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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

West Memphis 3 Freed -- August 20, 2011

Yesterday, three men were freed from an Arkansas prison by pleading guilty to the horrific murders of three 8-year-old boys in 1993. The plea agreement was unusual because while at the same time as formally entering guilty pleas, they also publicly maintained their innocence. The brutal triple murder created an enormous amount of publicity and led to a rush of judgement against the accused men who were deemed social misfits in the rural Christian town of West Memphis. After their convictions, the case continued to attract widespread attention due to an HBO movie, and a couple of books that were written questioning the evidence. A number of people, including celebrities, rallied to their defense. This outpouring of support and the possibility of a new trial from an appeal, led to the State's Attorney's office negotiating a cop- out. Finally, after 18 years, the men are free, and as I write this journal entry from my prison cell, I can in many respects identify with the recently released men.

On May 5, 1993, three 8-year-old boys were brutally murdered in West Memphis, Arkansas. During the day, the boys had gone out together to ride their bikes and play. They never returned, and police, family, and many townsfolk went searching for them. The boys were eventually found dead in a gully of a wooded area. They were hog tied naked with their own shoe laces, and were apparently tortured and sodomized in a ritualistic killing. Graffiti discovered nearby depicted Satanic and other occult symbols. The Christian town was shocked and deeply incensed. They wanted justice, and they wanted it immediately. A lynch mob mentality developed and overcame the public.

The murders occurred seven days after my arrest, and I did not learn of the events that took place until much later. In the Chicagoland area there was nothing but news about the Brown's Chicken murders in Palatine, for which I was a prime suspect, thanks to my former roommate and his wife. Even if the boys' murders were mentioned in the Midwest, I was too preoccupied with my own possible indictment in multiple murders and with surviving at the very violent and gang-controlled Cook County Jail. My life had been catastrophically turned upside down, and other news stories were of no interest to me. It was not until a few years ago, I became acquainted with the case in West Memphis.

Although I did not see the initial media coverage of the boys' murders or the prosecution of the West Memphis 3, I can imagine what it was like. I was the focus of an enormous, emotionally-hyped media blitz after my arrest. Seven people had been brutally murdered at a Brown's Chicken and Pasta restaurant in Palatine, Illinois. Not far away, a dismembered body was found in the woods of the affluent town of Barrington. The mass media was quick to try and convict me well before my trial ever began. Every day for weeks, local television news bombarded the public with sensationalistic, biased, and heavily prejudicial reporting. All the way up to my trial, the Palatine case was a major story. Hundreds of newspaper articles were published in the Chicago Tribune, SunTimes, and suburban Daily Herald that were often not much more objective than their TV counterparts. The news media was highly inflammatory and dependent on innuendo and questionable, or off the record, sources. Yesterday, I watched CNN's program "Presumed Guilty" about the West Memphis 3, and that title could as well have applied to myself.

Soon after the boys' bodies were found, West Memphis police went to speak with Damien Echols. It was understandable why local police would consider the 18-year-old outcast a suspect. He wore long black hair and dressed in all black clothes. He was a fan of heavy metal music and was gossiped to dabble in the occult. West Memphis was a town where people listened to country music, and attended church weekly. Other than Nashville, Tennessee, I can think of no other town known as a bastion of country music. Townsfolk were also highly religious, and at that time period, rebellious teens that found an affinity in Satanism or heavy metal were greatly mistrusted or even loathed. Damien Echols was a pre-Goth teen outcast. Just his name, Damien, probably drew suspicion. You did not want to be named Damien when a purported Satanic triple murder occurred in Memphis. Elvis was a good name to have, but not Damien, the Antichrist in the movie "The Omen."

Although Damien Echols seemed like an awkward nerd, was not athletic and, according to his own words, was "dirt poor," we shared similarities that would make us good scapegoats or fodder for the media. I also tended to wear black clothes often, and a couple of times I even dyed my then light brown hair black. The clothes I wore were usually much nicer than I saw Echols wear, and I also kept my long hair pulled back tightly in a ponytail. However, the effect at the preppy Lincoln Way High School in New Lenox was much the same. Some students, unbeknownst to me, would call me Satan behind my back.

