While some have rightfully expressed outrage over what happened in Jena, Louisiana (particularly the racial angle), and how unfair it was that Genarlow Wilson was sentenced to ten years for consensual underage oral sex (he was released last week after serving two years – hooray), there is a case even more deserving of attention and scrutiny.
The case means so much to me that I’m not only writing this article, but am also creating a group, The West Memphis Three. The three are Jason Baldwin, Damien Echols and Jessie Misskelley.
The New York Times today has a great story on a new development in this case. Be prepared to be infuriated with our justice system. "The passing of time has not only allowed the defense to gather new information, but has also softened the public’s belief in the guilt of the convicted men," said Mark Leveritt, the author of Devil’s Knot: The True Story of the West Memphis Three. “What I’ve seen in the past 14 years has been not quite a 180-degree turn, but maybe a 170-degree turn,” Mr. Leveritt said. “It all comes down to, ‘Where is the evidence?’”
I urge you to rent two documentaries – one, and its sequel. They are Paradise Lost and Paradise Lost 2. If The Thin Blue Line (my first exposure to Errol Morris) showed a documentary maker can prove someone not guilty of a crime, then these movies — which came at least 10 years later — demonstrate how three guys from Memphis are not only probably innocent, but that there was also shoddy police work and many unanswered questions.
Warning: These movies are disturbing, not so much for violent content but because of the implications, that police were more interested in making easy arrests and quick prosecutions than getting the guilty parties. Two of the men, Baldwin and Misskelley, are serving life in prison while the third, Echols, is on death row. All this in a case featuring, according to the New York Times, “a satanic cult expert with a mail-order degree” and Echols’ own lawyer criticizing his own client as “weird.”
Police and others saw the Memphis Three as suspicious in their neighborhood because they really liked rock music. How dare they! A witch-hunt took place (complete with a mob of 200 yelling, “Burn in hell!” and they were accused — though it was never proved — of being into the occult). Perhaps it's ironic that rock musicians, especially Pearl Jam, are working to help these three get true justice.
When three eight-year-old boys were killed in West Memphis, Arkansas on May, 1993, the Memphis Three were arrested and convicted. Police said the boys, found naked and hogtied by ropes, had been sexually abused and that there were genital mutilations.
The conviction was partially based on a confession by Misskelley that was filled with factual errors, as in giving the wrong time of death and incorrectly describing how they were killed. It does not take a rocket scientist to determine that maybe the person making the confession didn’t do it if he was giving wrong information, but was instead trying to say what the police wanted him to say.
The guy who made the confession, and implicated himself and his two friends, is mentally retarded and had a history of substance abuse. He also said the three boys were sodomized, which was not the case.
Misskelley’s confession was so filled with holes it was ruled inadmissible for the trials of the other two men, and used only in Misskelley’s trial. However, some jurors in the cases of Echols and Baldwin have since admitted they were aware of the confession, but did not admit that during jury questioning.
The first movie, Paradise Lost, and the sequel, suggested who some of the people were that police should have been investigating instead. Especially worth a look was John Mark Byers, a stepfather of one of the three (the one most badly mutilated) who has his own share of run-ins with the police. He gave the filmmakers a bloody knife. If memory serves, he also announced that he has had, for no apparent reason, all of his teeth removed and destroyed, ostensibly to block any dental testing. Do those acts seem like rational actions?
There was no DNA evidence found at the scene from any of the Memphis Three. During these modern days, when CSI has so influenced America and juries, (the so-called “CSI effect” – put simply, juries demand more forensic than they used to and are less likely to convict barring such evidence), I doubt a regular jury would convict these three guys if told there was no DNA found at the scene.
Back in 1994, this jury was not given this information about the DNA, nor were they told of other information, just released this week, saying the genital mutilation was “actually the work of animals.” The new evidence also suggests there was no sexual abuse, but that instead that too was the result of animals in the area.
In the ropes binding the three boys was found a stray hair belonging to Terry Hobbs, a stepfather to one of the three. While police discounted this finding, saying his stepson could have accidentally picked it up at home, defense experts say that does not easily explain why the hair would be on the ropes used to bind another of the three boys. Additionally hair was found at the scene from another friend of Mr. Hobbs, someone who was with him for part of the evening.
The more I read, see, and learn about this, the more I am convinced the three did not get a fair trial and that the police need to reopen the case. The newly released evidence is clearly grounds for such. Let us hope they get it.