Cleolinda Jones (cleolinda) wrote,
Cleolinda Jones

Resurfacing for a moment

At the risk of making y'all wonder why this is such a big deal, I have collected a number of links about the West Memphis Three. In case you missed it (and you easily could have, because it came out of nowhere), on Thursday night, this appeared on Twitter:

@wm3org: West Memphis Three leave prison with all belongings; source says they are not expected back.

Back when I was a wee collegiate Cleo in the dark days of the late '90s, I filled up my elective slots with film studies classes. I didn't get very many, because I was a French/Spanish double major, and by the time you jammed creative writing workshops in on top of that, there wasn't a whole lot of time left. But I managed to take four or five, and thus, I ended raiding the college library and the video store where I worked for foreign films, older indie movies, and documentaries. And one of the ones I watched was Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills.

I'll spare you the details of the actual crime, but suffice it to say that three teenage misfits were arrested, tried, and convicted of the "satanic" murders of three Boy Scouts, largely on the "strength" of a forced confession from Jessie Misskelley, one of the three, who is frequently described as "borderline mentally retarded" (and was also a minor at the time) and agreed to confess after twelve hours of interrogation. This confession, in fact, evolved in the telling as police asked him more and more leading questions, and even the finished version did not match up with the evidence. Almost immediately, he recanted, but the confession was still used against him. Under the Bruton rule, it could not used in the separate trial of Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin... so the jury foreman told his fellow jurors about it anyway, "advocat[ing] for the guilt of the West Memphis Three as a result of the inadmissible Jessie Misskelley statements." This is the tip of the shenanigan iceberg; another witness who claimed that Echols bragged about killing the boys later recanted and revealed that the police had threatened to take away her child if she did not "cooperate." While they were throwing darts at pictures of the defendants. It only got worse from there.

As many have pointed out, the larger context is a deeply religious community (in the middle of a national "Satanic abuse" panic, moreover) deciding that three teenagers with records and mental issues, who had a "love of heavy metal, Stephen King, and wearing black clothing," were de facto Satanists. (Echols was actually interested in Wicca--that is to say, a vastly different thing.) I'm not going to pretend like these guys were angels, but mood disorders and "breaking into a trailer during a rain storm" are a far cry from Satanic rituals and human sacrifice. As Roger Ebert notes,

[Paradise Lost] creates a vivid portrait of a subculture in which Satan is a central figure. Where did Damien, Jason and Jessie hear about satanic rituals? Mostly in church, it would appear. Some members of this community seem to require Satanism as part of their world view; they seize upon the devil to explain what dismays them. Their frequent theme is vengeance, and it is blood-curdling to hear relatives of the victims promise that if the defendants are released, they will track them down and kill them.

The only person in the film who defends a traditional Christian belief system is the grandfather of one victim, who says he believes in forgiveness, and knows he will be reunited in heaven with his loved ones. The others in the room listen without comprehension. We leave the film unsure about who committed the murders, but convinced that an obsession with Satanism extends here far beyond the circle of defendants.
Which is all from his review of the documentary when it first came out in 1996. The most generous interpretation of the police's treatment, the community's reaction, is something called "noble cause corruption." You know they did it--you have to make sure they don't get away with it, they don't hurt someone else. So maybe, you think... facts that don't agree have to be discarded, changed, ignored. False evidence is just recreating the truth.

Or maybe it was just plain ignorance. Nastiness. Personal grudges. Blinding grief. Fear it would happen again. Out-and-out prejudice--those weirdos, they're not like us. Who knows what they've done before--who knows what they'll do if we let them go. Best to lock them away, whether they did it or not. Maybe it was a lot of things.

