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

“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 “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.

What happens when adults take teenage subcultures as serious as teenagers do?

Furthermore, the prosecution revealed a piece of paper, upon which Echols had scribbled the name of Aleister Crowley, who they described as “a noted author in the field of Satanic worship”, which is laughable, if technically true. They might also have called him a manic self-publicist, bad poet, or even an expert mountaineer — all descriptions that would be far more accurate than theirs. In an odd way, Crowley is actually an apt comparison; much like the West Memphis Three, he was guilty of no great infernal sin as such, but this small truth never put a slightest dent in the demonic reputation that made him a celebrity. The difference is, Crowley profited from such an image, whereas the West Memphis Three suffered for it.

The prosecution relied on such nonsense because there was, then and now, no physical evidence linking the West Memphis Three to the murders, as the initial investigation took place at a time before the police had ready access to DNA testing. Years later, this would prove to be vitally significant.

With every injustice, there’s a suspicion in the mind of the wronged and the outraged that their persecutors, in their lie-clogged hearts, are grudgingly aware of the truth of the situation. They know who is innocent; they also don’t care. Yet in the case of the West Memphis Three, what is arguably even more chilling was the fact that there were a great many people who earnestly did believe these boys were guilty. Grieving, angry and vengeful though they may have been, it is still disgusting — and frightening — to think of how many assumed, without the barest, perfunctory flicker of doubt, that three moody teenagers were capable of such a crime, just because… well, look at the way they dress.

Some might plead understanding for such hasty reactions. In the wake of tragedy, mass emotion often runs to its most hysterical. But the West Memphis community, and then the mass media, turned on the three with a horribly disturbing ease. It wasn’t just that the so-called ‘facts’ of the case made it all to easy for a lazy kind of mind to believe that Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley were murderers; many, for some ignominious reason at the pit of their beings, wanted to believe it.

As the trial neared its Kafkaesque conclusion, circuit judge David Burnett asked Baldwin if he could provide “any legal reason” why he should not be sentenced to life imprisonment. Helplessly, Baldwin responded: “Because I’m innocent.”

In February of 1994, Misskelley was sentenced to 40 years in prison. Three weeks later, Baldwin was sentenced to life, and Echols, to death.

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

— Martin Luther King, Jr.

What followed was, looking back on it, extraordinary. It’s difficult to articulate exactly what the plight of the West Memphis Three meant to the generation or so caught up in its fallout, especially those who grouped together under the purposefully vague banner of ‘Alternative’ culture (alternative to what? What you got?). Maybe it was nothing more complicated than the feeling, fuelled by the paranoia and uncertainty of youth, that it could have happened to any of us, given the wrong circumstances. The fate of Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley was the terrifying answer to the question of what happens when adults take teenage subcultures as seriously as teenagers do, yet without empathising or understanding.

The West Memphis Three were a strange case of media sensationalism — first condemned by it, only for those same media voyeurs and parasites to belatedly shine a light on the case for their innocence and the flaws of their conviction. Of course, that started happening a lot more after it went from being a cause to a cause célèbre; Johnny Depp, Henry Rollins, Eddie Vedder, Natalie Maines and Metallica — many of whom remembered all too well what it was like to be the weird kid in town — have been devoted supporters of the West Memphis Three, going far beyond the usual empty celebrity gestures and spending years raising money and awareness for their battle-weary defence team. “[The authorities] put their eyeball on Damien and didn’t take it off,” Depp told in September. “They didn’t look at the insane amount of holes in the case. They just looked at the guy with the black T-shirt and the long black hair. It was a witch hunt.”

Finally, in 2007, new forensic evidence was introduced. Burnett, the original trial judge, shamelessly attempted to prevent this, but was overturned by the Arkansas Supreme Court. In a desperate scramble to prevent a embarrassing retrial which would almost certainly result in a ‘Not Guilty’ verdict, the prosecution struck a deal: provided they plead ‘Guilty’ in court — the rarely used ‘Alford plea’, which would prevent them from suing the State over their wrongful imprisonment — the West Memphis Three would be released, and could continue to maintain their innocence in public. It made no sense whatsoever, but after 18 years of imprisonment — ten of which Echols had spent in solitary confinement, awaiting his death sentence — they were prepared to take what they could get.