Also, like Echols and his friends, I listened to heavy metal music. I noticed during Jason Baldwin's perp walk that he was wearing a Metallica T-shirt. I also had a couple of the metal band's T-shirts at one time. I only wore these shirts in 8th grade, and my first year of high school, but I know students at my former school recall me wearing them. The students and media who spoke with them probably did not know I also liked classical music. Furthermore, although I had long hair and was not religious, I was ultra-conservative. I did not read horror fiction such as Damien Echols supposedly read, but controversial right wing literature such as Friedrich Nietzsche. My politics were used just as effectively against me in the liberal dominated media. Fortunately, these matters could only be used to vilify me in the press, but were not permitted at my trial.

West Memphis police did not immediately arrest Damien Echols for the murders. It may have been an unsophisticated police department that was under tremendous pressure to make an arrest, but the police were not stupid. Police came to talk to Echols in a friendly manner. They asked him if, from his knowledge of the occult, he could possibly help them find the murderer. The 18-year-old was naive and cooperated, even letting police take a photo of him. He did not realize his conversation would later be used to incriminate him, nor did he know police would use his photo to show people around town. The townspeople had plenty to say about the odd teen and the police made them immediately aware he was a suspect.

Police also focused on the small group of misfits who were Echol's friends. When police questioned Jessie Misskelley, they got more than a lead. What he told them made police believe the crime was solved. Misskelley incredibly told authorities that he was an eyewitness to the murders. He claimed that their #1 suspect Damien Echols, and another friend of theirs, Jason Baldwin, beat, cut, sodomized, and ultimately killed the children. He also admitted to chasing down one of the boys when the boy got away from them, but he denied any participation otherwise.

Jessie Misskelley was a high school dropout who was only able to complete part of 9th grade. He had an IQ of 72, which made him only marginally smarter than a retarded boy. Not long after he made the statements to police, he retracted it all and said none of it was true. Apparently he only made his accusations and incriminations under duress. Crime scene analysis was particularly slow, but eventually the physical evidence did not match Misskelley's statements. However, none of this mattered to police or the State's Attorney's office. The prosecution was already fully committed to trying the town's repugnant outcasts. They were already thoroughly villainized by the media and the target of public hatred.

The statements of Misskelley somewhat reminded me of those of a former roomate of mine, Robert Faraci. No, he was not retarded, but he would also claim to have witnessed a mutual friend and I commit a murder in Barrington. He also told police he had knowledge that I and yet another man committed the Palatine massacre. His statements were inconsistent and at times when confronted with his lies, he would retract them. My co-defendant enabled police to find evidence undiscovered at the Barrington murder cite, however, much of what he said did not make any sense. Later, after he and I were indicted for murder and the prosecution was preparing for trial, his wife Rose spoke to police again. This time she confessed that all she and her husband said about me were lies intended to keep him from going back to prison. However, none of this mattered to police or the prosecutor. Like the West Memphis 3, they were committed and there was no turning back or ever admitting fault. Instead, the prosecutor simply altered his strategy and used the full resources of the state to convict me under a theory of accountability, even if it only hinged on me allegedly lending my vehicle.

In 1994, Jessie Misskelley was tried for the boys' murders. His defense lawyers argued that Jessie was marginally retarded and his statements could not be considered credible. He was scared, confused, and manipulated. He also retracted his confession not long afterwards and the evidence did not agree with what he said. The jury disagreed, and quickly convicted him. He was sentenced to natural life without the possibility of parole.

Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin were tried after Misskelley's conviction. The prosecution was not able to use the statements of Misskelley, however, and instead had to rely on dubious inferences of their guilt and the jurors' emotions for the most part. A knife that was located in a lake nearby Baldwin's residence was claimed to be the murder weapon, although little demonstrated it was used and no connection could be made to the defendants. An alleged expert in the occult was allowed to testify. He concluded the murders were ritualistic and done on the day of the full moon. He also testified that Devil worshipers were known to dress in black. Evidence of Echols self-professed knowledge of the occult and his reading of horror novels like that authored by Stephen King were introduced. The teenagers' penchant for listening to heavy metal music was also incredibly allowed. The strongest evidence was a couple of teens who claimed Echols bragged about the murders and a jailhouse detainee of questionable credibility said Baldwin admitted involvement. However, one of these people have since said they lied, and another has been discredited.

