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.

Another 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.

Bear: The Hard Life and Good Times of Alabama’s Coach Bryant by Paul “Bear” Bryant  with John Underwood (1975)

Bear Bryant was the college football coach from the early 1960s through this retirement in 1983. Bryant left the game as the winningest coach of all time, with 315 wins, and he had won a half-dozen national championship between 1961 and 1979. This book came out at the height of his success. 

“Charlemagne Record Exchange closing after 42 years,” on al.com, December 2019

From the late 1970s until December 2019, Charlemagne was Birmingham’s independent record store. Located in an upstairs shop in Five Points South, the store was a classic record store.

Jason and the Scorchers, “White Lies,” at Farm Aid in 1986

Nashville-based Jason and the Scorchers came early in the “alt-country” movement in the 1980s. This video shows them playing one of their hits at the Farm Aid benefit concert.

Beanland: Rising from the Riverbed (documentary, 2004)

Oxford, Mississippi-based Beanland was an early Southern jam band that played from 1986 to 1993. Members later played in the Kudzu Kings and Widespread Panic.

To contribute to the lists, use the contact form on the about page.

A 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 murder of Kevin Ives and Don Henry” in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas

In August 1987, the suspicious deaths of two teenage boys who had gone hunting in rural Arkansas was featured in an episode of NBC’s Unsolved Mysteries. 

“The Devil Went Down to ‘Bama” in Spin

In 1993, the Montgomery, Alabama public-access show “Channel Zero,” which featured alternative music, was taken off the air for allegedly promoting satanism.

Blood in the Soil: A True Tale of Racism, Sex, and Murder in the South by Carole Townsend (2016)

This 2016 true-crime book looks back at the 1978 shooting of Hustler publisher Larry Flynt in Georgia.

Get the Side Effects (with director’s commentary)

This short 1980 documentary, posted on YouTube with the director’s latter-day comments, takes a DIY look at the Athens, Georgia band The Side Effects.

To contribute to the lists, use the contact form on the about page.