It was a victory, but not the one they deserved. No one can give back the years that they lost, or begin to apologise for what they suffered… Still, I can’t help but feel that someone should try.

Depp’s mention of witch hunts was appropriate, not just because of I can think of no better comparison for what happened to these boys who became men behind bars, but because the arguments used to convict the West Memphis Three were the latest stage in a very, very old battle, charged with the kind of ignorance that should rightly have died off centuries ago. The mindset that argued heavy metal and horror films led to Satanism and murder is the same one that believed Elvis was going to despoil America’s youth with rockabilly-fuelled pelvis gyrations, that the Beatles were going to bring about the downfall of Christianity, and that hip hop artists who sing about criminal acts must, in fact, be inspiring them. Each of these theories is as palpably ludicrous as the last, but the argument never quite dies.

Each time this argument plays out, non-existent links are forged between whichever adolescent subculture is taking it in the neck this week — and by extension, the music, art, literature and general aesthetic that accompanies it — and the hideous crimes they supposedly inspire. But all that’s ever revealed is the perverse depths of imagination some are prepared to plumb in order to make such bizarre connections.

The other thing that happens each time this argument plays out? Innocent people suffer.

“It is sad to think that the first few people on earth needed no books, movies, games or music to inspire cold-blooded murder. The day that Cain bashed his brother Abel’s brains in, the only motivation he needed was his own human disposition to violence.”

— Marilyn Manson

Five years after the West Memphis Three were convicted, just as I turned 13, the world woke up to the Columbine shootings, a horror committed by two individuals that was used to condemn a generation. The idea of the ‘teen goth killer’ that had done so much to condemn the West Memphis Three was crystallised in the public imagination once and for all. Comparing notes and memories with some of my American contemporaries, all tried to emphasise what it was like to be a teenager in the years following the massacre. Even those who grew up in relatively liberal environments told me there was a sudden and seemingly permanent shift in tone.

Any one of them, the new implication ran, could be the next trenchcoated sociopath, aiming to take their violent, bloody revenge on high school, the world, or both. Black clothes, intimidating music and a battered copy of Johnny the Homicidal Maniac were now more than merely teenage self-indulgence, but causes for concern from teachers, parents, an endless stream of half-baked psychologists and ultimately, the Law. The stakes were now higher.

It’s the enduring half-true myth that allows teenagers to think of their subcultures as weapons as much as pastimes: that a certain type of music, or clothes, or hairstyles have the power to inspire fear in the elder generation that dominates the world we are all forced to grow up in. So here’s the great secret of my generation and the murderous image, accurate or otherwise, that was thrust upon certain of its members during our collective adolescence: some of us liked it. Some of us made use of it. Some of us thought that if there were people out there who wanted to reduce any teenager who was less than wholesome in their eyes to an object of fear, then they deserved to live in fear. A black trenchcoat was sometimes all it took to make people afraid, and that made some of us smile.

Maybe that’s why so many of us felt so strongly about the West Memphis Three. We made use of that image — a fearsome persona that we borrowed and toyed with for our own amusement and vanity — but they were the ones who paid for it with their freedom.

The three men who had their lives stolen have, to their credit, always rejected self-pity and made frequent reminders that theirs was not an isolated case, and many wrongful arrests, convictions and other miscarriages of justice do not have the benefit of a celebrity-backed international media campaign spanning almost two decades. Nevertheless, that campaign should continue, in the form of a demand that their innocence be formally recognised by the courts.

But after that, what then? Saying ‘never again’ is both necessary (how could we say anything else?) and pointless. Tragedies and atrocities will occur again; indeed, they occur every day. Some will manage to attract our attention, while others will slip through the cracks. All we can do is never stop hoping that a truer, purer justice prevails, and never stop aspiring towards a point where we can recognise that justice, and put it into action.

But in the meantime, the West Memphis Three are free. Hopefully, their example will have an effect. Teenagers will always feel the need to express themselves via the dark, the macabre, the morbid and, in many cases, the downright silly. At least, I certainly hope so. But perhaps, finally, we can stop punishing them for it.

“But who prays for Satan? Who, in eighteen centuries, has had the common humanity to pray for the one sinner that needed it most?”

— Mark Twain