Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Lost Boys

by Jennifer Harlow

Since we're all a fan of mysteries and crime here, I wanted to
share the biggest, most horrifying true crime story in recent history. Here is a truly true, dark crime story. Once upon a time, in our terrible times...

In 1994 in West Memphis, Arkansas Chris Byers, Michael Moore, and Stevie Branch, three eight-year-old boys vanished one evening from their neighborhood. The next day after an exhaustive search the boys were found hog-tied naked, beaten, and in one case missing genitals along a creek bank in the Robin Hood hills wooded area. Needless to say the community and country were shocked and upset by this. The case received worldwide attention, especially after rumors of Satanic cults spread. There was precious little physical evidence at the scene, and with the intense pressure on the police to solve it, the police latched onto the cult motive to explain this senseless crime. They zeroed in on local eighteen-year-old troublemaker Damien Echols, known for listening to heavy metal music, wearing black, and having an interest in the occult. The police dragged in seventeen-year-old Jesse Misskelley Jr. for a twelve hour interrogation where he implicated both Echols and sixteen-year-old Jason Baldwin. The boys were arrested. Cue the relief of a nation.

It should have ended there. They had a confession, an apparent motive, even what they thought was the murder weapon found near Baldwin's home. The jury convicted all the teens, Baldwin and Misskelley got life and the apparent ringleader Echols death. The case should have been forgotten, except that a documentary crew had been following the case from the very beginning, getting interviews with both victims families, police, and the accused. Through their movie Paradise Lost, airing on HBO, the country had a front seat to an obvious miscarriage of justice that robbed not only three little boys of rightful justice but three other boys of twenty years of their lives. A rightful uproar began.

I believe in our justice system. I obviously write about officers of the law, and even seriously considered becoming one, but know that the system isn't perfect as it is run by humans. But watching the documentaries, and doing a little research of my own to fill in some blanks, it pressed my nose to just how imperfect it can be when you add intense pressure, mass hysteria, media bias, and just plain incompetence. These boys were convicted before they even went to trial, which never should have happened had the police done their jobs instead of going for the easy answer.

They made several mistakes in this case, and it was not the first time. At the time of the murders the West Memphis Police were under investigation from the state for theft so they refused help. The crime scene was not handled well either. The bodies were not removed in a timely manner for proper forensic examination. The scene was trampled on and the creek wasn't drained in a timely manner either to retrieve more evidence like the boys clothes. Footprints were not taken before a million people walked through it. And the possibility that the boys didn't die at the scene was never discussed though there was no blood anywhere at the creek. The boys neighborhoods were never canvassed, which would have led to a witness who later stepped forward and said she saw the boys with Branch's step-father, the apparent last person to see they alive. He wasn't even questioned in connection to the crime or looked at. (He has since become the prime suspect as his DNA was found in the bindings of one of the boys, was the last to see them alive, fits the FBI profile done of the murderer, and had a very violent history. Plus everyone knows 9 times out of 10 a person is killed by someone close to them. Guess the WMPD missed that day in class). And the coroner wasn't much better. He put in his report that the wounds on the boys came from a knife and that was what was used to emasculate one of the boys. It has now been proven that those wounds were done postmortem by animals. It was a clusterf**k of epic proportions.

The only real evidence was the confession, which was keeping with the quality of the rest of the investigation. Misskelley has a low IQ, this has been proven, as has the fact that those with lower IQs are known to be more susceptible to coercion and false confessions. There have been studies on this (see Dixon-False Confessions). But putting that aside this was a a boy of 17, grilled for twelve hours by men who needed to resolve the case. When he did confess, he got all the details wrong, like what time the boys died (when all the teens had alibis), and what the crime scene looked like. On the tape (of which 11 hours prior to the confession is "missing") you can hear the police leading Misskelley to the correct answers eventually. Any detective worth their salt would realize the kid knew nothing but pressed on anyway. This was the only real evidence of their guilt. The alleged knife was never directly tied to any of the teens, there was no physical evidence they were ever at the scene or even knew the boys, and though there were witnesses who said Echols boasted he committed the murders (who later recanted),they admitted they only heard part of the conversation. But what really pushed the case over the edge was the mass hysteria about cults.

In the early 90s Satanic cults were all the rage. In therapy sessions across the country people were unrepressing memories of their loved ones raping and ripping out their unborn babies to sacrifice to Satan. The media ate it up, as they often do with the sensational. Apparently in every town there was a cult worshiping Satan, and West Memphis was no different. The rumors had been swirling for months, and one name was always attached: Damien Echols. He loved wearing black, listening to heavy metal music, drawing pentagrams, and acting violent. The cuts on the bodies and gelding of Byers was "proof" this crime had Satanic overtones. (Baldwin just had the misfortune of being Echols best friend. Guilt by association.) And at the trial a "doctor" spoke about these cults. I use quotes because he got his degree from an un-accredited, mail order college without taking a single class for this doctorate. (The same judge who let this "expert" testify also turned down every one of the subsequent appeals from the West Memphis Three. I am never going to Arkansas. Ever.) With time, and the media feeding us new hysteria after hysteria like pedophiles and Anthrax in all our mail, this Satanism uprising was later disproven. Several police agencies sent the FBI cases they thought had Satanic overtones and not a one was proven to have said overtones. And those repressed memories have also been proven to for the most part to have been kind of implanted during hypnosis sessions by overzealous therapists. (A lot of that going around.) But the same media machine that got them convicted also sort of saved them in the end.

