The Aresan Clan is published four times a week (Tue, Wed, Fri, Sun). You can see what's been written so far collected here. All posts will be posted under the Aresan Clan label. For summaries of the events so far, visit here. See my previous serial Vampire Wares collected here.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Just last week the West Memphis Three were released, finally bringing an end to a well-known miscarriage of justice, nearly two decades too late.

In 1994 18 year old Damien Echols, 17 year old Jessie Misskelley and 16 year old Jason Baldwin were convicted of the murder of three eight year old boys who had been found murdered in the Robin Hood Hills area in West Memphis, Arkansas some months earlier. The case got a lot of publicity because of an HBO documentary about it, Paradise Lost, and a number of celebrities taking up the case of the dubiously convicted boys. The attention only served to highlight the shoddy investigative practices of the police and the practically nonexistent evidence connecting them with the murder.

The prosecution's case mostly relied on the testimony of one of the boys, Jessie Miskelley, who claimed that he had witnessed the murders, though he hadn't participated. But his confession had a number of problems. For one, he claimed the whole killing occurred at the creek bed where the bodies were eventually discovered, despite that physical evidence at the scene, indicated that the boys were probably killed, or at least assaulted, elsewhere and then taken to the scene where they were dumped (there was almost a complete lack of blood at the scene). Secondly, Miskelley also said the boys were tied with brown rope, despite that they were tied with their own shoelaces. Thirdly, Miskelley initially claimed that the boys were killed on the morning of May 5, 1993, when the killing occured, despite that the three victims were still alive at the time, and had to have been killed some time in the evening. Miskelley changed his confession several times before he finally latched on to a time late enough for it to be possible.

The only other evidence the prosecution had was a knife, which they found deposited in a lake near Baldwin's residence, and some fibers found on the suspects' clothes that were at least similar to fibers from the clothes of the victims. However, the knife couldn't be connected with the killing, nor could it be shown to have belonged to any of the boys. And the fibers were similar to a great many common products, and thus could have easily come from any number of sources.

The police struggled to find anyone who would claim that the three boys actually were well acquainted, finally turning up one witnesss, despite that Miskelley really only knew the other two boys through school and wasn't friends with them. Additionally, they found a witness that could put at least one of the boys near the scene of the crime near after the time of the murder. And, to the benefit of the prosecution, some children even stepped forward claiming that the boys had confessed to the killings afterwards. All of these testimonies were riddled with problems and strained credibility, but they were persuasive to a jury eager to convict the boys.

But most of the case relied on the fact that Echols was a devotee of neo-paganism, being interested in the Wicca, and the other boys were at least tangentially connected with such practices. The police had initially believed that the case appeared strongly to indicate satanic ritual killing. The charge that this was part of a Satanic ritual caught on in the religiously conservative West Memphis, especially since this was a time when the moral panic over Satanic Ritual Abuse was still hot concern in some corners of the country. The whole panic over Satanic Ritual Abuse eventually died down as investigators started to realize that probably all reported cases of it were due to urban legend and hearsay or "memories" falsely recovered under hypnosis. In other words, despite that the prosecution even brought in a witness at the trial who claimed to be an expert on Satanic Ritual Abuse, the whole thing was hogwash and the expert was worse than ignorant.

Nonetheless, despite an absence of evidence, the boys were convicted, probably mostly due to their perceived association with satanism (they weren't satanists, but the prosecution went to great lengths to demonstrate this, with evidence such as their tendency to wear black and listen to heavy metal) and neo-paganism.

The case seems similar to other cases of high-profile killings where pressure from the public has led police to follow highly dubious evidence in order to get a conviction, no matter the strength of the evidence, such as in the cases of William Heirens, The Boston Strangler and the Monster of Florence.

Finally, in 2007 DNA evidence from the victims was failed to connect any of the boys with the crime and the case was scheduled to be retried in light of this new evidence. In light of such an upcoming trial, this new deal has been struck. The boys have pleaded to a lesser crime, which will get them released immediately, but doesn't exonerate them. The boys will surely continue to fight for complete exoneration, but at least they can now do so from outside of a jail cell. Though at this point it's hard to see how such a miscarriage of justice can be reversed: the boys have sat in jail for far too long, and the true murderer or murderers may no longer be discoverable.

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