Back in 1996, I saw a documentary that terrified me.
It was the story of the murder of three young kids in a small Arkansas town.
It wasn’t the murders that scared me, though. It was what happened after.
There were three older boys arrested for those awful murders. The evidence against them? Questionable, at best.
These three, Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley Jr., were on the outside of what the town would consider “acceptable.” They dressed differently. They read strange books. They didn’t get along all that well with the other kids their age.
They were easy targets.
This was a few years before the Columbine shootings, but not too long after the wild Satanic Panic that ran rampant through the country during the 80s. People on the fringe were still feared, but not often actively so. To hear that fear actualized into a railroaded court decisions based on an obviously coerced confession and a total lack of actual evidence connecting these three to the crime… that was world shattering.
In my own town, I was the “weird kid”. The one who had all the strange books, knew all of the “scary” stuff, dressed in all black. I knew every day that I could easily be a target for something similar, if anything quite that bad were to happen in my town. (I graduated the same year these murders happened, 1993… so I was long gone by the time the documentary came out.)
Over the last decade and change, I’ve seen the case of the West Memphis Three come up every few years in the public eye. Rarely was there any really good news.
Finally, today, after eighteen years behind bars for a crime they didn’t–and probably couldn’t have ever–commit, Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley are finally free.
Now, I can’t say I condone the plea deal that has lead to this. I find it impossible to believe that the prosecution ever had enough actual evidence to convict them… even more so now that there is contradictory DNA evidence. But I will accept and celebrate the victory of having these three outsides finally on the outside again.
Sadly, they’ve still lost half their lives to living behind bars–Echols in solitary for years. There’s no way to give that back.
This case, if nothing else, is a prime example of society acting as the bully. Lashing out at the general population doesn’t relate to, making important decisions based on fear instead of fact. And, ultimately, stealing the lives of three boys who are now men.