Late Night Horror Show: “The Nightmare of the West Memphis Three”

For all our scienterrific advancements, we hairless hominids are never more than a local tragedy away from a live-action reenactment of the Salem Witch Trials. Nathaniel Rich, in the New York Review of Books:

In May 1993, Jason Baldwin was a skinny redheaded teenager whose favorite activities were listening to Metallica records and fishing behind the trailer where he lived with his mother. His cat, Charlie, would sit beside him; whenever he caught a fish, he fed it to Charlie. Baldwin was sixteen that year, but he looked no older than twelve. In an interview filmed at the time he appears shy and quiet, with an awkward, insecure smile that reveals a snaggletooth. A baggy orange prison jumper hangs like a blouse over his matchstick frame. On the table in front of him are a half-eaten Snickers bar and a plastic bottle of Mello Yello. He turns to the camera.

“I didn’t kill those three little boys,” says the little boy.

This interview appears near the beginning of Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, the first of three documentary films produced by HBO about the West Memphis Three saga—a twenty-year nightmare that has been the subject of a fourth documentary film, West of Memphis; half a dozen books; and tens of thousands of magazine, newspaper, and television features…
[…]

… We now know that false confessions tend to occur in cases involving defendants who have a low mental capacity and are ignorant of the law, and whose interrogators place the defendants under duress by threatening a harsh sentence or forcing them to doubt their own memory of events. Young people are at increased risk, as are people in situations of severe exhaustion or stress. And most false confessions are not recorded in their entirety. All of these factors were present in Misskelley’s case.

While legal scholars may have a more sophisticated understanding of false confessions than they did twenty years ago, that understanding has not reached every legal jurisdiction in America. Interviewed recently for West of Memphis, the original trial judge, David Burnett—who is portrayed in the films as a tragic buffoon, blinded by a toxic combination of hubris, stubbornness, and ignorance—refuses to consider the possibility that Misskelley might not have been telling the truth. “People don’t tend to confess to crimes that they didn’t commit,” he says, in the tone one might use if speaking to a two-year-old.

Were it not for HBO Films, there would be no “West Memphis Three”—only three convicted murderers, two serving life sentences and one, most likely, executed. This is not a credit to HBO as much as it is an indictment of the American justice system and one of the founding assumptions on which it stands…
[…]
Paradise Lost is proof that documentary films are subject to what in quantum physics is called the observer effect: by merely documenting the proceedings, the filmmakers decisively altered its trajectory. Paradise Lost 2: Revelations not only acknowledges this fact but capitalizes on it, with the result that the second film bears little resemblance in tone or approach to the first. It follows the efforts of a group of HBO subscribers from all over the country who are moved by Paradise Lost to start a support group for the West Memphis Three. Several of them create an advocacy website, which is the first example of what would become a common phenomenon—today practically every popular murder case leads to the formation of fanatical online communities, in which members argue vehemently for or against the conviction of, say, Casey Anthony or Amanda Knox….

One of the most powerful lessons of these films is how easily our opinions about a crime can be influenced by the manner in which information is presented to us. In the first film, for instance, Hobbs appears dazed and ruined by his stepson’s death. When the exact same footage appears in the third film, he looks like a murderer trying to hide a secret. John Mark Byers suffers an even more dramatic transformation—from a man deranged by grief, to a homicidal maniac, and back again. His behavior has not changed, only the context in which we view it. Once a person’s innocence is questioned, even the most innocuous behavior—or, in Hobbs’s case, a shifty eye or a nervous chuckle—can seem nefarious….

26 replies
  1. 1
    Yutsano says:

    I’m trying to find words for this. I have none.

  2. 2

    Another person who deserves a lot of credit for bringing the West Memphis Three to the public’s attention is Henry Rollins.

  3. 3
    PeakVT says:

    Our system of justice is lacking that at many times. Sometimes I think making it less political (no elected AGs, no elected judges) would help, but those officials may not be the biggest problem.

  4. 4
    TheOtherWa says:

    This case was so fucked up in so many ways it’s difficult to list them all. I spent many hours reading through the case file documents posted on the web. As happy as I am that the guys are out, the fact is they are guilty in the eyes of the law so there’s no reason for the WMPD to re-open the case. Which means the actual killer(s) will stay free.

  5. 5
    WereBear says:

    A review of one of the movies I didn’t see mentioned a sequence which focused on the judge, explaining, in essence, that the defendants were “weird” and thus guilty of whatever offense they were accused of.

    It’s a perversion of justice, a triumph for prejudice, and sadly reminiscent of many small towns I have fled from in the past.

