Sunday, October 21, 2007

West Memphis Three: The Documentary

I just watched an old documentary film called “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills.”

The liner notes for the DVD call it a “gripping documentary...of the West Memphis Three, a trio of boys arrested for the murders of three children…” The documentary was produced by HBO films and directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky. It won a few awards and appeared on several top ten lists for 1996 when it was released.

It wasn’t so much gruesome as it was macabre. The version we saw had the look of home video. The gruesome opening sequence looks like a mini-Auschwitz with the three pre-teen boys strewn nude upon the banks of a shallow creek in Arkansas. One of the boys was sexually mutilated.

Most everyone interviewed in the documentary is from Arkansas. The victim’s families are ostensibly poor and marginally educated; so are the families of the arrested trio. Absent any other scapegoats, the viewer is presented with two choices. Blame it on the “crackers” or blame it on the “Goths.” The police blamed it on the Goths and all three of the alleged murderers are in prison, with Damien Echols sentenced to die.

Newspaper accounts and locals described Echols as an outsider type of individual accoutered in black trench coat, with black, chopped hair which he repeatedly combed on camera. One of his alleged accomplices is a bona fide borderline dysfunctional personality named Jessie Miskelly.

The third person imprisoned for the child murders is Jason Baldwin. Jason Baldwin is striking for his lack of personality. He smiles from a void. I suppose it’s a good thing that the documentary fumbles around a great deal in developing a point of view that begins with a belief in the arrested trio’s guilt and than tails off into a seeming belief that the convicts are innocent.

One fact that stands out in favor of the accused and convicted is that the case against them is entirely circumstantial. No blood evidence, no DNA, no eyewitnesses except the retracted statement of Jesse Misskelly who says his confession was coerced after a 12 hour endurance interrogation. It is that lack of evidence more than anything else that argues for a new trial.

The convicted youths are themselves were not of the type who would gain your sympathy. On many occasions afforded the filmmakers, Miskelly revealed himself to be stupid and vulgar, consistent with his IQ which is on the short side of room temperature. A videotaped film sequence of a conversation with his former girlfriend reveals his idiotic and somewhat perverse sense of sexuality. Miskelly was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

Jason Baldwin and Damien Echols were tried together. The prosecution mustered three witnesses who heard one of the suspects brag he’d participated in the killing of the three elementary school children. Two of the witnesses were teenage girls supposedly unassociated with any of the principals. The third witness who testified against the alleged (and now convicted) murderers was a young man who had been incarcerated with one of the murder suspects.

The three men arrested for the murder of the three second-graders are still in jail. Defense funds have been established and celebrity concerts have been held to raise money to pay defense lawyers conducting the appeals. The case is widely known and continues to attract attention with videos on YouTube and concerts by Metallica, one of the favorites bands of the WM3, as they’re known. A website devoted to the defense has been visited nearly five million times.

Other recent and wrenching developments have taken place in the fifteen years the trio has been imprisoned. The families of two of the victims were never models of family values and cohesion in spite of the bible-thumping antics of some of the principal characters this documentary drama. Step-fathers have acknowledged beating their kids with leather belts for in-school misdemeanors.

“I spanked him three times with my belt with his pants up,” recalls the stepfather of one victim.

The remark is particularly notable because the marks were apparently still on the buttocks when the bodies were pulled from the shallow creek. Another disturbing recent development is that DNA from another step-father, Terry Hobbs, was found on one of the bindings that was used to restrain a murder victim. Mr. Hobbs confirmed in July of 2007 that he had again been interviewed by the police. Indeed, there is scant evidence of Mr. Hobbs whereabouts on the evening of the murders, and Mr. Hobbs estranged wife, Pamela Hobbs, suspects her former husband.

Suspicions and leads to other directions do not in themselves exonerate the three men who are in prison for the murders. It may well be that the three are guilty. But when a man is sentenced to die for committing a murder, and the circumstances of the investigation and the evidence are so questionable as they stand in this case, it would be reasonable and serve justice better to have a new trial for the three defendants.

This is especially important since the West Memphis police department so badly bungled the crime scene and subsequent investigation.

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