August was a very busy month here in Anyang. Between the preparation and performance of a summer program play, report cards, parent-teacher meetings, and the daily ins and outs of life, I haven’t yet had a chance to talk about an exciting development back home. Ladies and gentlemen, the West Memphis 3 have been freed!
Here’s the SparkNotes version of their case for those who aren’t familiar with the details. In 1993, three young boys (all 8 years old) were found murdered in the woods of West Memphis, Arkansas. They had been stripped naked, bound with their own shoelaces, and beaten to death. One of them was sexually mutilated.
Eager to find suspects, the West Memphis Police arrested Jessie Misskelley, Jr. – a teenager known to have a substantially below average IQ – and brought him in for questioning. After being interrogated for several hours, he eventually confessed to the murders and said he’d had help from two of his acquaintances, Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin. The problem with this confession was that it contained multiple errors. For example, Misskelley said that he and the other two “killers” had abducted the boys on their way to school – but the boys were in school all day. He also said they’d tied them up with brown rope – but the autopsy reports indicate that the boys were tied with their shoe laces.
Aside from this forced and faulty confession, there was absolutely zero forensic evidence suggesting that the boys had had anything to do with the murders. But, their haircuts, black t-shirts, and fondness for metal made them the perfect suspects.
They ended up serving 18 years in prison for a crime they didn’t commit.
My Personal Interest
I first found out about the West Memphis 3 back in 1998 when Matt Collins and I rented Paradise Lost, a documentary about their case. (A second installment, Paradise Lost 2: Revelations, was released several years later.) My college town was only about an hour or so away from West Memphis, and in 2002 I ended up rooming with a guy who actually grew up there and attended the last day of the trial. So, for better or worse, I’ve always considered the whole thing sort of close to home and tried to keep my eyes and ears open for new developments.
The real tragedy of this case is that there’s absolutely no one involved that you can’t feel sorry for. Most of the attention, naturally, has gone to the West Memphis 3 themselves – especially Damien Echols, who’s a very articulate, charismatic kind of guy. But there are also the families of the victims to consider. While some of them no longer believe the West Memphis 3 murdered their sons, several of them do. I can’t imagine what it must feel like to think that the people who murdered your children have been set free.
A Few Words about John Mark Byers
One person I feel especially sorry for is a man named John Mark Byers. His son was one of the three victims. When you see Byers in the Paradise Lost documentaries, he comes across as a bizarre, violent, wild-eyed, Bible-quoting backwoods fanatic, who vows to take revenge on the West Memphis 3 for killing his son. The first movie even plants the idea that Byers himself was responsible for the murders. (I for one was definitely in the “that’s the guy who really did it” camp when I first saw it.)
But there’s a scene in Paradise Lost 2 that really made me think twice about him. By the time that movie was made, the “Free the 3” movement was raging in full force, and at one point Byers was caught on film arguing with some of its figureheads. During this argument, the “Free the 3” people subtly suggest that he is hiding something. One of the victims had bite marks on his body. Byers had his teeth removed shortly after the details of the case were made known. (Coincidence???) In response, Byers says he knows the name of the oral surgeon who removed his teeth and will gladly sign a release of his medical records and x-rays. He also reminds them that there is nothing he has been asked to provide for the investigators – blood samples, polygraph, etc. – that he has not willingly provided. While listening to him in this scene, it dawned on me: here’s a man who is not easy to like and who doesn’t know how to put on a good public face, but who is doing everything in his power to prove that he is innocent.
That’s the real frustration of this case in a nutshell: you have two groups of innocent people, each wholeheartedly believing that the other is guilty, unable to come to any real answers about anything.
John Mark Byers, by the way, has since changed his mind about the West Memphis 3 and is now one of their most ardent advocates.
Now that new evidence has brought this chapter of the story to an end, I can only hope that the people who put so much time and energy into defending the West Memphis 3 will now put equal time and resources into finding and convicting the real killers. How can this be accomplished?
(1) By raising money to hire/support independent investigative teams to examine all available evidence using the most up-to-date technology.
(2) Maintaining websites that raise funds and support for the victims’ families. Some defenders of the West Memphis 3 have a sad tendency to look upon the victims’ families as villains, because many of them still maintain that the 3 are guilty. That gulf must be bridged.
(3) How about a “Find the Real Killers” t-shirt/bumper sticker campaign to match the energy of the “Free the 3” movement?
Remember, justice has finally come for three of the victims in this case. Let’s not suddenly lose interest and deny it to the other three:
UPDATE: A new documentary about the WM3 case, West of Memphis, just debuted at Sundance. Can’t wait to see it. Here’s the trailer.