Arkansas, 1993: A Brief Primer on the West Memphis Three

In a time when social-justice issues, especially those involving policing and the judicial system, have been brought to the forefront of our culture, it seems like we shouldn’t forget the West Memphis Three. It was twenty-eight years ago this month, in 1993, when three white teenage boys were arrested for allegedly mutilating and murdering three children in eastern Arkansas. The events that followed, at that time and later, made for one hell of a mess.

What brought national attention to the situation were the particularly heinous details of the crime. The victims were eight years old, and their beaten bodies were found naked and hog-tied. One of them had been castrated. According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas:

The state of the boys’ bodies quickly inspired rumors that a satanic cult was responsible. The crime scene’s location in the woods, the nudity, the positioning of the boys’ bodies, and especially the castration caused concern about Satanism amongst the locals, and amongst the police as well.

In the 1980s and ’90s, evangelical Christian groups led a nationwide charge pushing the idea that America’s teenagers were being influenced by the Devil. In the South, where evangelical Christianity had a particularly firm foothold, this trend was prevalent. The primary targets of the complaints were heavy metal music, Dungeons & Dragons, horror movies, and other forms of entertainment that employed dark imagery or elements of magic and the occult. By contrast, many among Generation X viewed these things as slightly risky aspects of pop culture, not to be taken too seriously. The Misfits sang about “Horror Business” and Ozzy sang about suicide, the neighborhood dungeon master inspired a bit of awe, guys used horror movies to get girls to jump into their arms, and – I don’t know if they still do, but – Toys ‘R Us carried ouija boards.

However, it was taken very seriously when it came to Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley Jr., who became suspects in the brutal crime, even though the details were sketchy. Echols, who was the oldest, was on probation and already known to law enforcement. Baldwin was a friend of his. The two were considered suspects, but nothing was solid until Misskelley, the youngest, came to police’s attention through comments he made to a woman who had volunteered to search for the victims. Again, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas:

As a result, Misskelley was taken to the police station for several hours of questioning, of which just over thirty minutes were recorded. At the end of the questioning, Misskelley confessed, implicating himself, Echols, and Baldwin. Misskelley’s confession, however, was inconsistent with details of the crime of which the police were already aware. While confessing, Misskelley at times contradicted his own story as well.

The boys were arrested in June 1993, and during their trials in 1994, prosecutors had “a cult expert who indicated that the defendants’ music collections and clothing were key indicators of satanic cult activity.” Echols had admitted to dabbling with magic but denied being involved in satanism. However, the boys’ clothes, lifestyles, and choices were brought into question. Additionally, there was this:

Further, a former Ohio police officer named Dale Griffis, who held what the defense characterized as a mail-order Ph.D. degree from an unaccredited university, was permitted to testify as a prosecution expert that the crime bore the “trappings of occultism,” including that it had occurred under a full moon near a pagan holiday and that the number of victims and their ages – 3 and 8 – were significant in occultism and witchcraft.

Despite problems with the investigation, the evidence, its collection, and its presentation, they were all convicted. Damien Echols was sentenced to die.

Eighteen years later, in August 2011, the West Memphis Three were freed. In exchange for agreeing not to argue over their guilty verdicts, the three now-grown men were let out of prison. When questioned about the decision to be freed without a formal acknowledgment of an unjust conviction, Echols was quoted as saying, “I am innocent, as are Jason and Jessie, […] but I made this decision because I did not want to spend another day of my life behind those bars. I want to live and to continue to fight for our innocence.”

Among the sources that give greater details and insights about the West Memphis Three are the 1996 documentary Paradise Lost: the Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, the 2000 book Blood of Innocents by Guy Reel, the 2003 book The Devil’s Knot by Mara Leveritt, the 2013 film of the same name, and the podcast The Forgotten West Memphis Three.

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