The West Memphis Three case shook the nation in 1993-1994. The killing and mutilation of three eight-year-old boys, Christopher Byers, Steve Branch, and Michael Moore caused the so-called Satanic Panic in the Arkansas area since it was suspected that the crime had been conducted on the basis of a satanic ritual. However, the convicted Damien Echols, Jessi Misskelley, Jr., and Jason Baldwin were never actually proven to be guilty, despite the state’s attempts.
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Thanks to the newly-attained DNA evidence that pointed at the unknown suspect present at the crime scene, in 2011 the West Memphis Three were able to sign the Alford plea that allowed them to maintain their innocence at the same time with accepting the guilty plea offered by the State of Arkansas. The Alford plea was the only deal the State could tolerate since it offered a possibility to support its position as the state which has never sentenced an innocent person to death.
Prejudice and the Court
Life After Death is a memoir written by the most famous person from the West Memphis Three, Damien Echols, who was sentenced to death for the crime he did not commit. The book is valuable since it shows the strength a person can have to live on, to forget, and to forgive. Furthermore, if Echols were not exonerated in 2011, he would have been executed. Despite the fact that he went through horrifying events in his life, Damien Echols found courage to grow and create, trying to convey to the society the faults that exist in the justice system, what he went through in his childhood, the brutal realities of being incarcerated, as well as how he managed to begin the ‘new life’ from scratch.
However, the main theme to be discussed in relation to the interviews given by Echols, as well as his book is the issue of bias. In the WGBH News interview, Damien Echols explained his unstable childhood, abusive relationship with his stepfather, the absence of his mother, and the fact that he was a target for the law enforcement, just because he was different to other children. Echols stated that he had been harassed by the police so many times before the case even occurred, that when he was actually asked about his alibi, he had thought that it was just simple harassment once again. The police had set itself as the anti-occult force, which thought that “Satanism was responsible for pretty much everything that went on in the state” (WGBH News).
Thus, generally speaking, the society already had some major bias toward any kind of ‘different’ worldview, choosing Echols for its main target. It is important to mention the famous Adnan Syed vs Maryland case, which also had some signs of racial bias as well as focus on one suspect without the investigation of other possible suspects. Echols also noted that people were predominantly opposed to him due to the music he listened to, the books he read, and the clothes he wore, indicating that the society rarely looked past the appearance trying to find the truth. On the contrary, the biased views encouraged them to find negative connotations where there weren’t any.
In his book Echols wrote “I blamed Christianity in general as being a huge part of the reason I was sitting on Death Row for a crime I didn’t commit. It was Christians who had labeled me “satanic” and condemned me to death” (68). Thus, the issue of religious bias played a major role in Damien’s sentence. Because he did not practice Christianity as his religion, rather, was interested in Zen Buddhism, many people in his hometown saw him as an ‘abnormal’ individual that did not fit in their ‘normal’ world. Furthermore, as the development of the entire case has shown, it is always easier to blame the weak for something, rather than work harder in order to find out the truth.
Guilty Until Proven Innocent
The widely popular three-part documentary “West of Memphis” was initially a step targeted towards finding out the truth thus showing the nation that the three inmates may have been wrongfully sentenced. In his interview for the Vice magazine, Echols admitted that the documentary encouraged his naïve belief in the justice system and the innocent until proven guilty principle (Wray par. 7). He thought that because of so many people watching, the police would not be able to get away with its unlawful actions. However, everything turned the way around for him – his trial had already begun with the guilty verdict, and the investigators did not even try to prove otherwise.
Furthermore, Echols acknowledged the impact the media had on the case. In the beginning of his WGBH interview he said: “The local media in Arkansas had inflamed the public to such a degree that by the time we walked in the courtroom the jury saw the trial as pretty much a formality they had to get through in order to sentence me to death” (WGBH News). Thus, with the help of the grand media coverage that also influenced the already mentioned Satanic Panic, tainted the jury, encouraged prosecutorial misconduct, the outcome of the trial was not surprising.
However, the latter coverage of the media, as well as the interest in the case of such celebrities like Johny Depp and Peter Jackson helped Echols to come out from the prison and start a new life. If it weren’t for the coverage, Damien Echols would have been executed in secret on May 20th, 2015.
The innocent until proven guilty concept did not relate to the West Memphis Trial to any degree, on the contrary, the court worked on the basis of the guilty until proven innocent hypothesis. The bias, the previous harassment by the police, the fact that Damien could not afford to battle with the justice system at the beginning of his sentencing caused an innocent person to spend eighteen years in prison. This shows that the U.S. justice system is deeply flawed from the police officers that only care about convicting a person to juries that go along with their biases, refusing to look deeper into the case.
Criminal cases like the O. J. Simpson case where the evidently guilty person whose guilt had been supported by evidence was deemed innocent because of the predominantly Black jury, which thought that he was prosecuted because of his race, show that bias can turn the jury in the wrong direction. West Memphis Three case also supports this premise. However, Damien Echols is a person that tried to forget his dark past, forgive the jury, and move on with his life, wanting to shed light on the inequalities many convicts deal with because of the flaws in the justice system.
Echols, Damien. Life After Death, New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2012. Print.
WGBH News. Former Death Row Inmate Damien Echols on ‘Life After Death’. 2013. Web.
Wray, Daniel Dylan. Catching Up with Damien Echols, Former Death Row Inmate and a Member of the West Memphis Three. 2015. Web.