After the convictions, the public seemed satisfied that justice had been done. However after an HBO movie called "Paradise Lost" came out about the case, many began to question the guilt of the Memphis 3. Some very well-known celebrities began to speak out and lobby on behalf of them. Actor Johnny Depp, Wyonna Ryder, and musician Natalie Main, from the pop country music band, Dixie Chicks, were among their supporters. It was unusual that those people were trying to help the convicted child killers, and they were brought on the Larry King Show. I watched the program and speculated possibly "Edward Scissor Hands" could identify with the outcasts who were wrongfully convicted. I cite "Edward Scissor Hands" not only because of its relation to the movie, but also because when Johnny Depp toured through Stateville a few years ago during the filming of "Dillinger," many prisoners yelled at him: "Scissor Hands!" I only caught a glimpse of the actor as he walked by, but I will always remember the shouts of inmates.

While watching the CNN show "Presumed Guilty: Murder in West Memphis," I saw the mother of Stevie Branch, one of the murdered boys. She said she originally wanted to kill the teenagers accused of killing her son and was glad Damien Echols received the death penalty. However, as the years went by, she began to have her doubts. She now believes they are innocent and supported their release.

It is very odd not only to have celebrities supporting a murder convict, but to also have the support of the victim's family. The victim's family is almost always completely convinced of what the prosecutor tells them. They are also so emotionally invested and cannot be objective. They want justice so badly for their loved one. At my own death sentence hearing, I got to listen to the parents of Dean Fawcett. They told the judge they wanted me executed. There is nothing you can say or do to sway their opinion or make them feel better. In my final statement before the court, I simply said I could understand their anger, but I was not the one it should be directed at.

On appeal, Damien Echols was represented by Dennis Reardon. He said he normally did not take death penalty cases because usually the state had insurmountable evidence and conclusive proof that a defendant was guilty. Possibly, this is the norm in Arkansas, but on Illinois' death row numerous people have been exonerated before the death penalty was eliminated. Anyway, Reardon thought the evidence against Echols was very flimsy. He filed a motion to have a hair found on one of the shoelaces that bound a boy tested for DNA. The original trial judge denied the motion. However, the Arkansas Supreme Court remanded the case back to the lower court to reconsider. The tests showed the hair did not belong to any of the West Memphis 3.

Personally, I do not think a non match decisively proved anything. Hairs can easily be transferred by anyone who lived or had contact with the boy or things the boy touched. On the CNN program, it was mentioned the hair could possibly belong to the boy's stepfather. Although it, along with the discrediting of former witnesses, was certainly enough to warrant an evidentiary hearing where a judge could order new trials.

Gaining an evidentiary hearing on a post conviction appeal is what many prisoners dream of, including myself. The process of gaining an evidentiary hearing is extremely difficult, but once it is granted, a mini trial is conducted on actual innocence claims. A man who lives in a cell next to mine was on television news recently because he had an evidentiary hearing and the judge is now deciding whether to grant him a new trial. A witness to the murder recanted their testimony, and the prosecution is already talking to his lawyers about a plea agreement that will set him free. Another man upstairs in my cell house has already been offered a settlement of 20 years. He is considering the deal which will free him in a few years.

In the case of the West Memphis 3, they were offered a plea agreement even before the evidentiary hearing occurred. This was unusual, as were the terms. In exchange for their guilty pleas, they would be released with a 10-year suspended sentence. This means if any one of them commits a crime during this period of time, they can be made to serve 10 years in prison. It is almost like an extended parole.

I was listening to WLS talk radio yesterday when I first heard about the plea agreement. They only gave a brief news soundbite, so I turned on my TV for more details. I saw the West Memphis 3 at a news conference. The men, now in their mid-30's, look much older. I was struck by how much they had aged in prison and thought I must look the same. We have all spent over half our lives in prison and all of our adult lives. Although they were being released, they did not look happy, and I did not see anything joyous in the occasion. Someone in the media claimed it was a win-win proposition because prosecutors did not have to admit any fault and the defendants could go free. However, I did not see it that way, and by the look on the wrongfully convicted men, they seemed to share that sentiment. The West Memphis 3 may be free today, but they are far from being winners.

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