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.

A mid-winter Deep Southern Gen X sampler, from “the lists”

The section in level:deepsouth called “the lists” is for collecting and sharing articles, sound files, videos, and images from Generation X’s early years in the Deep South and from today. Below is a sampler.

The Moreland Hometown Heritage Museum in Moreland, Georgia

This site is a tribute to the hornery and peculiar Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Lewis Grizzard, whose distinctly Southern commentary and humor was loved by some and offensive to others. Grizzard died of a heart attack in 1994. 

“Tie a Rope to the Back of the Bus” by Superchunk, from No Pocky for Kitty (1991)

Based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Superchunk was staple of indie music in the 1990s. This video for a song on their second album shows them both goofing off and playing live.

South of Haunted Dreams: A Ride through Slavery’s Old Backyard by Eddy L. Harris (1993)

Eddy Harris was relatively well-known from his 1988 book Mississippi Solo and 1992’s Native Stranger when he published this book about driving a BMW motorcycle across the South to figure out what it meant to him as a black man.


The Temple of Oxford on Pharr

by Francie Klopotic

It’s a hot summer night in 1993, and it’s one o’clock in the morning. I am a 27 year old in Decatur, a suburb on the eastern edge of Atlanta, and I need a reading fix.

Keys in hand, I jump in the car and drive to Buckhead. The radio is tuned to 99X. The station feeds me “How Soon Is Now?” from The Smiths.

Interstate traffic is light on this Saturday night as I wind my way up I-85 and take the Piedmont exit. My destination? That miraculous and awe-inspiring spaceship-shaped bookstore, a beacon of intellectual light perched on the edge of Pharr Road.

She is my favorite professor, my companion in the darkest of times, my trusted confidante. As long as I can make it there by closing time at 2:00 AM, I’ll be fine.

Parking is scarce, even at this hour. I pull into the driveway and find a space behind the building. I kill the engine. Music pours from a building nearby. I walk around to the main entrance, my feet keeping time with the beat.

The glass door opens with a gentle tug, and I make my way past rows of bookshelves that greet me in the entryway. Folks lean in to browse new titles. A soft scent of paper and bookbinding fills the air. The interior lighting is just right, not too dim and not too bright. The sound of pages turning under a blanket of soft jazz lulls me into a meditative state.

I have entered the temple of Oxford Books, Atlanta’s sanctuary of the written word. There is no store in the whole of the city more sacred to me than this. Like others who are drawn into her literary cathedral, I find myself a devotee.

High ceilings in this former car dealership give the building a church-like feel. The cashier counter sits in the middle of the store like an oversized pulpit. Employees in blue vests engage a throng of shoppers in light banter. The soft sound of happy voices makes sweet music. It is the Oxford choir.

I look at the customers. A greasy-haired teen in flannel shirt sits on the floor reading Kerouac. There are others like us in this congregation of book lovers, young GenXers in ripped jeans and combat boots scattered amidst the throngs of beatniks and hippies, academics and scholars. We have come together to worship at the altar of knowledge and inspiration housed within the southeast’s largest indie bookstore.

The massive staircase to the round-as-a-doughnut top floor tempts me with its vast selection of metaphysics, philosophy, and mythology books. Normally I’d hit the upstairs first to scour the titles for a Nietzsche or a Campbell, but my holy place on this pilgrimage is the newsstand on the ground floor. This is my Mecca and it holds a huge variety of publications. Glossy covers draw me in as I approach the rows of magazine racks that seem a mile long. One section of publications flows seamlessly into the next. From poetry chapbooks to soft-core porn, there is something for every taste and predilection. Anything and everything a person can imagine sits waiting to be discovered in these tightly packed racks.

Arts, literature, and poetry draw me in like a siren’s call, and right here on the bottom rack of the shelf nearest the window is where I first met Utne Reader.

It’s a new month, which means there’s a new issue. Dressed in cover art worthy of the Utne name, this “best of the alternative press” has become something akin to forbidden fruit, opening both my eyes and my mind to thoughts, philosophies, and politics that lie to the left of age-old Southern traditions.

They are the same age-old traditions in which I was raised.

Here in these pages I learn what people in New York are thinking, what people in Los Angeles are doing, and what people in Chicago are making.

Every new issue excites me to the core and stretches my imagination. I envision what it must be like to live, work, and play in such a huge city. These thoughts, however, draw me back to the city in which I find myself.

Atlanta, “a city too busy to hate,” a city on the brink of greatness, is adjusting well to her status as the Big Apple of the New South. She is growing up, expanding, welcoming. She knows all too well her complicated past and has chosen to set her sights toward a future filled with hope.

Each and every month, Utne Reader helps me do the same. The magazine is there as a comforting ally, taking me by the hand and easing my innocent-to-the-ways-of-the-world mind into a wider and all-encompassing perspective.

Letters to the editor are always the first bits I consume. The letters remind me that I’m not the only one in the world with an insatiable appetite for culture. I feel less alone. The letters provide something of a subversive edge to the magazine and this excites me. Utne is also my go-to for book reviews. It is within these pages that I first discovered “Pigs in Heaven” by my new favorite writer, Barbara Kingsolver.

I grab an unread issue from the back of the stack and head to the register.

The cashier takes my copy of Utne and smiles. She offers me a knowing grin and rings up my purchase. Under the soulful sounds of John Coltrane that emanate from unseen speakers, she slips the magazine into a bag and hands it to me.

I take my treasure and exit the assembly. The door opens to oppressive heat. The humidity hasn’t let up since I entered the store. I walk into a wall of wet air and plow through it toward the parking lot.

Once seated in my car, I set my Utne on the passenger seat and turn the key in my old Chevy. The stereo awakens in time for Robert Smith of The Cure to ask his fervent question: “Why can’t I be you?”

Francie Klopotic is a visual artist and a writer. A native of Atlanta, Georgia, she lives with one foot in the mundane and the other in the mystical. Francie has been creating stories for most of her life, weaving tales that blend aspects of the arcane with personal experience and dreamy flights of fancy. She currently lives in Augusta and spends her time between Atlanta and Savannah, sharing her life with her husband and their two cats.