Sunday, August 21, 2011

Freedom for the West Memphis Three, but is it justice?

Right as we were graduating High School, 3 young boys were murdered in a wooded area of a West Memphis, Arkansas neighborhood. The wooded area was known to the kids of that neighborhood as Robin Hood Hills and the brutal nature of the crimes against the three young 8-year old boys sent the area into a panic.

The man in charge of the investigation was West Memphis Police Department Investigator Greg Gitchell. As the days dragged on into weeks and the weeks became almost a month, the failure to find the killers was wearing on the police. Almost three weeks after the bodies of the boys were found, Gitchell wrote a letter to the state crime lab, pleading for help in getting some information which would help them solve the case. The letter claimed that the cops needed information badly, that their hands were tied without it and that they felt they were "walking blind-folded through the case." Gitchell followed that letter up 2 days later with a letter to the district's deputy prosecutor (and the man who would wind up prosecuting the cases for the state), John Foglemann informing him of how "severely handicapped" they were without the information from the crime lab. In an unusual move, Gitchell's letter admitted that, unbeknownst to him at the time they did it, Foglemann and another prosecutor had already driven to the state crime lab in an effort to push things along.

Early on, Gitchell dropped what was really just a random comment with no support in the evidence: that the murders could have had something to do with a gang or cult. One person who seized on those comments was a county juvenile officer by the name of Jerry Driver. Driver was seen by the local cops as an "expert" on the occult. Where this idea that Driver was any kind of an expert came from is beyond us, seeing as how his professional career was not in law enforcement or academia, rather Driver had been a commercial airline pilot and had tried to open a housecleaning business that had failed. After that, he became the Chief County Juvie officer. When he heard about the murders, it was vindication for Driver. He had been telling people for months something bad was going to happen. And when it did, Driver knew who was responsible: Damien Echols.

Driver and his assistant, Steve Jones, seized on Echols and his friend Jason Baldwin (Baldwin is pictured to the left, Echols in the center. Jesse Misskelley, Jr. is on the right), who both men believed were starting or belonged to a satanic cult in the area. Echols had come to Driver's attention before when Damien and his girlfriend had gotten caught trying to run away. Echols' room was searched as part of that incident and Driver got a hold of some of Damien's "notebooks." Driver heard of some crazy-ass rumors that Damien and his girlfriend were gonna have a baby, then sacrifice it to Satan, and that was enough for Driver to personally escort Damien to a psychiatric hospital out of town.

Long story short, Driver got gravely worried about this kid, because he dressed all in black, said he was a Wiccan and just plain looked weird. But...take a look a Driver. How many teenage kids today would be classified as "weird" by a guy like Driver? about all of them. Regardless, even with Echols locked up in a psych hospital, Driver and his disciple Jones continued to see Echols as a the West Memphis bogeyman, noting Echols' modus operandi continued around West Memphis, as evidenced by "cult-related" graffiti and other simple, stupid shit around town. Driver's obsession with Echols followed Echols all the way to Oregon when he subsequently moved there, as he sic'd authorities out there on Echols to investigate him. When Echols was allowed to leave Oregon and headed back home to Arkansas, Driver was ready for him, neglecting to tell the Arkansas authorities that Echols had been released by Oregon officials to come home and thus getting Echols violated on his probation back in West Memphis. The whole time this is going on, Driver and Jones were spreading rumors around West Memphis that Echols and his friend, Jason Baldwin, were in an occult group, thus planting the seeds that would eventually result in the miscarriage of justice to come. As Jason Balwin, who's only connection to any of this was being Echols' friend and a fellow kid Driver and Jones thought was "weird" put it: They arrested Damien for being weird and me for having black t-shirts.

The cops eventually got to "investigating" these two when a local cop brought in a woman who was being accused of credit card fraud by her employer. The woman, Vickie Hutcheson, had an 8-yr old son, Aaron, who she claimed had been friends with the murdered boys. When the woman told the detective about her son being friends with two of the murdered boys, that detective saw a chance to get himself involved in what was becoming a national red-ball case. This detective got interested, got himself in touch with Driver, and the hunt into Echols and Baldwin was on. In what has to be one of the most bizarre parts of the story, the cops basically allow Vickie Hutcheson to "play detective" for them, steering her towards looking into Echols and Baldwin. She managed that, through a young boy that lived in her neighborhood, Jesse Misskelley, Jr. After all kinds of bizarre stuff from Hutcheson (like her alleged attendance at some secret satanic orgy with Echols, her son's increasingly bizarre confessions putting himself more and more in attendance at the murders, etc), the cops bring Jesse Jr. in and interrogate him. Jesse Jr., who is borderline retarded given his IQ, eventually gives a confession naming Echols and Baldwin as the main perpetrators of the murders, with himself just present. Despite the confession being rife with inaccuracies (the biggest being that the murders happened around noon, when in fact the boys were in school that day), the cops, still desperate as Gitchell's letters had documented, move and arrest the Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley.

