The West Memphis Three are free today not because of any new evidence, or, as is so often the case, a legal technicality; rather they owe their freedom to the power and influence of America’s celebrity culture and our shallow obsession with pop idols.
Like many, I first heard of the West Memphis Three — WM3 for short — while watching the 1996 documentary Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills. The film tells the story of three teens, Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley and Jason Baldwin, convicted of murdering three eight-year-old boys, Stevie Branch, Michael Moore and Christopher Byers, in West Memphis, in 1993. Paradise Lost and its 2000 sequel were acclaimed examples of cinéma vérité by two accomplished filmmakers, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, who seemed to have taken Bertolt Brecht’s definition of art — not a mirror to hold up to society, but a hammer with which to shape it — quite literally.
The filmmakers’ highly selective portrait of the WM3 left more sentimental filmgoers convinced that the three teens had been railroaded by a hick justice system. Less sentimental filmgoers, myself included, suspected the directors of telling half-truths, a hunch that was quickly proven correct. Jessie Misskelley was convictedbased largely on his multiple (albeit sometimes inaccurate) confessions, which he later recanted. Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin were found guilty based on witnesses’ testimony and Echols’ statements to police containing firsthand knowledge of the murders. Misskelley not only confessed to taking part in the murders, but told a weird tale of witchcraft, the slaughtering and eating of stray dogs, and sex orgies in West Memphis’ bayous. Echols, meanwhile, told investigators that the murders were likely part of an occult ritual. Two juries found the WM3 guilty of murder. Echols was sentenced to death. An appeals court upheld the convictions.
That might have been the end of the story had not an HBO films executive serendipitously come across a report of the arrests in the back pages of the New York Times. After a few days kicking around West Memphis, Berlinger and Sinofsky found that every redneck cop and Arkansas hillbilly was convinced of the West Memphis Three’s guilt. Therefore, the teens obviously were innocent.
ANYONE WITH EVEN a cursory knowledge of the facts, however, could see that Berlinger and Sinofsky‘s films — which were largely responsible for shaping outside opinion of the case — was heavily biased toward the WM3. For example, the filmmakers made much of the fact that Misskelley was questioned for 12 hours, but failed to say that he confessed after three and half hours of questioning. Instead, the filmmakers stressed Misskelley’s low IQ, the inconsistencies in his many statements, and alleged he was coerced into confessing, a fact contradicted by the actual tape recording of the confession. (Later the Arkansas Supreme Court determined that Misskelley’s confession was not coerced and that he did in fact understand its consequences.)
The filmmakers claimed the WM3 were singled out because they were “outsiders” and “different.” Being singled out for being different is guaranteed to pull on the heartstrings of the sentimental Hollywood elite. And it obviously worked. Stars like Eddie Vedder, Winona Ryder, members of Metallica and the Dixie Chicks, Trey Parker, Johnny Depp (Depp and Echols eventually got matching tattoos), and Margaret Cho (Cho wants to “help” Echols publish a book of poems) wrote checks and rallied to the cause. Director Peter Jackson even promised to put Echols in next latest film.
But how exactly were the WM3 different? Echols and Baldwin reportedly dressed in black, had attitudes and listened to heavy metal music. I am not from West Memphis, but I lived a short distance from there in the early 1990s. My recollection is that teens who didn’t have an attitude, didn’t listen to heavy metal, and didn’t wear black were the oddballs.
What’s more, the filmmakers deftly skipped over unfortunate details, like the fact that the WM3 did not have alibis, that the supposed ringleader, Echols, was not so much a sensitive misfit with a poetic soul, so much as a severally disturbed and ultraviolent dope fiend with a puerile fascination with the occult. Echols reportedly told investigators that he was a fan of Anton LeVay, founder of the Church of Satan, while the Memphis Commercial Appeal reported that “evidence indicated Echols was influenced by the writings of the late Aleister Crowley, a proponent of human sacrifice.” Talk of the occult, however, was used by Echols’ celebrity supporters to paint prosecutors as a bunch of fear-mongering, knuckle-dragging evangelicals. Indeed, every Southern cliché was dusted off in order to denigrate the local justice system.
Due to the case’s high-profile support, a new judge ordered a new trial, while the new prosecutor insisted he couldn’t win a retrial, telling reporters he’d have “his ass handed to him” by Echol’s celebrity lawyers. Officially, the state of Arkansas still considers the WM3 guilty of triple homicide and has closed the books on the case. And yet, thanks to pressure of the stars of stage and screen, the state has decided to release a trio of convicted murderers, resentencing them to time served.
Residents of West Memphis are still trying to understand how three convicted murderers could be released simply because of the money and influence of a few Hollywood celebrities. Perhaps the answer will be revealed in Paradise Lost 3, coming soon to a theater near you.