Paradise Lost came out in 1996, two years after the teens were convicted. (Part 2 came out 2000, Part 3 2012). It created an uproar of support for the teens. Organizations to gather money for their defenses and expert witnesses popped up all over the place and celebrities like Eddie Vedder and Johnny Depp helped spread word of this miscarriage of justice. The DNA was found and tested, the animal aspect was uncovered, and even proof that the foreman of the jury who convicted Echols and Baldwin introduced evidence he learned from outside sources not in the trial (Misskelley's confession wasn't admissible in the Echols/Baldwin trial as he refused to testify against them)which was the only real reason the jury voted to convict. None of this would have happened if not for the movies, everyone involved said so. So maybe the media can be used for something other than making me feel bad about my body so I'll buy their products and freaking us out about stupid things like bird flu so we don't pay attention to the raping of our country from large financial institutions. (Climbing off my soapbox now.)

After the DNA evidence against Terry Hobbs was uncovered (Stevie Branch's step-father) in 2010 the WM3 lawyers went about getting another appeal with the original trial judge, and for the millionth time he refused the appeal so the lawyers went to the State Courts. They overturned the judge's veto of that specific appeal and granted the defense an evidentiary hearing for 12/11, which could finally result in a new trial for the WM3. Coincidentally? (yeah, right) the trial judge went onto the State Senate and a new judge was appointed to the hearing and out of nowhere a surprise hearing was ordered. The men were offered to take an Alford plea, where they still proclaim their innocence but plead guilty so under the eyes of the law they're still murderers but get out of prison. They also cannot sue the state of Arkansas. But August 19, 2011, after eighteen years in prison, the men walked out free men. People speculate, and I agree, that the reason for this was that the DNA evidence would pave the way for a new trial in which none would be convicted again and then could sue the state for millions. (Since they are under the law guilty the Son of Sam law, in which a convicted murderer cannot profit from their crime, still applies so they can't accept money for movie deals, etc.) But to be free they took the deal, as any of us would. The men still do have the chance through more appeals to get the conviction overturned and get another trial, which is what all three want (and deserve.)

So, why you may ask, did Ms Jennifer Harlow just spend two hours writing this post besides her being an obvious true crime buff? Why is this so interesting to her? Three reasons. Since I moved around a lot as a child I was always the outsider. No one ever really picked on me, but I also wasn't included in a lot of activities. My friends and I in high school called ourselves "ghosts," which actually I've come to see the advantage of. (People leave you alone so you can do whatever you want. Freedom. More on that soon.) But I also had friends who were considered outsiders. I went to high school during the Columbine era, which was quite similar to the Satanic era in terms of who was considered potentially dangerous. If you wore all black or an overcoat you were under suspicion. That's what happened with Echols especially. You were different, therefore something was wrong with you. I've never felt like I fit in really with people, so I can relate.

Reason two for my interest. Someone once asked me what my life's philosophy is. I have two basic tenants that I use to guide my life: freedom and fairness. I give people their freedom to do whatever they want as long as it doesn't negatively impact other people. And fairness, where the same rules should apply for everyone equally especially under the law (which is why I'm big on gay rights and a feminist). This case hits on both. These boys were denied their freedom not only of expression (being a Goth and enjoying heavy metal music) but actual freedom. And it wasn't fair these teens were targeted for being different, for liking what the masses deemed odd or not mainstream. But life in nowhere near fair. I just try to do my best to turn that tide in small ways.

And the final, most important reason for this is justice. Forgetting the WM3 for a second, what about those three little boys? If it wasn't the WM3, then the real killer is still out there. As far as the law is concerned the case is closed. There's no reason to re-open it. Until the WM3 gets a new trial and are acquitted nothing will be done. Which is why they need this new trial, to not only be vindicated and clear their names but to find the real killer. (To donate to the defense fund please visit www.wm3.org as all proceeds will go to this goal.) Then and only then will justice be done.

I realize this post is biased. There are still some out there who believe the WM3 are guilty, and you are entitled to that opinion (see? I do try to put my money where my mouth is). I just ask those of you who do to do what I did and what you should always do. Examine all the evidence before you in an unbiased mind before coming to conclusions. Maybe that guy at your school who dresses in all black isn't a freak, he likes poetry and art films. Maybe women who aren't a size 2 aren't lazy and ugly, they're genetically predisposed to having curves and are still worthwhile. Maybe you shouldn't listen to the talking heads about politics and research the issues and candidates for yourself before getting into that voting box. In other words, THINK FOR YOURSELF. Use empathy to put yourself in someone else's shoes before you shun or wreck their lives. If people had in the case of the WM3, then maybe this miscarriage of justice would never have happened. Three teens wouldn't have lost 18 years of their lives. I just hope that justice prevails in the end, but I doubt it. That isn't the world we live in sadly. Fairness just happens in fairy stories.

And nobody lived happily ever after... The End.


Vicki Doudera said...

Jennifer, I admire the goals of social justice you live by as well as your commitment to this case. Your title begs the question -- who really are the lost boys? There were certainly more than three.

The mass hysteria over cults is certainly nothing new but boy, it can still hold sway, even over seemingly educated people!

I hope the true killer is unmasked and justice prevails. Keep us posted as to what heppens.

Deborah Sharp said...

Thoughtful post, Jennifer ... that case is so tragic all around, it's hard to know who I feel most sorry for. The public's appetite for salacious news is always there (and, sad to say, the media's tendency to give the people what they want is also ever-present)
You should write a true-crime novel. You obviously have the interest and research skills to do it.(in all your spare time, right?)