Sunday, September 4, 2011
In 1993 three teenagers, Damien Echols(18), Jason Baldwin(16) and Jessie Misskelley(17)- one of whom, Damien Echols, was rumored to be a satanist- now known as the West Memphis 3, were arrested for the sexual assault and murder of three 8 year old boys, Stevie Branch, Michael Moore, and Christopher Byer. Despite NO substantiated physical evidence linking them to the crimes, by 1994, the trio was convicted of the murders based on a confession given by Misskelly -which the defense would later charge was obtained via coercion- and a statement made by a woman named Vicki Hutcheson; in which she claimed that Jessie Misskelly and Damien Echols had taken her to view a "Satanic esbat", a coven or witch's meeting associated with Wicca and Neopaganism. As a result of their conviction in the case, Misskelly and Baldwin would received multiple life sentences, while Damien was sentenced to death.
Following their convictions the boys maintained their innocence, not a particularly unique position for an inmate to maintain. But soon, they begin to draw public support. Over the years this group of supporters would eventually grow to include a variety of celebrities and musicians, as well as the parents of two of three victims, and ultimately resulted in the creation of a defense fund. A fund which allowed the Young men the ability to properly challenge the charges against them, which many believed were driven by the religiously driven hysteria dubbed the "Satanic Panic".
An examination of the evidence conducted by Echol's defense team between 2005 and 2007, not only failed to produce ANY evidence linking the Boys to the case, but actually yielded DNA evidence in the form of two hairs found at the scene which were determined to be consistent with the DNA of two other individuals sampled by the defense: Terry Hobbs, victim Steve Branch's step father, and a known associate of Hobbs, David Jacoby. Defense investigators also determined that marks on the victims body's, alleged to have been inflicted with a large knife recovered from a lake near Baldwin's home, were most likely the result of animal activity, and not the weapon in question. Finally, the team showed that Misskelly's confession, obtained after multiple hours of police interrogation of the the then 17 year old, border line mentally challenged suspect, was initially factually incorrect in every significant way -from the time of the murders, to the methods used in the killings- until police lead Misskelly into giving the "correct" answers to their questions.
As for the claim made by Vicki Hutcheson that Echols and Misskelly had taken her to witness a satanic ritual, a claim which helped to bolster the prosecution's assertion that the killings had been part of a satanic rite. In 2004, Hutcheson claimed that her testimony in the trial had been a complete fabrication, one which she claims to have told after West Memphis Police detectives threatened to take her child away and implicate her in the slayings, if she refused to testify as instructed. Hutcheson's claims of police intimidation have never been substantiated.
Armed with their new findings findings, and Hutcheson's recant, the defense made an appeal for a new trial. In 2010, that appeal was granted by the state supreme court, and a new trial was set for later this year. Seemingly convinced that the men, now all in their thirties, would likely win that trial, the state decided to make a deal. On august 19th, the West Memphis three were set free after serving 18 years in prison. They were not, however, cleared of the charges against them.
In order to gain their freedom, Echols and Baldwin were forced to enter something known as a " Alford plea", in which a defendant asserts their innocence of the charges in question, but acknowledges that sufficient evidence exists with which the prosecution could likely convince a judge or jury to find them guilty beyond a reasonable doubt; Misskelly entered a similar plea for his charges. This special plea to the charges also just happens to come with the happy side-effect, where the state is concerned anyway, of shielding the prosecution from any criminal liability, including financial damages.
Though there seemed to be little doubt from anyone that all three men would most likely have won their freedom in the new trial granted to them by the Arkansas Supreme Court, Jason and Jessie ultimately decided to agree to the plea -which also came with a 10 year suspended sentence for each defendant- in order to save the life of their friend Damien, who was awaiting execution on death row.
Given my own affinity for the music and sub-culture that was the target of the satanic-panic phenomena, not to mention my own personal dealings with it throughout my childhood, the plight of the WM3 is something I have followed for a long time. In my view, it seems clear that these men were wrongly convicted of the crimes in question, and given the lack of evidence against them; the prosecutions seeming refusal to even consider other subjects -despite even new DNA evidence implicating others in the crime- and all of the attempts that were made during the trial to tie the murders to satanic rituals, it seems equally obvious that religiously-fueled hysteria was ultimately the primary motivator behind the boys arrests and convictions. And while I'm pleased that the men were finally able to at least earn they're freedom, the idea that all of the authorities and institutions involved in their convictions are being allowed to get away with -in my opinion- deliberately ruining the lives of three innocent people in the name of their personal religious convictions, or simple incompetence- angers and disgusts me to no end. But whatever your personal opinion of their guilt or innocence may be, we should all agree that the handling of this case and the result it produced, were anything but justice for anyone, including the victims.
Sources: CNN Justice, WM3blackboard ( Vicki Hutcheson's recant), The WM3 "Time for Truth" Documentary- posted by: globalgriot on Youtube.
One of the WM3's long-time and most vocal supporters has been Henry Rollins, who also happens to be one of my favorite living humans. In 2002, Henry Rollin's, along with Chuck D, Ice-T, Iggy Pop, Tom Araya, Lemmy, and other performers, put out a CD to raise funds for the WM3's defense "Rise Above-24 Black Flag Songs to Benefit the West Memphis 3"; which of course included the following track.
Posted by Youtube user: modivationfilms