Revisiting the Fate of the West Memphis 3


Just in time for Halloween comes new developments in a 1994 Arkansas murder case whose prosecution was remarkable for its satanic-tinged hysteria and virtually complete implausibility. It's sobering to think that the case of the "West Memphis 3" took place in the late 20th century. From the NY Times account of breaking news:

In 1994, three teenagers in the small city of West Memphis, Ark., were convicted of killing three 8-year-old boys in what prosecutors portrayed as a satanic sacrifice involving sexual abuse and genital mutilation. So shocking were the crimes that when the teenagers were led from the courthouse after their arrest, they were met by 200 local residents yelling, "Burn in hell."

But according to long-awaited new evidence filed by the defense in federal court on Monday, there was no DNA from the three defendants found at the scene, the mutilation was actually the work of animals and at least one person other than the defendants may have been present at the crime scene.

Supporters of the defendants hope the legal filing will provide the defense with a breakthrough. Two of the men, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, are serving life in prison, while one, Damien W. Echols, is on death row. There was no physical evidence linking the teenagers, now known as the West Memphis 3, to the crime.

Whole story here.

Damon Root, who has a terrific piece in the new issue of reason (to a newsstand–go! or subscribe already!), wrote about the West Memphis 3 in 2003. A snippet:

Ultimately, black clothes, heavy metal music, and weird beliefs outweighed improper procedures, false testimony, and reasonable doubt. "I have personally observed people wearing black fingernails, having their hair painted black, wearing black T-shirts, black dungarees," testified Dale Griffis, the prosecution's "occult expert." Although the defense argued that Griffis' mail-order Ph.D. from "Columbia Pacific University" did not qualify him as an expert, Burnett disagreed. The prosecution also introduced the cover of Metallica's Master of Puppets album, the fact that Echols practiced Wicca and enjoyed books by Stephen King and Anne Rice, and testimony "that eleven black T-shirts had been found in Jason's home."

Whole depressing thing here.

For Ben Franklin's deconstruction of prejudice and hysteria masquerading as due process, "A Witch Trial at Mount Holly" (1730), go here and scroll down.

Hat tip: former reason intern Jon Blanks.

NEXT: WSJ Invites Rangel In, Gleefully Stabs Him In the Back

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  1. The hair is a red herring. Basically we leave a cloud of DNA and skin wherever we go. There are any number innocent ways that hair could have gotten there. Maybe the kid had visited the house before he was killed. Further, you never leave just one piece of DNA evidence at a scene. If the step dad really was the killer, there would be more than just one hair there. The presence of just one hair doesn’t say much one way or another.

    The lack of mutilation, however, is a big deal. The prosecution’s case was that the defendants were Satanists who killed and mutilated the three boys. If the boys weren’t mutilated, then the prosecution’s theory takes a huge hit. The biggest problem the Prosecution had in these cases was coming up with a motivation for why three teenagers would kill three small children at random. There was no physical evidence in the case. Their motive was Satanism and without the mutilation, that doesn’t stand up. Without the mutilation, none of the heavy metal Satanist stuff ever gets in before the jury. On the one hand you have kid who listen to heavy metal and are allegedly “Satanists”. On the other, you have three dead children. To get the Satanism evidence before the jury you have to link it to the murder in some way. The way the Prosecution did that was to argue that the killings were ritualistic and the main evidence for that was the fact that the bodies were mutilated. If the court had known that the bodies were not mutilated, I don’t see how it could have admitted the evidence concerning the defendants’ alleged Satanism.

  2. There is an excellent documentary about this, and I am not going to look it up now, but if you are interested, you should be able to find it easily.

    The documentary is utterly chilling in that it shows the hysteria and bullshit, and how these kids got totally railroaded. Very compelling. However, don’t watch it if you don’t want to be totally pissed afterwards. However, we are all used to Balko’s posts now so you can probably handle it.

  3. Episiarch,

    There are two. Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills and Paradise Lost 2: Revelations. Both are chilling in the extreme.

  4. The doc is paradise lost (and paradise lost 2)

    its really good.

    Whether or not you believe these kids are guilty, there is certainly reasonable doubt. I hope they get off.

  5. Ben Franklin was sort of a disciple of Cotton Mather, so it’s no surprise he was keeping an open mind about these witch-detecting “experiments.”
    Me too.
    I would not have been convinced until the women were dunked nekkid!

  6. Regardless, even if they are innocent, they are complete dirtbags who belong in prison for their satanism, which is blasphemy. Sometimes, when a serious crime is committed, the public demands that someone be punished, and the public doesn’t care if they are innocent, in that case someone, even if innocent, must be punished. For example, Iraq was likely involved in 9-11 because they tried to buy aluminum, but not directly responsible, but society demands that a middle east country be destroyed.


  8. Here is the link to the de rigueur on-line advocacy group for the West Memphis 3. Good links though and a nice background primer.

    On the linked page is photo of a courthose with this motto over the front door: “Obedience To The Law Is Liberty”

  9. “Obedience To The Law Is Liberty”

    To me, a peaceful anarchist, this is like garlic would be to Dracula.

  10. destijl –
    what a frightening thing to have on a courthouse!

    Henry Rollins has done a lot of stuff to free the WM3, including a benefit concert.

    This is a sad, frightening tale.

    Thank you Nick for the post!

