A DISCUSSION OF LAW AND JOURNALISM

Tag: Joe Berlinger

The West Memphis Three: An A-Z List of Justice Gone Wrong

By Meghan Lalonde

West Memphis, 1993: Three eight-year-old boys brutally murdered in small-town Arkansas. Three satanic teenage “punks” to blame it on. When looking for suspects, these teenagers fit the bill – long hair, heavy metal fans, all dressed in black. There was even a confession. The story caught the attention of two HBO filmmakers, who decided to make a documentary about the horrible crime that traumatized the community.

The film that introduced the world to defendants Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley – the West Memphis Three (WM3) – wasn’t supposed to be about wrongful convictions. It wasn’t supposed to be a project that led to two additional films over the next 18 years. It just turned out that way.

Last month, HBO premiered the third and final chapter of the documentary, “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory.” I’d heard about it and thought it seemed interesting so on a rainy Friday afternoon I turned on the TV to give the first one a shot. Six hours, two sandwiches, and a full liter of Diet Coke later, I’d watched all three films, and I was reeling.

Searching for order in all the disorder, I’ve boiled it down to an A to Z list of some of the haunting and perplexing aspects about this terrible miscarriage of justice. There will be no “Spoiler Alert” here. Google the film and you’ll see that the three convicted murderers are free, released in August 2011 after entering into Alford Pleas (see “P” below). As with so many epic stories, knowing the ending doesn’t minimize the gripping nature of the journey.

Alternative suspects. One of the many critical shortcomings of the West Memphis Police Department was failing to search for leads on additional suspects. First, police never investigated Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of one victim with a history of violence. Mr. Hobbs claimed he hadn’t seen the children the day they went missing, but his neighbors are certain they saw him with the kids after school, around the time they were last seen. In 1993, these neighbors were never questioned. Police also botched the investigation of an unidentified black man who was seen at a local restaurant covered in mud and blood on the evening of the murders. They collected blood samples from inside the restaurant, then lost the evidence.

Blood. When the bodies of the three boys were discovered in a stream they were found naked, hogtied, stabbed, and mutilated. The prosecution argued that the murders occurred near where the bodies were found, but if that were true, wouldn’t there have been blood found at the scene? There wasn’t. Not even a drop. The use of a knife and ritual bloodletting thought to be part of satanic rituals were integral to the prosecution’s theory against the WM3 and yet there wasn’t any blood to be found. Recent forensic analysis has explained that the scratches and skin flaying of the victims were actually due to animal predation.

Celebrity support. Celebrities figured among thousands of supporters who learned about the WM3 from the first film. In 2010, Johnny Depp and Eddie Vedder hosted a benefit concert in their support. When the WM3 were released in August, Damien Echols, the defendant who had spent 18 years on death row, said he wanted to go to Disneyland. Mr. Depp made it happen.   (more…)

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