Jason Baldwin, Jessie Misskelley & Damien Echols at the time of their arrest in 1994. Image via webpronews.
Having watched the other two documentaries in the ‘West Memphis 3 – Paradise Lost’ trilogy, I was fairly sure there weren’t going to be too many surprises in store when I sat down to watch the third.
I was already aware of the inconsistencies in evidence gathering, the frequently bizarre interpretations of information collected and witch hunt-like tone to an investigation that had resulted in eighteen-year -old heavy metal fan Damien Echols being sentenced to death for the murder of three eight-year-old Arkansas boys, while his friends, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr (sixteen and seventeen respectively) received life for their involvement.
If that wasn’t enough, my interest in the case after watching the Joe Berlinger & Bruce Sinofsky directed films ‘Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills’ & ‘Paradise Lost 2: Revelations’, was such that I learned through their support network that the men had been freed as part of a plea bargain in August 2011.
I was confident that my shock and awe muscle would remain relatively unmolested throughout the viewing.
Michael Moore, Stevie Branch & Christopher Byers. Image via arkansasonline.
When one considers the atrocity that was committed in West Memphis, it isn’t difficult to empathise with the grief and anger felt by the residents and the subsequent pressure on the police to round up the individual(s) responsible. The victims, Stevie Branch, Michael Moore and Christopher Byers had been reported missing on the evening of 5th May 1993 – their naked, hogtied and apparently mutilated and raped bodies found in a local creek bed a day later.
Initial interpretations of evidence implied a ritualistic, ‘devil worshipper’ bent to the killings, leading police to assume that local goth Damien Echols must be involved. He and his friends were arrested a month later. The previous documentaries had presented photographs of this’evidence’, namely the fact that one of the boys’ genitalia had been mutilated, to specialists, who pointed out that the damage had more likely been caused by animals post-mortem, but it was finally confirmed in ‘Purgatory’. As well as the rather less ‘open to interpretation’ news that re-tests of DNA found at the scene had confirmed that neither Echols, Baldwin or Misskelley Jr could possibly have been present at the time of the boy’s deaths.
But all this is just scene setting. The fact that all of this evidence was submitted to court in October 2007 and summarily rejected by the judge who presided over the original trial, merely serves to highlight the unwillingness of the West Memphis judicial system to admit they *may* have made errors. Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley had to appeal to the Arkansas Supreme Court to get the new evidence heard, but have still not been exonerated.
Jessie Misskelley, Jason Baldwin & Damien Echols at their post release press conference. Image: AP Photo.
Their release came by way of an ‘Alford Plea’ meaning they are still technically ‘guilty’ of the crime but their sentences are reduced to time served.
All this and I haven’t even mentioned the Keystone Cops-like ineptitude with which the police and court system handled every aspect of the case, the utterly bizarre transformation of Mark Byer’s stepfather John Mark from ranting, spitting, false-teeth releasing pursuer of justice through fire to staunch supporter of Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley, and numerous other mind-boggling mis-steps that were tracked by the film-makers throughout the process. You’ll have to watch the films and enjoy that for yourselves.
And, of course, there is nothing to laugh at here. Three boys remain dead, six parents remain grief stricken, and perhaps most importantly, the West Memphis judicial system has been patting itself on the back for imprisoning three men for eighteen years while the real perpetrator remains free.
But if you really need a laugh, check out the career trajectory of presiding judge David Burnett since he rejected those pesky DNA results. In May 2010 he won a seat in the Arkansas State Senate, which essentially gives him the opportunity to apply his ‘innovative’ approach to justice across a much wider population.
I’m almost doubled over.