Cover photo by James McCauley, used under Creative Commons license

“It’s not a cursed op. There’s no curses. It’s just Afghanistan, that’s all.”

We watched two movies this past weekend, one surprisingly good, the other shockingly bad.

First up was Devil’s Knot (imdb | rotten tomatoes), Atom Egoyan’s adaptation of Mara Leveritt’s book of the same name about the West Memphis Three. I read that book, and watched all three HBO documentaries, and watched Peter Jackson’s documentary, and pretty much everything else. Not only was this movie unnecessary, it was fumbled from the start. I don’t know what Egoyan was trying to accomplish by messing with Pam Hobbs’ timeline, and the could-have-been-interesting focus on Ron Lax was blown by a wholly ineffective Colin Firth. The movie was stilted and painful and anaemic compared to what came before. Do yourself a favour and read the book; it’s dated, but it’s still the definitive read on the WM3 for me.

Much better, to our surprise, was Lone Survivor (imdb | rotten tomatoes). I didn’t know much about it; the subway posters just mentioned Mark Wahlberg and Taylor Kitsch and so I didn’t have much faith that it would be anything other than a standard war movie. Then, last night, I noticed it was directed by Peter Berg, so that got my attention. A 75% Rotten Tomatoes score didn’t hurt either, so we took a chance. It was actually quite good. Can’t describe it much without giving away important plot points, but now I want to buy the book on which this movie was based.


Cover photo by James McCauley, used under Creative Commons license

TIFF 3 of 5: Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory

I have written many, many times about the West Memphis Three, including a few weeks ago when they were released from prison after 17 years. Shortly after that Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, makers of the first two Paradise Lost documentaries chronicling the case, announced that the just-completed Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (imdb | tiff) would not be changed to reflect recent circumstances, but would in fact be shown as is. The filmmakers decided to get the new ending ready for the New York Film Festival instead. Still, a few hundred of us — including Morgan Spurlock — were pretty excited to see it.

In fact, there was little in this documentary I didn’t already know, so I’m finding it hard to come up with a proper rating. But it was pretty damn cool to be there with two of the guys who truly contributed to these guys getting out, and to hear them answer questions. I’m so jealous of the people in New York who get to see the new ending, especially since rumour has it that some of the WM3 might actually show up.

7/10 for the documentary itself, but a Spinal Tap this-one-goes-to-11/10 for the social impact Berlinger and Sinofsky have had.

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.

I look forward to Volume II

Yesterday I finished reading Almost Home: My Life Story Volume I, the story of Damien Echols written in his own words. Echols is a member of the so-called West Memphis 3, sentenced for the killing of three small children, a crime which the evidence — or lack thereof — suggests they did not commit. Echols is the sole member on death row.

This is not a great book. Echols isn’t a great writer. It’s almost certainly self-serving. It doesn’t shed any insight on the case. It doesn’t even seem to have been thoroughly checked for spelling errors.

Here’s what it is, though: if you’re of the same opinion that I am — that the WM3 is wrongly imprisoned — then this book is a heartbreaking look at what happens when a teenager, a foolish awkward uneducated kid, is ripped out of his own life and thrown into limbo. What he writes, the events he talks about…it’s clear that his life stopped in 1993. Outside of the trial the only dramatic things that happened to him happened in high school. It’s all teenager drama. He’s roughly the same age as me, and all those things I got to do — graduate from high school with my friends, go to college, move away, get a job, get married, buy a home…to grow up, basically — he didn’t get to do.

It’s a credit to him that he discovered zen while on death row, but it’s just crushing to think of this shame — the undeserved ruination of a good part of three lives — compounded on the original tragedy: the murder of three little boys those 16 years ago. If I thought there was an afterlife, I would worry about how uneasily those boys must sleep, knowing their killer is still out there.

Why I don't have favourite books

Do you have a favourite book?

I don’t think I do. I have favourite films. I have favourite songs. But I don’t have favourite books.

That’s not to say there aren’t tons of great books that I was really in love with. I just wouldn’t describe them as favourites. I’m not sure exactly how I define that word, or how my definition might differ from the standard interpretation, but I would loosely describe it this way: a favourite is something I will go back to again and again. I have watched the 13 films referenced in the above link countless times, just as I’ve listened to the songs in the other link so many times I have them all memorized down to the quarter note. On the other hand, I don’t think I’ve read any book twice.

So why is that? Well, I think I’m looking for something different in books than I get from films or music. I want to be challenged, I want to learn something, I want to have my mind changed. I suppose this is why I also don’t have a ‘favourite’ documentary, even though I usually prefer them to feature films. I expect from a documentary the same thing I expect from a book: to get my brain going.

Maybe that’s the difference. It’s hard to label something a ‘favourite’ when it might push me, challenge me, make me work. None of my favourite movies or music qualify as terribly difficult or avant-garde, but they all impressed me with their artistry or nuance (yes, even Hoosiers) while still being entertaining. A great book or documentary will teach me something, or disturb me, or change my mind about something…but none of those impacts will make me want to go back to it. The moment is passed, the effect has been felt.

But that documentary vs. feature film distinction tells me something about my books: that I prefer non-fiction to fiction. Truth be told, I buy and read much more non-fiction than fiction; were I to consume as many novels as I do films or albums I would almost certainly have a list of favourite books, but as it is the books I remember having a real impact on me were all non-fiction. Much as I distinctly remember them, I can’t say I feel the need to read any of them again.

What I do crave, and what I’ve missed recently when reading A Fine Balance, enjoyable as it was, is the engagement I get from non-fiction books. Reading a book the likes of The Coming Of The Third Reich or The Shock Doctrine makes my mind race about in all directions, to the point where I have to re-read paragraphs because I’ve wandered off on this tangent or that, formulating questions or testing hypotheses. I don’t get that same engagement from fiction — which is often a testament to the writer’s pacing or narrative skill, but also reflects the nature of fiction. It’s a story, not a study.

When I finished the MBA last year, I figured that my brain was starved for fiction after reading textbooks for so many months, but it turns out I’m still hungry for non-fiction. I’m easing back into it with Almost Home by Damien Echols (the member of the West Memphis 3 on death row), and plan to read Dave Cullen‘s Columbine (which I blogged about last week) next. After that I may take up Niall Ferguson‘s The Ascent Of Money or The Age Of American Unreason by Susan Jacoby. Or I may finally pick up Don Tapscott‘s Wikinomics or resume my study of the buildup to WWII with The Dark Valley: A Panorama of the 1930s by Piers Brendon. All of those appeal to me more than the copies of Absalom, Absalom or American Pastoral sitting on my shelf.

For now, anyway.