Almost exactly one year ago I wrote what was the latest in a number of blog posts about the West Memphis Three. I’ve been following their case for nine years, ever since I read Mara Leveritt‘s book Devil’s Knot. I’ve watched the documentaries. I’ve followed the blogs. I own the t-shirt. I’ve felt personally, if of course distantly, frustrated by what seemed so obviously like a miscarriage of justice. I would get upset when I thought about it. But it drifted to the back of mind and hung out there like a curiosity, not a crusade. For years.
Then this morning, while sifting through tweets from last night on my phone, I saw this retweet from TIFF co-director Cameron Bailey:
@eug eugene hernandezMore on breaking West Memphis 3 story from Arkansas. Will PARADISE LOST subjects be freed tomorrow?? Incredible story: http://ow.ly/679w2
I started to get excited but had to stop myself. It felt like another false signal, like all the others before it…the new DNA evidence, the witnesses changing their stories, the emerging alternative suspects. But then more and more links showed up in my twitter stream. Then there was a hearing called with all sorts of clues…families in attendance, gag orders issues, the WM3 being moved along with all their possessions, and so on. I spent an hour at work, trying to simultaneously write a document, answer emails and watch the live feed outside the Jonesboro courthouse where the hearings were held. Twitter was exploding with news and speculation, as were the newscasters, so much noise and news and then John Mark Byers outside the courthouse like a mad giant ranting about Terry Hobbs, and then…this.
Incredible. Unbelievable. Unfathomable, if I tried for a minute to imagine what they were feeling.
I watched the press conference where they all tried to process the fact that they were out, and free, and now staring down hundreds of cameras. All they wanted to do was go home and hug their families and sleep for a day and drink a beer and eat a Whopper or something, so the presser didn’t last long. No one cared but the reporters. The people who cared about the story wanted to see them walk out of the building. Most of the details about what had happened were already out anyway. Thousands of people who woke up never having heard of an Alford plea had learned the mechanics of how the deal was struck, and knew the technical admission of guilt wasn’t worth shit. But it was so, so moving to watch, just for those few minutes.
It tore my heart out to see Jessie Miskelley sitting there, looking lost. Maybe he didn’t understand what was happening, or was just having trouble believing it was real. Maybe it was all too overwhelming. Jason Baldwin kept rubbing Miskelley’s head, like a little brother, to say it was okay. And it broke my heart to see that, and wonder whether he’ll ever recover. Then Damien Echols thanked Jason, who didn’t want to take the deal but did anyway so Damien could get off of death row, and they hugged. And everyone lost it. Including me, a little. I don’t know these guys, but I felt anger at their plight, and at that exact second I guess I felt relief and satisfaction and, I think…joy.
And if I felt like that, a guy thousands of miles away, who’s never met them, never been in jail, never even been to Arkansas…if I felt all that, I couldn’t even comprehend what it must have been like for them and for their families.
Free. The West Memphis Three. Free.