Free At Last

One of the most important lessons I have learned in my life is simple: do not allow your emotions to control you.

Emotions are literally drugs. Harvard researchers even found that the human brain, when a person is in love, reacts in the same fashion that it does when using cocaine. Love literally gets us high. Anger does also, albeit in a different way. When a major incident drives us to a rage, adrenaline can numb our nerves, steel our muscles and help us tune out some pretty intense things. As a kid, I wasn’t very emotionally controlled. As a grown woman, I’ve learned that it is when our emotions threaten to boil over that we must exert all of our willpower to remain calm and find a way to channel that emotion into something healthy.

In May of 1993, much of the country (largely the uber-religious portion) forgot what it means to moderate themselves.

I saw news reports about the murder of three eight-year-old cub scouts in West Memphis, Arkansas and saw the adults around me react first with revulsion, and then with untold fear. Mind you, they didn’t always put voice to it. The story went that it was an occult ritual crime. My church, however, started whole new classes and sermons about how to spot potential satanic activity in kids. I grew up in the culture of satanic panic and at the time I believed it. Then again, I was a kid and I had no reason to question it. While I still believe in the spiritual realm, I don’t see it as being what they made it out to be back then.

When the news reported that three teenage boys believed to be involved in a satanic cult had been arrested for the murders, churches everywhere went wild. A guilty verdict was not necessary in the least. As soon as the story hit that Jessie Misskelley, Jr., Jason Baldwin and Damien Echols had kidnapped, raped and murdered the boys as part of a satanic ritual, no evidence was needed. They could have done without the trial entirely. The mention alone was enough to convict three teenagers. Once the three had fingers pointing at them, no other suspect was even considered. Even West Memphis Natives Chris Morgan and Brian Holland, who skipped town for California just four days after the bodies were discovered and made incriminating statements AND failed polygraph tests with Oceanside police, were forgotten. All anyone focused on were the statements made by Echols about being a satanist. Then again, every metalhead kid I went to school with back then said the same thing for shock value because the Christian kids gave them a reaction.

Looking back on that time is surreal every time I do it. It feels strange to realize just how emotionally involved we were in all of that and how dangerous it has become. With barely circumstantial evidence, zero physical evidence and a coerced confession, prosecutors were able to put two teens away for life and sentence a third to death. Rumor had it that Damien Echols had taken his first name (it had been Michael) out of an obsession with the movie The Omen. In fact, he’d taken it after a famous Catholic priest when he converted to Catholicism. That was never said in the courtroom.

Defense attorneys in both trials – Misskelley was tried before Baldwin and Echols – were denied the ability to present expert witnesses who could have thoroughly debunked Misskelley’s confession as coercion. It didn’t matter that police had only recorded 46 minutes of a 12-hour interrogation, and it certainly didn’t matter that police had to correct him (and were caught in the recording correcting facts such as when the boys were abducted, what they were tied up with, and how the bodies were left in the creek). It didn’t matter that forensic evidence actually proved the boys were never sexually assaulted. A superstitious jury of locals convicted Misskelley.

When he recanted his confession and refused to testify for prosecutors (even though they offered him a sweetheart deal to testify) in the Baldwin/Echols trial, the confession was legally not allowed to be presented as evidence. So-called “fiber forensics” proved little more than the fact that fibers found near the victims could be matched to clothing worn by half of the people in West Memphis. Hair and blood traces were collected, but DNA testing wasn’t then what it is now. There was almost no blood from the boys at the scene. There was absolutely no evidence whatsoever to suggest that even a halfhearted cult crime had taken place anywhere near the scene. A hunting knife was found in the lake behind Baldwin’s home, but it didn’t belong to either of the boys and couldn’t be called the murder weapon because none of the victims were stabbed. The prosecution’s star “expert witness”? It was Dr. Dale Griffis. He sold himself as an expert on all matters occult. Every single thing he said on the stand was untrue, merely a parroting of legends and myths that Christians had long spread about satanic cults.

Then, during deliberations, jury foreman Kent Arnold slipped word of Misskelley’s confession into the deliberations. The move was completely illegal; he’d talked to an attorney friend intimate with the prosecutor’s work to convict the West Memphis Three and knew details about the confession that weren’t public. What he didn’t say was that it was fraught with mistakes that interrogators openly corrected him on. The confession was completely inadmissable, but it was entered anyway and all three ended up behind bars for a crime that they didn’t commit.

Years later, in 1996, a little-known documentary began to make waves. Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills raised questions that many wouldn’t dare ask for fear of offending the families of the victims or questioning the wisdom of what had been done. Heavy-hitting musicians and actors poured money into the defense fund. In the past five years, DNA evidence has proven that none of the West Memphis Three were at the scene of the crime. The initial appeal for a new trial was denied by none other than Judge David Burnett. Burnett, you see, had been the original trial judge, and he had handed down decisions blocking the defense from presenting a great deal of exculpatory evidence. He never would have allowed his own decisions to be questioned, particularly not in a case of this magnitude.

It took a ruling from the Arkansas Supreme Court to grant a new trial. Then, out of nowhere, prosecutors played on the fears of all three accused and all of their families and supporters: they cut a deal that both spared prosecutors from eating crow and granted all three immediate freedom. They would offer an Alford Plea. Such a plea allows the accused to maintain their innocence while agreeing that prosecutors have enough evidence to convict them. In other words, they were pleading guilty without admitting guilt. None of them liked the idea of admitting even a hint of guilt, but all three agreed because Echols has been within three weeks of execution once already. Any longer and his execution would move forward. They were re-sentenced to time served, given ten years of probation and immediately freed.

Echols, on death row, wouldn’t have had much contact with other inmates, if any at all. Baldwin and Misskelley were a different story. I can only hope that all three find their place while they work to clear their names, which they have vowed to do. Far too many of those who have been freed from prison after more than a decade behind bars have ended up in trouble again because they didn’t know how to live “on the outs”.

Knowing what I know about criminal justice, investigations, evidence, legalities and all that goes into them, it seems plain as day to me that the WM3 are innocent. Those who continue to cling to the idea that they are guilty don’t have any hard facts; all they have are emotional reactions based on a superstition that created the wrong in the first place. Having learned the hard way just how dangerous that is, I believe we should learn, even when we are so enraged we cannot see straight, to take a step back, look at it from a couple of different angles, and if we can’t make an informed decision, then have others help us to do exactly that.

I am less than impressed with the game being played by prosecutors. It is unfair that these three were forced to take this step. I am ecstatic, however, that they are free, and I pray that they have the support they need to make it in the world as it has become. I pray that the true killers are found. I still hold to my faith even though it is dramatically different now than it was then. I believe that all of those who are unrepentant will answer to God for their wrongs – including the hordes of people who blamed their drive to convict three innocent teenagers of murder on their religion and have continually refused to admit their wrong.