By C. Rutledge Wilson, contributor
Seven days from now is an important moment for an Arkansas man named Damien Echols, the only member of the infamous “West Memphis Three” to be given the death penalty by an Arkansas jury. Echols’ legal team will be presenting oral arguments before the Arkansas State Supreme Court in Little Rock at 9am on Thursday, September 30th, on whether Echols should be granted a new trial (and those arguments will conveniently be streamed here).
Damien is probably not unique for serving his entire adult life on death row, but the conditions that led to his conviction are perhaps dangerously common, as his fate, justly deserved or not, was almost completely determined by irresponsible police work.
For an excellent portrayal of the events that led to trials and convictions of Echols and two of his friends, I highly recommend HBO’s 1996 documentary Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, which can be found on YouTube here. Paradise Lost 2: Revelations is interesting, but it adds less to the conversation.
To provide as best a context as I can, I should say that the tale of the West Memphis Three begins with the tragic murders and mutilations of three 8-year old boys in the Robin Hood Hills area of West Memphis, Arkansas on or about May 5th, 1993. Police discovered the bound and naked bodies of the boys in a shallow creek on May 6th, and the problems with the case really begin from there, as the West Memphis Police Department famously began to make mistake after mistake (more here), in public and private.
Outrage over the brutality and the rumored sexual nature of the homicides had the particularly religious and humble residents of West Memphis outraged—and perhaps driven to a state of moral panic. Good news, then, when on June 7, 1993 Chief Inspector Gary Gitchell of the WMPD announces in a press conference that he feels his suspects in the murders—18-year old Damien Echols and 16-year old Jason Baldwin—are definitely guilty of the crime committed. Gitchell is a hero, and his actions reaffirm the community’s trust in itself. The only problem is that he virtually prevented these boys from ever having a fair trial—his words producing the reality that 12 jurors would later want to see confirmed.
But lamenting about the way the police leak information and shape public perception is hardly worth the effort. I’d like to instead focus on the WMPD’s (and the State Prosecutor’s) lynchpin in the case against Echols and Baldwin: The controversial confession of Jessie Misskelley, Jr.
Though there’s plenty of controversy (read: coercion) surrounding even the how the police linked Damien to Misskelley, it is the how police gained Misskelley’s confession that most find troubling. Misskelley, whose IQ was later determined to be around 70, was at one point some days after the murder held and interrogated for 12 hours by the WMPD—only around 40 minutes of this interaction being recorded (and just the audio at that). The transcript and audio of this confession can be found here. Even a layman can hear how detective Bryn Ridge (the same detective who would admit to losing evidence in court) and Inspector Gitchell are leading and coaching the boy with their questions, and almost voyeuristically probing his memory for the sexual details of the crimes.
During Misskelley’s trial, Dr. Richard Ofshe, an expert on false confessions and police coercion from UC Berkeley, testified that Misskelley’s interrogation was a “classic example” of police coercion, later going so far as to call it “the stupidest fucking confession I’ve ever seen.” And though Misskelley’s confession would later prove to be totally inaccurate—the three murdered boys were not strangled or raped at all, and they weren’t beaten while they were clothed—it was enough evidence to send him to prison for life, and to inculpate Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin in the slayings.
Though it is still unclear to me if Echols, who lucked out when a DNA test in 2007 showed that he could not be linked to the crime scene, murdered those poor boys, I am certain that his incarceration is the direct result of a police force that didn’t know how to handle public expectations. When the community demanded blood, Gitchell and company went with their very first guess and built a case on pure speculation—leaning on anyone they could to produce an asinine set of facts to fit the crudely conceived narrative that they insisted told the story of these unspeakable crimes.
Gitchell retired in honor after the convictions of the West Memphis Three, resting on his perceived laurels. Many detectives and attorneys had promotions and elections hanging on their work on the case, and so it seems that even today a political culture of complicity and a terrible, statist inertia have kept Damien, Baldwin, and Miskelley behind bars.
Fore more info on the West Memphis Three, please visit this website.