June 4, 1993, just about a week after writing to the state crime lab and the prosecutor to tell them how "blind" they were in the investigation, Gitchell held a press conference announcing the arrests. Despite having no physical evidence linking any of the three boys to the crime and really only having Misskelley's confession that was on it's face rife with errors, Gitchell declared on a scale of one to ten, that their case was "an eleven." (A ridiculous comment that even Foglemann later admitted made him furious).

Misskelley was tried first and convicted, despite his recanting of his confession. Then the trial Baldwin and Echols began. Obviously, the State wanted to use Misskelley against Baldwin and Echols. It's hard to do justice to just how much pressure Misskelley was under to testify against the other two. In fact, the State's pressure on Misskelley became incredibly contentious when Misskelley's lawyer accused the State of contacting his client about testifying outside the presence of his atty, when the atty had specifically noticed them not to. Miskelley went back and forth. Eventually, after talking to his dad, Misskelley announced he would not do it.

To say that the defendants faced an uphill battle in these trials is an understatement. Just about every single significant ruling from Judge David Burnett in the trials went against them. In what was personally the most egregious example of how crazy these trials were, one young man who had originally fled West Memphis for California right after the murders, who later confessed to the crimes to California law enforcement, only to retract the confession was called to the stand. In a hearing outside the presence of the jury, the judge put that witness on the stand. The young man, claiming to be facing drug charges, requested an attorney ON THE STAND...TWICE, but was forced by the Judge to testify. Judge Burnett eventually stopped the testimony and ordered for the young man to get an attorney, but then had a in chambers hearing where it appears he issued a gag order on all the parties to try to cover up what we feel was pretty obviously a mistake.

Anyway, that was just one of the more glaring problems we saw that made the case seem ridiculously flawed. Baldwin was really harmed by the court's refusal to let his case be severed. By all accounts (even his own, post-trial), Echols attitude and demeanor during the trial did not help things. He came off as arrogant and cocky. He played into the image the State was arguing. Eventually both were convicted, with Baldwin getting life and Echols the death penalty.

But in a way, the real heart of the story occurred AFTER the verdicts. A documentary film crew had been filming the story from early on. They released their film, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills in June of 1996. Given the role their music had played in the story surrounding the events (namely that listening to it was somehow indicative of satanic worship), Metallica not only agreed to let their music be used in the film, but they donated it. The film was a hit, both critically and commercially and it started a strong interest in the case. That interest eventually led to the creation of one of the most influential and comprehensive criminal case websites on the web: Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley became the "West Memphis Three" and a grass roots movement sprouted to help free the WM3. The movement drew celebrity support and benefit concerts and CDs eventually came to fruition.

With the influx of support and resources, the WM3 continued to press their cases through appeals. Despite set back after set back, the WM3 and their attys kept at it and in 2007 they caught a break. DNA testing, having improved vastly over the years, was able to test the small amounts of material left in the case and show that while none of the WM3 DNA was at the crime scene, another individual's was. Eventually, the lawyers won the right to present this new evidence to the court and time had been carved out for a new judge to hear the matter this coming December. Reading the writing on the wall, the State of Arkansas decided to do a little damage control and Friday afternoon, a deal was struck and executed. Basically, the State consented to the original convictions being overturned and the Defendants being granted new trials, with the Defendants agreeing to then immediately enter Alford pleas and the court imposing a suspended sentence on time served. An Alford plea allows a person charged with a crime to continue to maintain their evidence, while acknowledging to the court that it's in their best interest to plea to the crime.

The picture at the top of this article is from the press conference the three, now free, men had following their release. The actual picture was taken after Echols thanked Baldwin for going along with the plea. Echols acknowledged that Baldwin had wanted to continue to fight, but that he had gone along with the plea to save Echols from death row. As Baldwin noted,

It really is impossible to offer any kind of comprehensive summary of everything that has gone on with this case in a blog post. If you're interested in the case, we highly recommend the site, Mara Leveritt's Devil's Knot book, and the Commercial Appeal's website coverage. You can also find parts of both documentaries (there was a second one Paradise Lost II) on youtube.

We didn't even get into how crazy and weird John Mark Byers, the stepfather of one of the young victim's, was. It's worth some reading just to see how big of a red flag Byers should have been to the cops, but who they for some unknown reason never seemed to take a strong look at.

In answer to the question posed by the title though, this is not justice. According to Baldwin, "This was not justice,” he said of the deal. “However, they’re trying to kill Damien.” Watch the video below, particularly from 9:00 on and see Baldwin's explanation for taking the deal. It's truly moving that someone who has undergone what Baldwin has could exhibit both the compassion and integrity he shows in that clip. Unfortunately, according to comments made by the State, the case remains closed. Here's to hoping the WM3 enjoy their freedom and eventually get their justice.

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