The New York Times reports on the release of the West Memphis Three:
After nearly two decades in prison for the murder of three young boys, Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr., commonly known as the West Memphis Three, stood up in a courtroom here on Friday, proclaimed their innocence even as they pleaded guilty, and, minutes later, walked out as free men.
The freeing of Mr. Echols, 36, was the highest-profile release of a death row inmate in recent memory. Mr. Baldwin, 34, and Mr. Misskelley, 36, had been serving life sentences.
It was May 1993 when the nude bodies of three 8-year-old boys, Christopher Byers, Stevie Branch and Michael Moore, were found in a drainage canal in Robin Hood Hills, a wooded area in the poor Arkansas town of West Memphis. The bodies appeared to have been mutilated, and their hands were tied to their feet.
The grotesque nature of the murders, coming in the midst of a nationwide concern about satanic cult activity, especially among teenagers, led investigators from the West Memphis Police Department to focus on Mr. Echols, a troubled yet gifted 18-year-old who wore all black, listened to heavy metal music and considered himself a Wiccan. Efforts to learn more about him through a woman cooperating with the police led to Mr. Misskelley, a 17-year-old acquaintance of Mr. Echols’s.
After a nearly 12-hour police interrogation, Mr. Misskelley confessed to the murders and implicated Mr. Echols and Mr. Baldwin, who was 16 at the time, though his confession diverged in significant details, like the time of the murders, with the facts known by the police. Mr. Misskelley later recanted, but on the strength of that confession he was convicted in February 1994.
The fear of satanic cults abusing children was a moral panic that swept the west during the 1990s – the most famous domestic example was the trial of Peter Ellis in Christchurch. It’s horrible to think there are still people serving prison sentences because of a mass-hysteria from two decades ago.
As the Times story mentions, the West Memphis Three became prominent after the release of the documentary film Paradise Lost. Watching this movie is an amazing, horrible experience, as it quickly becomes apparent that the three teenagers on trial are not guilty – but someone is, and the film draws attention to the step-father of one of the murdered children, who we then learn has a long history of violent crime. Then this individual gives a knife with blood on it as ‘a present’ to the film-makers. Then they hand it over to the police for testing and it tests positive for his step-son’s blood . . .
The movie has haunted me for years, and I checked for updates on the WM3′s appeal cases every few months, and progress was non-existent, so it’s thrilling to suddenly hear that they’re free.
On the subject, the directors who made Paradise Lost also made a movie called Some Kind of Monster, which is about Metallica and is a great movie even if, like me, you don’t much like Metallica. And, of course, the Errol Morris movie The Thin Blue Line is also about a murder trial and is arguably the most influential documentary ever made.