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.
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."
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.