Sunday, March 17, 2013
Life After Death by Damien Echols
New York: Blue Rider Press
$26.95 - 392 pages
They were known as the West Memphis Three: Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, Jr. - three teenagers who were accused of murdering three eight-year-old boys in Arkansas in 1993. Their trial was marked by tampered evidence, false testimony and public hysteria. It is small wonder that it became an event so bizarre, it attracted the national media. Of course, anyone who witnessed the “feeding frenzy” that attended the Simpson trial (not to mention Casey Anthony and the current daily spectacles attending the Jodi Arias testimony) is familiar with television’s ability to convert crime into entertainment...a process that sometimes bestows celebrity status on the accused.
There is a significance difference in the issues at stake in the West Memphis Three trials (there were three of them) and the other “true crime” spectacles that acquire a devoted audience. Whereas the Casey Anthony trial explored the petty, self-centered world of a young woman with an unwanted child; and the kinky world of Jodi Arias, who has clocked up more on-camera time than most soap opera queens - No, The West Memphis Three is about something larger and more disturbing. It has a lot to say about both the flaws in or justice system, but also the darkness in the human heart.
The nature of the crime was terrible and disturbing. The bodies of three eight-year-old boys, Christopher Branch, Michael Moore and Christopher Byers were found naked, bound, mutilated and submerged in a shallow gully which ran through a four-acre patch of forest in a working-class subdivision in West Memphis. The victims were playmates and were often seen riding their bikes through the neighborhood.
During the autopsies of the victims. a medical officer concluded that the binding and mutilation of the bodies could be described as “ritualistic” and suggested that the police should investigate the possible existence of a “satanic cult” in West Memphis. No action was taken immediately until an outraged community demanded an investigation. The subsequent inquiries led the police to Jessie Misskellkey, Charles Baldwin and Damian Echols, three teenagers who had a penchant for wearing black clothing and listening to the heavy metal band, Metallica. As the word spread through West Memphis, a kind of hysteria grew as people gave evidence regarding the suspicious behavior of the three teenagers. A juvenile officer who turned out to be a local guru and self-styled authority on satanic rites gained an audience, and by the time Baldwin, Misskellkey and Echols were arrested, the local citizenry, including the arresting officers were convinced that they were heartless fiends and in the words of one bereaved father, Todd Moore, “ should be burned at the stake.”
The ensuing debacle is memorable, and thanks to HBO, much of shame and humiliation suffered by West Memphis is captured for national viewing. Many of the witnesses - most having direct ties with the murdered children, proved unreliable, local buffoons, and embarrassing. John Mark Byers became a sort of clown who raved, conducted mock burial ceremonies for the three accused teenagers, and spoke directly to the camera in a grandiose voice.Then, there was the presiding Judge David Burnett, who proved to be arrogant, ignorant and unrepentant, proudly proclaiming his belief that justice had been done when he sentenced Echols to death by lethal injection. Baldwin and Misslellkey received life sentences.
With the release of the HBO film. Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills in 1996, there was immediate outrage. The film had left many viewers sickened and disillusioned. Nathaniel Rich, writing for the New York Review of Books, said: “The viewer is left with the unshakable sense that the suspects have not received a fair trial, and most likely, are
innocent. You also come away thinking that West Memphis, Arkansas is one of the most backward, bigoted cities in America.”
HBO quickly realized that they had a story that went far beyond Satanic rituals and gore. The producers knew that the West Memphis Three were innocent, but they had been found guilty. Four years later, they released Paradise Lost 2: Revelations. Indeed, there was additional information, and there was little doubt that Jessie Misskelley’s “confession” had been forced from a frightened young man who has an IQ that puts him in the last 4% of his age group. DNA tests had proved that none of the accused were present at the site where the bodies were found. Forensic evidence now indicates that mutilation was not “satanic,” but was caused by animals. Some crucial evidence had “vanished.” When a second trial was scheduled
the HBO found an stubborn and unrepentant judge and a prosecutor who adamantly announced that nothing had changed. The West Memphis Three were guilty.
By this time, a groundswell of support was building, and some remarkable people stepped forward to say that they, too, had been called “outsiders” and “weird” when they were children. They, too, had worm black clothes and listened to “strange music.” The names include the actor, Johnny Depp, Henry Rollins of Black Flag, The Dixie Chicks, Marilyn Manson, Eddie Vedder, and Sir Peter Jackson, the Director of Lord of the Rings, who has donated more than $10 million to Damien Echols’ defense fund. With that kind of money, you get get another trial.
By the time we get to Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, 20 years have passed. If you have stayed the course, you have seen the cast of this incredible drama age, become contrite or cynical or resigned. Two of the outspoken members of the victims’ families are now prime suspects in this unsolved crime. The Judge has finally retired, but he readily confirms that justice was done the first time. But, finally, in 2011 the Memphis Three was offered a deal. If they would plead guilty, they would be released. No kidding. That was the agreement. “There is no way that this is justice,” says Damian Echols whose greatest crime when he was arrested was being a school drop-out who wore black, suffered from depression and was something of a loner. Following their release, Damien spoke for his two friends when he told the media that they had no illusions about the outcome. Damien noted that if it had not been for the HBO films, he would be dead and Jessie and Charles would have been serving life sentences. "These people would have murdered me," he said. As for the legal system in West Memphis, Nathaniel Rich concludes, "They thought they were dealing with white trash ... only to discover that they were up against New Zealand's sixteenth richest man, America's highest paid movie star and the best lawyers that money could buy."
Damien Echols has a biography entitled Life After Death and it has just been released. Damien, who is a practicing Catholic tells us in the first chapter that his favorite saints are: Saint Raymond Nonnatus: those who have been falsely accused; Saint Dismas: patron saint of prisoners; Saint Jude, saint of desperate situations. There is a new film on the way, too. West of Memphis slated for release on DVD in August.