Friday, August 19, 2011

The West Memphis 3 and Mass Hysteria

Today, the West Memphis 3 -Jesse Misskelley, Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin, are free men. They are men now, just a few years younger than I am, though their entire adult life has been spent behind bars after having been convicted for the 1993 murders of 3 young boys in West Memphis, Arkansas.

Without going into great specifics, the mutilated bodies of three second grade boys were found in a patch of woods just south of Interstate-40 as it passes north over the sparse housing that makes up West Memphis, Arkansas. West Memphis lies on what I can only describe as the flattest patch of America the imagination can conceive. Travelling east, you leave the elevated bluff of downtown Memphis to arrive at West Memphis, a conglomeration of rest stops, truck facilities, fast food joints and budget motels. Beyond this oasis, the eye looks to the horizon and no matter what the time of year, a blurring haze prevents you from ever seeing an end to this steepe of stagnation.

Jesse Misskelley was the first link to the apprehension and conviction of the West Memphis 3. The case was beyond anything the West Memphis Police had ever handled. A female informant steered them to the 16 year-old Misskelley, a boy beset by learning disabilities and a 72 IQ. Misskelley confessed to the murder after a 12 hour interrogation session, of which only the last 45 minutes were recorded. No member of Misskelley's family were present nor was any legal representation. From Misskelley's 'confession' Jason Baldwin was implicated as was Damian Echols who ultimately would be portrayed as the ringleader of this horrific act. The prosecution put forth alleged satanic worship as the motive for the murders, though not one shread of physical evidence, DNA or otherwise, linked the three the the crime scene.

I was home for the summer in Memphis, Tennessee when all this happened in May and June of 1993. I was between my junior and senior years at Syracuse University. Though still technically living there, I was beginning to distance myself from Memphis and the South in general. Our time together was coming to an end. There were elements of the South I loved, its pockets of authenticity and soulfulness, yet my East Coast wanderlust had enacted a divorcing mechanism that brought me, perhaps wrongly, to compartmentalize what had been my home into stereotype and hyperbole.

So when the West Memphis 3 had been captured, I paid little attention to the story, despite the hysterical coverage from local television and The Commercial Appeal. But the photograph above, I do remember. This picture was taken from an abandoned cotton gin in the vicinity of West Memphis. As is often the case, this derelict place had become a magnet for local teenagers drinking or doing drugs. But it was here, locals alleged, that satanic rituals occurred.

In the South I recall there was a voyeuristic cultural obsession with teenage sin undeniably derived from the region's evangelical undercurrents. Teenagers, heavily segregated from a racial standpoint, were further homogenized by a restrictive culture of conformity. Within this environment, teenagers seeking to stand out and receive attention found a ready means to provoke with the occult. Black clothing, pentagrams and the like, served as the greatest shock value in a community that is so focused on Judgement Day.

There are many horrors here. The death of three children, of course at the forefront. Three men, convicted by the court of popular opinion, lost the best years of their lives. And then there is the pervading reality that had the three boys apprehended been the children of millionaires, there is no question that they would not have served a day in jail. But they were from one of America's poorest communities where it was acceptable to convict them based the clothes they wore and the music they listened to, and then forget them entirely.

The release of the West Memphis 3 is mostly attributable to HBO Films' production, Paradise Lost. This documentary gave a brutally honest portrayal of the vapidity of the case against the three boys and the stark reality of life in West Memphis. Most of all, the acclaim the film received galvanized a world-wide effort to free the West Memphis 3. It is an incredible example of what art can achieve.

The convenient conviction of the West Memphis 3 enabled a backwater mentality to point its fingers, thump its bibles and congratulate itself on its piety. And all the while, the local media outlets could publish photos like the one above, feed the beast of hysteria and poison justice.

Not surprisingly, like all things in the public area, the release of the West Memphis 3 has been politicized, just as the Casey Anthony trial was. A quick scan of the reader comments submitted to and reveal claims that a miscarriage of justice has occurred, all attributable to the seditious effect of liberalism in our nation today. The celebrity attention the case brought has been met with suspicion, further fueling a cultural divide. Will the hysteria ever end?


  1. Great piece. This was an example of how justice gets in its way when there's more to gawk at in the newspaper than there are facts to convict. Your last question is applicable to human nature in a free society; we love a good story more than we love discovering the honest truth.

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