I do think, though, that once the police and the prosecution had decided the boys were guilty--for whatever reason--they dug their heels in. And then that's the only view they present to the community: "These boys are guilty, and here is only the evidence that agrees with us, and here is a fake expert occultist to tell you why--

Wait, what? Back to Ebert's review. He writes,

At the trial of Damien and Jason, evidence of the satanic orientation of the murders is supplied by a state "expert occultist'' who turns out to have his degrees from a mail-order university that did not require any classes or schoolwork. For the defense, a pathologist testifies that it would be so difficult to carry out the precise mutilations on one of the boys that he couldn't do it himself--not without the right scalpel, and certainly not in the dark or in muddy water.
And then it gets... weird. The strangest figure in the whole case is the stepfather--John Mark Byers--of one of the victims. Over the course of two documentaries, he gives the cameraman a knife that--well, let me let Ebert describe it:

One of these men is John Mark Byers, stepfather of one of the victims, who earlier has been seen in a video at the crime scene, re-creating the crimes in grisly detail while vowing vengeance. In the movie's single most astonishing development, Byers gives the filmmakers a knife. They turn it over to the state. Crime lab reports show traces of blood that apparently came from himself and his stepson. On the witness stand, he testifies that he beat his stepson with a belt at 5:30 p.m. on the day of his death. The welts from the belt buckle previously had been linked to the ritual killing.
In the second Paradise Lost, Byers cheerfully reveals that he's had his teeth removed, which becomes even weirder when you learn that Echols' attorney has noticed that a photograph of one of the victim shows bite marks. What? I don't even know. Byers gave three different explanations for the removal of his teeth. That said, neither the West Memphis Three's teeth nor Byers' original dental records match the bite marks--if they were bite marks at all. (Such is the carousel of confusion that is this case.) Then, as seen in the documentary, "Byers takes a polygraph to prove his innocence but is on a variety of medications that could affect the outcome of the test, including Xanax and Haldol; he passes the polygraph test." Then an entirely different stepfather became an even more compelling suspect, after seven years of private investigation for the defense. Wait... how'd they get the money for that?

Peter Jackson And Fran Walsh To Reveal Financial Support For 'West Memphis 3':

Academy Award-winning film director Peter Jackson and his partner and producer Fran Walsh will reveal their longtime behind-the-scenes support of the 'West Memphis 3" after a court hearing that may free the imprisoned trio. The Lord Of The Rings trilogy helmer with Walsh have "played a leading role" financially and legally behind seven years of efforts to get justice for Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley Jr. The filmmaking pair have funded key investigative efforts on behalf of the defense's day-to-day efforts to prove the three men were wrongfully convicted and imprisoned on charges they brutally murdered three 8-year old boys in 1993. This has included financing extensive private investigators over a number of years and the uncovering of crucial new DNA evidence. Jackson and Walsh also have been instrumental in hiring some of the country’s leading forensic experts to reevaluate the case and uncover new witnesses, all of which contributed to the Arkansas Supreme Court’s decision to reopen the case.
This testing found "a hair 'not inconsistent with' Terry Hobbs, stepfather to Stevie Branch, [which] was found tied into the knots used to bind one of the victims." Furthermore, "The hair found in the ligature was consistent with Branch's stepfather, Terry Hobbs, while the hair found on the tree stump was consistent with the DNA of a friend of Hobbs, according to the documents. Police have never considered Hobbs a suspect, and he maintains that he had nothing to do with the murders."

But Hobbs' family accused him of it. Pamela Hobbs, Stevie's mother, has said she believes in the innocence of the West Memphis Three. None of the evidence matches the defendants' DNA.

(Let it also be noted that Jackson and Walsh's contribution is in addition to years of support from actors and musicians, including Eddie Vedder [a lot of support], Natalie Maines, Johnny Depp, Henry Rollins, and Metallica. "The case has drawn national attention, with actor Johnny Depp and singers Eddie Vedder and Natalie Maines trying to rally support for the men's release. Vedder and Maines were at the courthouse on Friday.")

