Devil In Memphis and the Idiocy of Our Times

I received the following from a friend of mine, who sent it to his local paper as well. I’ve asked his permission to post it here, in its entirety. It concerns an issue which, while we may hope represents an unfortunate part of our history long outgrown, still rears its viperous and virulent heads in the present day.

Why are the West Memphis Three Still in Prison?
by Brooks Caruthers

Fourteen years ago Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley, the notorious West Memphis Three, were convicted of murdering three eight year old boys: Michael Moore, Steve Branch, and Christopher Byers.

Almost immediately, the case against Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley was exposed as a hollow sham, a travesty of justice. But after numerous appeals, careful examinations of evidence old and new, and international attention brought about by hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles, two documentary films, and at least one very well-researched book, the West Memphis Three are still in prison. Why?

I’ve only heard vague answers. Third hand rumors. (My friend says there’s stuff that wasn’t reported, stuff that wasn’t in the trial…My friend knows someone who has seen things…My brother knows someone who heard things…my sister knows someone who was there, who knows things, who is positive Echols and them are guilty.)

What “things”? I have yet to hear one. So far the only tangible “thing” I’ve heard was, “I know a lawyer who says the bite marks on the body matched their teeth.”

Which is interesting because the exact opposite is true. The teeth marks found on the bodies DO NOT match the teeth of Miskelley, Echols, or Baldwin. That’s been known since 1998.

Now, in 2007, as announced in a press conference given by Damien Echols’s defense team, it has been shown that the teeth marks found on the bodies were not even human. This is the opinion of more than a half dozen forensic pathologists and forensic odontologists. In their opinion, almost all of the horrible wounds found on the three victims, including the genital mutilations, were the result of post-mortem animal predation, i.e., animals trying to eat the dead bodies. Furthermore, it is the opinion of the experts that none of the wounds on the bodies was caused by a knife. This is important, because in the original case the prosecution tried very hard to convince the jury that the body wounds were made by a serrated knife…a knife just like one found in the watery area behind Jason Baldwin’s house.

Three of the forensic consultants were at the November 2nd press conference. The odontologist, Dr. Richard Souviron and the pathologist, Dr. Werner Spitz, stated clearly that none of the marks on the bodies were made by a serrated knife and that none of the wounds were consistent with any kind of knife. (There was also no evidence of sodomy or forced oral sex, another part of the prosecution’s narrative that has been disproven for some time.)

New DNA evidence was also revealed at the press conference. Forensic serologist Thomas Fedor stated that none of the DNA found at the crime scene matches the DNA of Baldwin, Echols or Misskelley. However, the DNA of a hair found in one of the ligatures that bound Michael Moore roughly matches DNA of Steven Branch’s stepfather, Terry Hobbs. Another hair found on the crime scene matches a friend that had been hanging around with Hobbs on the day of the murder.

It may not be Hobbs’s hair. And even if it is, that doesn’t mean he’s the murderer. But even back in 1993, without the DNA evidence, Hobbs, a family member, would have been a far more likely suspect than three teenage strangers.

But almost from very start of the investigation, the Crittenden county authorities were convinced they were looking at some sort of ritual Satanic human sacrifice. All the evidence they found was viewed through that filter. If any promising lead or piece of evidence didn’t fit the narrative of Satanists doing evil in our midst, it was ignored.

The local media fueled this frenzy, reporting damn near any crazed, unsubstantiated rumor. Then the coerced and contradictory “confession” of Jessie Misskelley was made public, and newspapers fell all over each other to report all the lurid details of Satanic ritual sodomy and murder.

Misskelley was a borderline retarded teenager who had been a casual friend of Echols and Baldwin. His confession was the result of hours upon hours of abusive interrogation by Crittenden County’s finest. The full text of his two “confessions” is riddled with contradictions and factual errors that reveal his story to be a complete fabrication. But the media didn’t report any of that. They only reported the “good” parts. (For an in depth look at how the “Satanic Ritual” theory was developed and how the Misskelley “confession” was created, see Mara Leveritt’s book THE DEVIL’S KNOT.)

This brings us to another revelation of the November 2nd press conference: the discovery of private notes by jury members indicating that Misskelley’s “confession” was a major consideration in their guilty verdict. That’s a problem because the confession was never officially entered as evidence. Jurors never got to see the whole thing in all its absurd contradictory glory. Instead, they were considering only the lurid confession highlights presented in the media.

Sound like a fair trial to you?

The focus of all this attention was the alarmingly named Damien Echols. He looked and acted like everyone’s ultimate nightmare of a teenager. He was the perfect villain for a “satanic panic”. It was easy to sentence him to death and lock him away where the sun doesn’t shine.

I mean that quite literally. Since 2004, when Echols was moved to Varner SuperMax, he has not seen the sun.

I’ve never met Echols. I’ve met his wife, Lorri Davis, and I know people who have corresponded with him and and even visited him in person. If you knew the things I knew, if you’d heard the things I’ve heard…you might decide he’s a pretty nice guy. Smart. Quiet. Buddhist.

Still, I was a bit reluctant when my wife handed me a book called ALMOST HOME: MY LIFE STORY, VOL. 1 by Damien Echols and told me I should read it. I mean, I still had the mental image of the teenage heavy metal villain in my head. And the book was printed by iUniverse…which means that it’s self published.

To my surprise, I read the whole thing in one day. Dude can write! His style is clean and matter-of-fact, with a nice undercurrent of ironic humor and occasional poetic turns of phrase that lightly ornament his prose but never become overbearing. Echols has lived a life of dirt-poor poverty with long periods of dead end despair, but he never wallows in it. Instead he gives us a series of vivid, emotional snapshots: some dark, some light, some funny, some strangely ecstatic.

