Of course, anyone who witnessed the “feeding frenzy” that attended the O.J. 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; the West Memphis Three is about something larger and more disturbing. It has a lot to say about both the flaws in our justice system, but also the darkness in the human heart.
The nature of the crime was terrible and disturbing. The bodies of three 8-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 proclaims 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 percent 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 a stubborn and unrepentant judge and a prosecutor who adamantly announced that nothing had changed. The West Memphis Three was 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, 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 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. Plead guilty and we will let you go. No kidding. That was the agreement. “There is no way that this is justice,” says Echols, whose greatest crime when he was arrested was being a school dropout who wore black, suffered from depression and was something of a loner.
Echols has a biography titled 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 St. Raymond Nonnatus, patron saint of those who have been falsely accused; St. Dismas, patron saint of prisoners; and St. Jude, saint of desperate situations. There is a new film on the way, too. “West of Memphis” is slated for release on DVD in August.