Because that's what happened--Thursday night we saw the tweet that the West Memphis three had suddenly left prison. I'm still not sure how DNA evidence they've been arguing about since 2007 all of a sudden led to August 18, 2011, but the next morning--

@wm3org: Everyone's screaming in joy! It's done. 18 years too long #wm3

@BreakingNews: Judge accepts plea to free 'West Memphis Three,' convicted in Arkansas scouts' deaths after 18 years in prison - AP

What happened was an Alford plea. My understanding of this is that the plea was a maneuver (agreed on by all parties) wherein the state threw out the Three's existing convictions, then recharged them with the crimes and sentenced them to 18 years--time served. Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley are still "convicted," but are allowed to maintain their innocence, while admitting that the prosecution has enough evidence to convince a jury of their guilt. (Note the fine distinction there. As the New York Times puts it, "These pleas allow people to maintain their innocence and admit frankly that they are pleading guilty because they consider it in their best interest.") I read this as the defendants saying, "We didn't do it," and the state saying, "We refuse to admit you didn't do it. But sure, everyone can go home." Because, honestly: if you genuinely thought these three guys had committed satanic child murders, would you honestly let them go? Would you not fight to prosecute them again? Would you not fight to keep them away from society? I suspect the defendants took the deal because they knew a retrial could take years--or they could leave right then. The state, meanwhile, knew it wouldn't win a retrial--not in this day and age; best to just call it a draw. Baldwin, in fact, said that he wanted to fight to clear his name, but "they were trying to kill Damien" and "he had it so much worse than I did."


West Memphis Three now must learn how to live as free men: "But such a startling change in circumstances could have dire effects on the three men locked up as teenagers and now in their mid-30s. They've spent half their lives in prison, missing out on the presidencies of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, the rise of Twitter and Facebook, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the election of the first black president, and the creation of reality TV. [...] Shea Wilson, an Arkansas Department of Correction spokesman, says that no inmate has ever walked off death row like Echols. [He] has lived in solitary confinement for ten years, and now he has to learn daily human interaction."

West Memphis Three Feature Film Already In The Works From Atom Egoyan: "Egoyan has been working on this movie for weeks, and in fact, the screenplay has been in development since 2006. Scott Derrickson and Paul Boardman first began adapting the 2003 book Devil's Knot: The True Story of the West Memphis Three." Atom Egoyan is a great filmmaker (go back and check out The Sweet Hereafter, if you haven't seen it), so this is actually a best-case scenario.

@ebertchicago: "Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory" with an update from today, will play at Toronto 2011. It freed 3 innocent men.

(As a side note, "HBO has announced that the first two Paradise Lost documentaries will be available on the network's mobile app, HBO GO, beginning Tuesday, August 23rd, and HBO On Demand beginning Wednesday, August 24th. They will then air on HBO — the first one on Monday, August 29th and the second one on Tuesday, August 30th.")

West Memphis Three: 'Paradise Lost' director talks about their freedom:

[Joe Berlinger] received a call on Tuesday night saying that he needed to get his camera and head down to Arkansas immediately. Something was happening. When Baldwin, Misskelley, Jr., and Echols were released today, he was there watching the whole surreal event unfold through the viewfinder of his camera.
And while Berlinger is overjoyed to see the West Memphis Three finally released, he’s enraged by the conditions of the deal. “I mean, it’s wonderful,” says Berlinger. “I would have made the same decision if I were them., but it’s deeply disturbing that the state of Arkansas did not have the courage to admit that it made a mistake. It’s astounding how long it’s taken for the wheels of justice to grind through.”

Since the Alford plea only substituted new convictions for old ones, I don't know that law enforcement has any incentive to pursue the real killers, whoever they might be. ("We don't think that there is anyone else," the prosecuting attorney said yesterday; he "declar[ed] the case closed.") And I say "killers" because hairs were found indicating (at least) three separate men, and none of them indicate the West Memphis Three or John Mark Byers. For all the strangeness of Byers' actions, there is an astonishing case to be made for Terry Hobbs, "the other stepfather" (link thanks to @ProfessorSweet), and yet no one in an official capacity has ever done anything with it. And there's a hair that indicates someone at the scene who is neither Hobbs nor his friend David Jacoby--and someone was seen "dazed and covered with blood and mud" in a restaurant bathroom that night. No one has ever been able to identify that man. The release is a small measure of justice for Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley; there has been none for the three murder victims. I don't know if there ever will be.

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Tags: movies, philosophical ramblings, true crime

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