed. Eventually, this perception expanded to encompass his close friend Baldwin, and Misskelley, an acquaintance of theirs from school. It was this poisonous fantasy that lay at the root of all the injustice to come.

It's always a shock to the system to be reminded that these outposts of stark, puritanical close-mindedness still exist in a society we've become used to thinking of as jaded, multicultural and post-ironic. Make no mistake: West Memphis is the kind of place cosmopolitan hipsters are used to making jokes about (from a safe distance), but can often forget actually exist; 'the Gateway to the South', sitting in the bosom of the Bible Belt, was and is defiantly conservative, in politics, religion and culture, and can be mercilessly unforgiving to anyone who does not fit in. If any proof of this was necessary, imagine how a community could observe the unremarkable spectacle of teenagers wearing black, reading horror novels, listening to heavy metal and fooling around with Wicca, and rather than perceiving a cliché in action, instead see a gang of bloodthirsty, sociopathic Satanists who were coming for their children.

If it's disturbing to know that such places exist, imagine what it must be like to grow up there. It's one thing to play at being the misunderstood outsider, as most of us do at one point or another in our youth, but quite another to actually be one. Let's just say that being a teenage goth in the deep Evangelical territory of West Memphis -- like being a Pussy Riot fan in Moscow, or a punk in Indonesia -- probably requires more bravery than doing so in say, San Francisco or London.

As a result, Echols and Baldwin not only bonded over their shared tastes in music and literature, but over their mutual resentment towards the stultifying, unfriendly surroundings they found themselves in; the familiar, barely articulated rage of the teenager at a world which has nothing better to offer than this. As most of us know, such adolescent anger, and the rebelliousness it can lead to, does little harm in the long run; much the opposite, in fact. But it can inspire those who would wish harm and degradation upon its innocent practitioners. As Echols later said: "Everyone else is free to forget their period of teenage angst. I am not."

Soon after Echols was initially questioned, the police brought in Baldwin (16 at the time) and Misskelley (17). Misskelley, whose specific cognitive impairment is classified as 'borderline intellectual functioning', was interrogated without his parents' permission or an attorney present for approximately 12 hours, only 46 minutes of which was tape-recorded. Continuous verbal assault and intimidation finally led to a confession -- also implicating Echols and Baldwin -- that Misskelley himself barely understood, to crimes he had no knowledge of, save what he was told. Dr. Richard Ofshe, a professor of sociology at UC Berkeley, would later call this a "classic example" of police coercion when giving testimony at Misskelley's trial.

If the investigation was slapdash and the interrogation unethical, then the trial was a dark farce. The prosecution, with their own very special definition of the word 'evidence', pointed to the fact that Echols regularly read books by Stephen King, Anne Rice and Dean Koontz. Such a reading list might be ill-advised -- then again, who didn't read more than their share of pulpy dreck during their teenage years? -- but is not actually criminal. The prosecution followed this with the stunning revelation that Echols had borrowed a book on witchcraft from the library, providing further proof that, even in 1994, an American's reading habits could be used to help prosecute him.

The absurd evidence, and the even more absurd implications drawn from it, seemed to be without end. Baldwin, it turned out, owned 11 black t-shirts -- surely the sign of a warped mind and soul, as well as roughly the same as what was in my closet back in the day.

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