  11. Next time I get popped for a heinous crime I’m going to ask for Marilyn Manson to come to my defense in the media. That should solve everything.

  12. Three kids died. Bad things are ALWAYS caused by outsiders. It couldn’t have been the Arabs or the Mexicans (or even Chinese monetary policy), so it must have been those funny kids who won’t conform to West Memphis standards.

  13. John, there were aqctually several hairs, one of which would have had to have been transferred twice unless the stepfather was on the scene.

  14. Minion of Urkobold – Juanita and Steven should be brought to a place like Sartre’s “Naus?e” where they have to perform rim-jobs on each other and the prosecutor of the West Memphis 3 for eternity.

  15. *faints from that horrible image*

  16. Wouldn’t a 69 love triangle be a 696 or a 969?

  17. either way, PJB, your url says it all!

  18. For those of you who, like me, have a perverse fascination with cases like this, I highly recommend Dorothy Rabinowitz’s book “No Crueler Tyrannies”, which covers several famous sexual abuse cases (e.g. Satanic day care centers, etc., and Janet Reno’s railroading of a probably-innocent suspect back when she was a Florida prosecutor). Unlike the cases Balko covers, the defendants were generally middle-class whites, but the remarkable aspect is the mass hysteria that completely destroyed the judicial process, and the increasing absurdity of the charges.

    Rabinowitz won a Pulitzer for the WSJ columns on which the book was based. I’d call it a polemic – but it feels like a horror novel. These truly are the modern Salem Witch Trials, minus public hangings – I’m not exaggerating.

  19. It’s too bad we can’t roll back all the effects of the hysteria this and other cases like it created.

    Lawmakers at every level used cases like this , the rape and attack on Trisha Meili (Central Park jogger), and even the short lived hysteria of the Ryan Harris murder(Chicago) to justify increasing punishments and prior restraint laws aimed at young people.

    Now that it’s once again, becoming apparent that the police acted exactly like police (lying, intimidating scumbags), can we repeal all the laws passed in the wake of the Central Park Jogger and Ryan Harris case and put on hold everything passed in the wake of the West Memphis 3 pending a retrial?

  20. Unfortunately, Brendan, the majority of the public will never hear about this case. And, of those that do, some will prefer to follow the lives and interests of Britney or Paris over anything else. That leaves only a handful of people who actually care.

  21. I watched Paradise Lost and came away with the impression that the three teenagers were guilty.

    The message of the movie was: OK, maybe these guys bragged to schoolmates about the killings, but the redneck cops & prosecutors obviously railroaded them because they were goths who dressed weird and had weird beliefs. And what about this other guy? He’s a total redneck with weird facial hair and weird beliefs, he’s obviously the killer!

    Did I miss something? Why do so many people think the “West Memphis 3” are innocent?

  22. We have progressed so much since the 15th century. Haven’t we?

  23. Did I miss something? Why do so many people think the “West Memphis 3” are innocent?

    The two movies to provide ample reasons to suspect the three teens were involved in some fashion.

    However, it is blatantly obvious that the court proceedings were a disaster, and there was not only reasonable doubt, but huge glaring have-to-be-blind-not-to-see-them kinds of doubts.

    They should not have been convicted (note that is not the same as saying they are innocent).

  24. “Did I miss something? ”

    yes. the whole point. and probably, since you apparently didn’t RTFA, English class a coupla times, too.

  25. This is the subject of Christian death metal band Zao’s song “Free the Three” (I believe that’s the title)

  26. Daze I watched it to a few years ago. I recall it being a pretty close case. The other kids in the school said that these guys bragged about it. But none of those kids produced any facts specific to the case that only the killer would have known to boost their credibility. In addition, one of the bragging witnesses was a jailhouse cellmate with Jason Baldwin and claimed that Baldwin told him that
    he mutilated one of the boys and sucked the blood from the severed body part. We know that to know be bullshit. The muderer, whoever he was, didn’t mutilate the bodies.

    Furhter, even if the did brag, that doesn’t mean they are guilty. No question Echols was a serioulsy disturbed youth. Moreover, these kids were the town misfits and clearly embraced being so. I don’t think it is out of the question that they wanted to show off and lied and told people that they killed the boys. The problem is that no one has ever produced a confession by one of the defendent’s that shows any particularized knowledge of the crime and no one has ever produced any physical evidence linking them to the crime.

    Are they innocent? Honestly, I don’t know and really only they know that. What I do know is that there are some serious issues of reasonable doubt in this case.

  27. John has posted something.

    Isn’t the next move for joe to come along and ridicule it?

  28. I think that only applies to political discussions, RC. This thread has not yet turned into one…

  29. I had to stop a professor in college from using this case as an argument for regulating music, television and other games.

    I will always remember this because it’s the first time I made the professor look like a total idiot in front of a large class…

    P.S. I was a “C” student, so I’ll take my victories when I can!

  30. Yet… give it time.

  31. Compare their weight with that of a duck. Then we’ll know for sure.


  33. The book “The Devil’s Knot” is complete look at the trials of the West Memphis Three. I have real problems with the trial.

  34. Whoever that is that said the 3 are scum bags and need to be in prison anyway, (sounds like an emtee comment to me) had better hope you never end up wrongfully convicted. The 3 have a right to these appeals whether you anyone likes it or not. That was a disgusting comment by an obviously ignorant person.

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