Friday, September 26, 2014

Life After Death

I was not quite 13-years-old back in 1993 when three little boys were found murdered in West Memphis, Arkansas.  I lived in the central part of the state at that time, a little less than three hours from West Memphis.  The crime was all over the Little Rock news.  It was everywhere.  And when Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Miskelley were arrested and charged with the crime, their pictures were all over the news as well.  The words "satanists" and "sacrifice" were thrown around and every time I looked at a picture of Damien Echols I, at 13-years-old, felt a chill.  He looked like pure evil.  In 1993 and for many - MANY - years beyond I would've told you there was no way anyone other than the West Memphis Three had committed that horrendous crime.

Time has a way of changing things, though.

I was living in Memphis - much closer to West Memphis - in 2011 when the three men entered an Alford Plea (a plea of guilty while maintaining innocence) and, once again, their three faces were splashed all over my local news.  I was 31 at the time, almost twenty years had passed, and I'm not going to lie -- my initial reaction was shock.  And maybe even a little bit of denial.

I've always been -- obsessed is too strong a word but I've definitely had a lot of interest in the case of the West Memphis Three.  I've watched the documentaries, read up on various web sites, and just a few weeks ago I finished Damian Echols' book, Life After Death.  There is now no doubt in my mind that those three boys were arrested, charged, and convicted because of fear-mongering (this was 1993 in Arkansas -- there was definitely a fear culture when it came to satanism and devil worship.)  Jessie Miskelly confessed because he had the mind of a child and he was so mentally beaten and broken by the police that he finally told him what he thought they wanted to hear.  I have no doubt that much is true.

There are a few things I really garnered from the book:

1) I feel a lot of sympathy for Damien Echols.  I really do.  What he went through was horrific and unfair and there's no reason a human should have to go through that.  He lost eighteen years of his life.  All of his young adulthood, he lost because he was falsely accused and convicted of a crime he didn't commit.  That's a heinous miscarriage of justice.  But.  I couldn't help but think that maybe - maybe - being part of the West Memphis Three saved Damien Echols.  He places a lot of blame on a lot of people other than himself in the book but one thing is for sure: this wasn't a kid who was a saint. In many ways, he was the product of his environment and upbringing and that's sad. And, as a kid, that's not really something that was his fault. Who knows if he could've turned things around and been an upstanding citizen. Maybe he could have. On the flip side, though, maybe he would have perpetuated the cycle of his upbringing.  Is it fair that he was falsely accused?  That he lost so many years of his life?  Hell no.  There's no way it's fair.  But maybe . . . maybe it saved Echols from himself?

2) The real victims here, hands down, are the three little boys who were murdered no disputing that.  And while I feel a certain amount of sympathy for both Echols and Jessie Miskelly, the person I really feel sorry for his Jason Baldwin.  Here's the thing: Echols was on death row.  And while his head was certainly on the chopping block, he was not in general population.  He seems to gloss over the time that Baldwin and Miskelly had in prison with a blase "it wasn't that bad" attitude.  Damien Echols was secluded.  Baldwin and Miskelly were not.  They were convicted of a crime against children and placed in general population.  I think we all know what sort of abuse they endured.  The thing is: once they were out of prison -- even when they were IN prison -- Echols was the star.  He has hobnobbed with starts from Johnny Depp to Eddy Vedder.  Meanwhile, Jason Baldwin received all of the abuse with none of the notoriety.  (Same with Jessie Miskelly and, even though I know it was coerced, my sympathy for him is clouded somewhat by that confession.)

3) One thing that really struck out to me is that these boys were targeted because they were different.  They had committed small petty crimes but it was nothing like murder.  Their heads were placed on the chopping block simply because they broke the mold.  And I think the reason this bothers me so much is because I went to school with boys like Echols and Baldwin: boys who were a little different, with long black hair, who wore trench coats and hard rock t-shirts.  None of these boys would have hurt a fly but . . . what if the crimes had been committed in Greenbrier rather than West Memphis?  Would they have been singled out and targeted?  Would they have been called satanists because they had an affinity for black clothing?

4) While I know how backwards it can still be in many ways, I am very protective of my home state.  Don't come talking bad about it!  Especially if you've never lived there!  So it was really hard for me to grasp just how horribly the local law enforcement in a town in my home state bungled this investigation.  They went after boys who were a little different.  They coerced a confession from a young man who had the mind of a child.  They used fear-mongering to try the boys in public before it ever came time for them to see a jury.  It's sad and it's sick and, frankly, I don't blame Echols one bit for hightailing it out of the state and never stepping foot on Arkansas soil again.  The state also dropped the ball with the Alford plea -- yes, it got those innocent men out of prison.  But there will never be justice for those three murdered boys and that's the most grievous miscarriage of justice in this entire story.