  6. 6
    Gretchen says:

    A side-note to this: while most law school graduates have crippling debt and can’t find jobs in their field, many public defenders have such a large caseload that they see their clients little or not at all before they go before a judge. And poor people with other legal problems, such as evictions, have even less access to legal help. Seems if we weren’t spending all our money on tax cuts, we could fix the mismatch between oversupply of unemployed lawyers and oversupply of un-represented poor people.

  7. 7
    WereBear says:

    @Gretchen: we could fix the mismatch between oversupply of unemployed lawyers and oversupply of un-represented poor people.

    Oh, but that sounds like one of those liberal utopian schemes, like my own wherein lonely people get a free dog or cat from the shelter.

    It’s all in where one’s priorities are. Truly.

  8. 8
    SRW1 says:

    @Gretchen:

    Seems if we weren’t spending all our money on tax cuts, we could fix the mismatch between oversupply of unemployed lawyers and oversupply of un-represented poor people.

    And were would be the profit in this kind of job creating?

  9. 9
    c u n d gulag says:

    Yet another reason to eliminate the death penalty.

  10. 10

    @SRW1:

    And were would be the profit in this kind of job creating?

    An improvement in the general welfare. You employ some unemployed people, and you keep other innocent people out of prison. Double bonus.

    You can fairly ask whether an oversupply of unemployed lawyers is a problem that needs to be fixed, or whether we just need fewer lawyers. But if you’re going to be put on trial for a felony, you need a lawyer, period.

    The Supreme Court, in Gideon v. Wainwright, decided that defendants had a right to counsel. (We owe a great debt of thanks to the Warren court for many things. This is one of them.) But if the public defenders are so overworked that they can’t adequately represent their clients, then that right is effectively gutted, and the legal system becomes a mechanism for tossing a nontrivial number of noncriminal indigents in prison for the crimes of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and not being able to afford counsel.

    This is a gross miscarriage of justice. It may be inevitable that the rich are going to be treated better by our justice system than the poor are. But we have a moral obligation to try to minimize the extent to which this is so – and particularly to make sure our system doesn’t toss poor people in prison just because they lack the money to hire a decent lawyer.

  11. 11
    currants says:

    @SRW1: Could be part of the new economy!

  12. 12
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    @low-tech cyclist:

    “An improvement in the general welfare”?

    What are you, some sort of socia1ist? Like that Smith fellow?
    Like those guys who put the Constitution of the United States together?

    Oh, wait. I forgot. The Constitution was delivered to them on stone tablets from atop Mt. Sinai. Never mind.

  13. 13

    The Census Bureau, where I’m employed, has an operation called Reinterview. It’s basically a quality control operation we do for both the decennial Census, and our various demographic surveys. We go back and independently interview a randomly selected small percentage of our respondents a second time, and compare the results of the reinterview with the original interview. This enables us to see if there are any systemic problems with the interviewing that would be mucking up the data.

    Lately I’ve been thinking we need something like this for our justice system. We really have no clear idea of how accurate the resolutions of our felony cases are, and we need a way of ensuring that our justice system isn’t tossing large numbers of people in prison unjustly.

    Right now, we just plain don’t know, but the work of operations like the Innocence Project suggest that there are a hell of a lot of people given even the death penalty wrongly. (Like c u n d gulag says, this is yet another reason for doing away with the death penalty. But even beyond that, a person shouldn’t lose a large chunk of his or her life to prison for crimes they didn’t commit. You can never get those years back.)

    If a Census survey of unemployment or health or housing has a quality control mechanism, then the far more important operation of our legal system damned well should.

  14. 14
    currants says:

    @low-tech cyclist:

    a person shouldn’t lose a large chunk of his or her life to prison for crimes they didn’t commit.

    Yes, that’s bad, but it’s sort of magnified by the collateral consequences, IMO. Re-entering the workforce is significantly more difficult with that kind of record, for example, and in some states, you may no longer vote.

  15. 15
    indycat32 says:

    @SRW1: But those would be government jobs and, as such, aren’t real jobs

  16. 16
    Donut says:

    Were it not for HBO Films, there would be no “West Memphis Three”—only three convicted murderers, two serving life sentences and one, most likely, executed. This is not a credit to HBO as much as it is an indictment of the American justice system and one of the founding assumptions on which it stands…

    I take a little bit of umbrage at this. The facts of this case bubbled around underground music scenes nationwide in the mid and late 90s. A number of liberal punks felt like these kids were persecuted because of the company they kept and their music choices and wanted to do something to help. Henry Rollins may have brought the case to a wider audience but he hardly was the first musician to bring attention to the case. I played more than one benefit show to assist with their legal costs in the late 90s. I take no responsibility for anything other than donating money/time, but HBO did not keep this story alive. Really it was much more grass roots for a few years because of some dedicated folks who knew and had direct connections to these guys.

