There’s some very good news this week on the legal front, and it comes from, of all places, Arkansas. The West Memphis Three, after spending 18 years in prison (one of them on death row) were finally freed, putting an end to one of the most shameful witchhunts of the Twentieth Century.
In 1993, the bodies of three 8-year-old West Memphis boys were found in a ditch in a wooded area; they’d been brutally murdered and their bodies mutilated. The local police department, which had been plagued with corruption, ignored the trail of evidence pointing toward the stepfather of one of the victims (with whom they had some ties), and instead focused on three teen misfits: Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jesse Misskelley, Jr.
This troubled trio had been known to dress in black, listen to heavy metal and engage in other activity that was considered oddball in their conservative community. But what really sealed the deal was that Echols had been known to experiment with different religious practices, such as Catholicism, Buddhism, and even (shudder) Wicca.
In their community, there were plenty of people who were living in the Fourteenth Century rather than the Twentieth. They believed that the earth was created 6000 years ago, that science is evil, that God punishes nonbelievers, and that neopaganism equals “devil worship”, complete with human sacrifice.
Police badgered Misskelly, who was mentally handicapped, into confessing to the crime and implicating Echols and Baldwin – he apparently was under the impression that if he just told them what they wanted to hear, they’d let him go. Accordingly, he changed his story several times under their prompting, and got significant details of the crime wrong. Nonetheless, his “confession” was good enough to establish their guilt unless they could prove themselves innocent.
The “trial” was held in the nearby city of Jonesboro (which later would gain further notoriety as the site of a deadly school shooting) but that didn’t really improve the odds of the accused. With proceedings that trumped the best efforts of Saturday Night Live, the prosecution introduced an “expert” in the occult whose credential turned out to be a certificate obtained by mail order. There was speculation that the victims were chosen in part because of their age: 8 is supposedly a number with mystical significance. (Anyone who follows occultism will tell you that ANY number is a number with mystical significance.) They even introduced a stick found in the woods because it looked like something that MAY have been used as a murder weapon. Seriously.
And so, in a nation where those accused are supposedly presumed innocent unless guilt can be shown beyond a reasonable shadow of a doubt, these three boys were convicted of a capital crime without a single shred of credible evidence. They’ve now spent half their lives behind bars, without ever having used such commonplace conveniences as the Internet or a cell phone. Their eighteen most vital years, gone forever. While the Bible Belt certainly doesn’t have a monopoly on judicial rape, it’s hard to imagine that this kind of outrage could have occurred anywhere else. Let’s hope not.
And this week, suddenly, there was a surprise hearing. And after agreeing to a rotten deal that basically says that even though they’re not guilty they still have to be branded as guilty because otherwise they might sue the ass off the state, they’ve been released. Progress is two steps forward and one step back. Or maybe sometimes it’s the opposite. In any case, these three victims of mass hysteria and southern fundamentalist bigotry are, at long last, free men.