Damien Echols and the West Memphis Three

Jack Silverman and Damien Echols at the Southern Festival of Books, War Memorial Auditorium, Nashville, TN (October 2012)

In 1994 Damien Echols was sentenced to death, while Jessie Misskelley Jr. and Jason Baldwin were given life in prison, after all were convicted for the savage murders of three boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. The thing was… they didn’t do it. “Police investigators believed the teens had formed a satanic cult and used the victims as part of a ritualistic slaughter,” writes Sarah Norris of the Nashville Scene. “The prosecution based its case on the fact that the ‘West Memphis Three’ — Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley Jr. — were widely perceived as ‘weird’. They were known to be fans of Metallica, and Echols tended to wear black clothing and a long trench coat. The only thing connecting them to the murders was a coerced confession from Misskelley, who tested low enough on an IQ test to qualify as borderline cognitively impaired. After confessing, he almost immediately recanted. A high school dropout who’d struggled with depression, Echols was depicted as the threesome’s ringleader, a devil-worshipping killer.” If ever there were a kangaroo court, the boys found themselves at the mercy of such a proceeding — the crime scene was significantly tampered with, police records were grossly mishandled… the entire process was a farce.

About 14 months ago the three were given a deal, setting them free while, as Echols explains, absolving Arkansas of any potential wrong-doing, forcing the waiver of any case the three might have in a lawsuit against the state. “On August 19, 2011, they entered Alford pleas, which allow them to assert their innocence while acknowledging that prosecutors have enough evidence to convict them.

It’s been at least seven years since I first learned of the case of the West Memphis Three: Like many before and after me, I watched the Paradise Lost documentaries (The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills and Revelations), and found myself disgusted by the thread of injustice that flowed throughout the entire story. I bought a shirt to help support the defense, I told friends, and I felt sick about the whole thing.

I haven’t been a close onlooker of the aftermath following the WM3′s release, but in preparation for Echols’ appearance at Nashville’s Southern Festival of Books I was reintroduced to the powerful feelings that I remember struggling with when I was first turned on to the case. I cried. The anger, the sadness, the grief, the sympathy, the confusion, the fear… all of it surfaced at once and my body, not knowing how to react, funneled everything into tears. As Echols sat in the War Memorial Auditorium Sunday afternoon, speaking to the beatings he received from guards, the absent health care measures that he received during his decade of solitary confinement, and the extreme anxiety that followed his release, those feelings returned, and on a few occasions I had to divert my attention to avoid a minor public breakdown.

Throughout his appearance Echols remained calm, well-spoken, thoughtful, and articulate as conversation bounced between he and the session’s host Jack Silverman. As questions began flowing from the event’s attendees, Echols gently floated a few jokes out to the crowd as discussion touched on items including his affinity for Stephen King and his ongoing work with organizations such as Amnesty International. Sitting there however, the words that struck an especially sensitive nerve with me were those offered when asked if he was interested in changing “The System”? His response was shockingly rational and objective despite the pain that The System had caused in his life. Think of the money, he replied, and the celebrity endorsements, the media’s interest in the case, his wife’s dedicated pursuit of justice, and the enduring efforts of those who offered their help along the way… think of all of that, he repeated, and recognize that even with all of that in place, it took nearly two decades before one case found a result that remotely reflected “justice.” Even for someone with his profile, changing “The System” is entirely out of reach.

As the event closed and the audience scurried to get a place in line for the book signing which followed (it should probably be noted that Echols’ appearance was in support of his recently released book, Life After Death) my friend and I remained in our chairs for a few minutes before slowly exiting the historic venue. As we walked away she asked what I felt, and all I could muster was “angry” and “sad,” a frog quickly took to my throat preventing me from saying anything further, as if the words were even there in the first place. I’m happy that Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley Jr., and Jason Baldwin are free men, but how free are they? What sort of justice can be had to repair two decades of misery, let alone the pain that will remain in the lives that follow? What if he were put to death? What then?

I couldn’t hear the question but during the event Echols was asked something to do with the prevalence of innocents on death row, and without missing a beat he shot off two names of people he had met who were, in his eyes, innocent. Yet, unlike his case, they didn’t have the media push to bring their cases into the public eye, nor the outpouring of donations necessary to challenge their convictions beyond a bare-minimum defense. Such cases are generally easier to sweep under the rug, he said, than they are to investigate further. And what’s more, Echols added, much like his own case, the state would rather send an innocent to die than admit a mistake.

When writing this and reading back over it, no tears came to me. The anger, however… The anger, the sadness, the grief, the sympathy, the confusion, and the fear: all of that remains. We live in a broken world, friends — each of us at the mercy of a broken system. And I don’t have slightest clue as to what can really be done about it.