Now here you might argue that the fact that Echols can write doesn’t mean that he’s innocent. And you’d be right.

And you might argue just because celebrities like Margaret Cho and Henry Rollins and Eddie Vedder and Natalie Maines think that the West Memphis Three are innocent, that doesn’t make it so.

And you’d be right.

And you might mention that the out-of-town producers of the PARADISE LOST documentaries had an agenda, and part of that agenda was making us look like a bunch of redneck idiots.

And I’d say, “Point well taken.”

But none of this changes the fact that the West Memphis Three were convicted on little more than an arbitrarily concocted story about a Satanic sacrifice, and that now we have evidence that directly contradicts this story, exposing it as a lie.

The official reason for the November 2nd press conference was to announce that on October 29th Damien Echols’s defense team filed a Second Amended Petition for a Writ of Habeas Corpus. In plain English, the team is asking, in light of all the new evidence, for a federal court to either overturn Echols’s conviction or give him a new trial.

The presentation made by the lawyers was very powerful. You can watch it online at the Free the West Memphis Three website: (A site well worth exploring.) Or, if you read this in time, you can watch the press conference on a big screen at Market Street Cinema, along with 20 minutes of highlights from from the first PARADISE LOST movie. This event will take place on December 11th, at 7:00 PM. It is presented by the WM3 support group Arkansas Take Action!, which will also host a live Q & A.

And if you want to demonstrate that freeing the West Memphis Three is something that native Arkansans believe in, as opposed to all them crazy out-of-town Hollywood types, write letters to Governor Beebe and Attorney General Dustin McDaniel asking them to overturn the conviction of Damien Echols and expedite the exonerations of Jason Baldwin and Jesse Misskelley. If you write the letters before December 15th and send them to Arkansas Take Action!, P.O. Box 17788, Little Rock, AR 72222-7788, they will be presented en masse to the Governor and the Attorney General on December 18th.

So far McDaniel’s response to the writ has been: “…we can say with confidence that these three men are, in fact, guilty…”

Good. Let us hear why, openly, in court if necessary.

Open up everything. Let Damien Echols see the sun again.

Can you guess the issue to which I allude?

Person in the back row, there, with both hands raised, yes? Modern witch hunts! Right on the first try.

Since the Salem Affair, we’ve wrestled with an uneasy accommodation with religious perceptions in our public life, specifically in regard to law and jurisprudence. Not that we need the presence of Satan in order to make boneheaded mistakes—sometimes all you need is a media frenzy. Combine the two, though, and we have cause number one for keeping religion out of our politics, our law, our government.

Once someone makes the claim that Satanism is involved and the general public accepts it, reason goes out the window. The explanation? Well, how can anyone rely on rules of evidence when the devil is involved, with his supernatural (or, as Ann Druyan is currently insisting, subnatural) ability to deceive? What? The maze of tunnels supposed to exist beneath the pre-school couldn’t be found when authorities dug it up? What can you expect when Satan probably filled them all in! What? The perpetrators can prove they were nowhere near the scene of the crime when it occurred? What can you expect when Satan can instantly transport them from point A to point B and erase memories? Once Satan gets involved, all our highly-regarded investigatory capacities mean nothing!

This is foolishness of a high order. But we fall for it from time to time, in various places. No one is immune, it seems, and those who insist that law enforcement is somehow violating its own rules and denying its own abilities are cast as witting or unwitting collaborators with the Master of Lies. How dare anyone suggest the police would deceive us? That district attorneys would hide evidence or misrepresent a case? Surely that never happens!

Unless Satan is involved.

Curious that no one ever seems to suggest that Satan might be working his wiles from the other end, by duping law enforcement and corrupting our own system so that we end up sending innocent people to prison. That the deception has to do with manipulating our own fears rather than causing someone to commit a crime. Better, isn’t it, that we be made to attack ourselves from a misplaced sense of righteousness, born out of terror at the boogie man we have not quite managed to deny? Why is it that no one steps forward to suggest that Satan may be working through children (who, in these instances, we are told NEVER lie) to cast a pall over the perfectly innocent adults around them, setting us at each others’ throats using the tools of our own legal system to do damage to our sense of security, our faith in reason, and disrupt the equitable flow of justice? How come Satan only ever can be seen present in the form of the accused?

We’ve been going though another one of those absurd “They’re trying to destroy Christmas!” things, with that issue in Fort Collins. We just can’t bring ourselves to draw a hard and fast line. And it does seem ridiculous when it comes to a holiday. What’s wrong with a little nod to an informing cultural myth? What harm can it do to make a small accommodation to a traditional belief?

We ask this question legitimately, and perhaps some people do go too far in their quest to be rid of the religious in our public lives. These zealots seem like crackpots to most people. Grinches.

But then something like this happens. This is the flip side of that same coin.

It’s not the subject of the belief that’s the problem—it’s that we don’t seem able to defend ourselves from the insanity of our own embrace of that belief.

Admitting to this, though, means that maybe there’s a very good reason to separate out the religious from the civic. And if there’s a very good reason for that, maybe there’s a very good reason to rethink the whole thing.

Being rid of Christmas decorations in state buildings and so forth may mean a little less holiday cheer for a lot of people, and that’s curmudgeonly.

On the other hand, it might also mean we never let Satan be a cause for wrongly imprisoning innocent people. Hmm. I’m having a hard time seeing that as a bad thing.