Not almost. Home.

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 hernandez
More on breaking West Memphis 3 story from Arkansas. Will PARADISE LOST subjects be freed tomorrow?? Incredible story:

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.

Useful anger

I’ve written many times before about the West Memphis Three. In case you weren’t paying attention, here’s the nickel version: in 1993 three teenage boys were charged with killing three eight-year-old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. The evidence presented against them at trial has come under heavy attack. A key component of the prosecution’s case — that the accused were devil worshipers — got national headlines, but only years later, when the documentaries Paradise Lost and Paradise Lost 2 and Mara Leveritt’s excellent book Devil’s Knot came out, did renewed attention return to the case. Donations to a legal fund have made possible new hearings into the three men’s convictions and subsequent sentencing. The mentally handicapped suspect whose coerced ‘confession’ helped provide the conviction was sentenced to forty years in prison. Another of the three received life in prison, while the last received the death penalty.

Sixteen years later the three remain in prison, but new hearings are taking place. You can read about them in detail at the WM3 blog, and I can’t remember all the details, but the upshot is this: the defense team has hired some kickass forensic experts to refute the opinion of the state pathologist who analyzed the bodies. Their testimony: that what were counted as stab wounds and satanic ritual were actually animal bites, and there was no evidence of sexual abuse.

This testimony casts new doubt, in addition to DNA evidence found two years ago showing genetic material at the crime scene which “cannot be attributed to either the victims or the defendants”, and a slew of questionable evidence presented at the original trial, including lack of murder weapon, lack of motive, the questionable interview and confession of Jessie Misskelley, and the infamous charge of Satanism, borne out by the type of music the boys listened to and black t-shirts they wore. Pile on top of this improper conduct by the jury foreman, incompetent defense, leaks from the police department to the press during the trial, and so on. But the head-shaking doesn’t stop there.

One of the most frustrating parts of reading Leveritt’s book was the testimony of Vicki Hutcheson and her son Aaron. The two of them made incriminating, but wildly inconsistent, statements about the WM3 which Hutcheson later recanted, saying she was coerced and was looking for reward money. That intrigue continues now in a cruel twist. Hutcheson has said she is willing to testify that she lied on the stand at the boys’ trial, but as Arkansas law has no statute of limitations on perjury, by doing so she would face a felony charge. The state could make an exception and allow her to testify without fear of being charged. They chose not to.

And therein lies another twist in the case. The judge presiding over the original case also presides over the hearings. Defense attorneys filed a motion asking Judge Burnett to step aside because of widespread rumour that he would run for Arkansas state senate. Burnett rejected the motion, just as he rejected the motion to re-open the case based on the DNA findings, but it leaves open the question raised by the defence: whether Judge Burnett can rule impartially on a case that, if re-opened — or worse, overturned — would almost certainly kill any political ambitions he may have. Obviously Burnett has incentive to prevent this from happening. Just one more roadblock in the way of righting things.

If you haven’t already, I’d suggest you read Devil’s Knot (amazon | indigo) or watch Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (imdb). They’ll make you angry, but anger at injustice is a useful thing.