  17. 17
    Ronnie Pudding says:

    The original Paradise Lost was one of the most wrenching films I’ve ever seen, but after watching the follow up and thinking they were doing the same thing to Byers that had been done to the boys. I’m glad to see this article acknowledge that.

    On the other hand, I’ll never look at turtles the same way.

  18. 18
    Roger Moore says:

    @SRW1:

    And were would be the profit in this kind of job creating?

    It wouldn’t be profit, strictly speaking, but we’d save a lot of money on prison costs by not putting innocent people there. Oh, wait, that’s anti-profit, since that would suck money out of private, for profit prisons.

  19. 19
    mattH says:

    @low-tech cyclist:

    in Gideon v. Wainwright, decided that defendants had a right to counsel.

    It’s 50 years old this year and not always a full right anymore.

  20. 20
    Interrobang says:

    @Donut: Yes, I heard about it from Jello Biafra’s spoken word about a million years ago, and it certainly was concerning. I mean, if in West Memphis, wearing a Metallica t-shirt is proof that you’re a Satanist murderer, I shudder to think what they would have made of me and my Marilyn Manson shirt…

    People like that shouldn’t be able to run their own courts; by my standards, they’re barely competent to stand trial themselves.

  21. 21
    SRW1 says:

    To all who responded with sensible arguments to my comment: It was intended as snark, but apparently done rather poorly. My apologies.

  22. 22
    Jennifer says:

    I live in Arkansas and lived here at the time of the murders and the convictions. At the time, I was part of the lawyers-and-accountants softball league. Both I and the attorneys who played on our team were convinced it was a railroad job before it ever went to trial. Those boys were convicted in the local press with the sort of yellow journalism you’d like to believe no longer exists. The only “evidence” against them was the “confession” of 17-year-old Jessie Miskelly, who was browbeaten by police for something like 14 hours or more before finally signing a confession, in the belief that if he signed they would let him go home. His parents were not present for that interrogation, and he is slightly retarded, with an IQ in the 75 – 80 range. Witnesses who could provide him an alibi were discounted.

    At the trial, there was zero physical evidence presented to link any of the boys to the crime. Instead, what was presented was an elaborate fantasy of the boys’ involvement in satanic worship. An “expert” on satanic cults was the star prosecution witness; among other things, he claimed that the A surrounded by a circle symbol was a satanic symbol (rather than what it is, which is a symbol that means “anarchy”). And that’s after you wrap your head around the idea that there is anything such as an “expert” in “satanic cults.” By the early 90s, most of the country had figured out that all the ballyhoo over “satanic cults” was just hysterial bullshit. But here in the Bible belt, it still held currency – enough to convict 3 teenagers of murder. Other “evidence” of the boys’ satanic activities included wearing black clothing and listening to heavy metal. No doubt being from the wrong side of the tracks did them no favors, either. About the only surprising thing is that they didn’t attempt to pin the crime on black kids.

    I remember at the time feeling fearful, as the whole thing more than anything else seemed a warning that if you thought differently than your neighbors, you were a target. I wondered what I would be charged with if any of my less-enlightened neighbors ever got the chance to look through my personal library.

    There are a lot of folks culpable in this thing, but most of all, I hold the West Memphis chief of police and the trial judge responsible – the chief of police for being a complete moron, and the trial judge for not forcing the prosecution to actually present evidence and for not disallowing wild theories about motive to substitute for actual evidence, which turned the trial into not an exercise in proving guilt or innocence, but a character assassination of those who were “different.”

  23. 23
    Tonal Crow says:

    If you’re nauseated by this and similar injustices, please consider contributing to the ACLU, which fights for justice every day, nationwide, in courts and in legislatures, year in and year out, no matter who’s in office.

  24. 24
    Ted & Hellen says:

    One of the most powerful lessons of these films is how easily our opinions about a crime can be influenced by the manner in which information is presented to us

    And yet the usual suspects here at BJ can never be bothered to wait for an indictment, let alone a verdict, to convict and execute the alleged perp in almost ever instance that comes before this blog.

    The bloodthirsty urge, no, the NEED, in many people to prejudge the crime and the accused, is a prevalent pathology in this society.

  25. 25
    James E. Powell says:

    @Gretchen:

    Seems if we weren’t spending all our money on tax cuts, we could fix the mismatch between oversupply of unemployed lawyers and oversupply of un-represented poor people.

    This assumes that the people who run things have any interest in ensuring that poor people have effective assistance of legal counsel. Or anything else for that matter.

  26. 26
    Phoebe says:

    Extremely related:
    http://www.thisamericanlife.or.....t-evidence

    It’s a show about how people get wrongly convicted, and the bizzare mental and emotional tricks involved.

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