In 1993, the mutilated bodies of three second graders were found behind a truck stop in West Memphis, Arkansas. Three teenage boys, Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley were soon prosecuted for the murders. Two were sentenced to life in prison, and Damien Echols was sentenced to death. Their trials in the court and the media painted the suspects as Satanists, focusing on Damien Echols, the most vocal of the trio, who listened to heavy metal and dabbled in Wicca.
Reverend Tommy Stacy’s church is down the street from where the bodies were found. One year ago Damien Echols told the church's youth minister he had a pact with the devil and he was going to hell.
In the ensuing years the investigation was criticized, testimony was recanted and the jury was accused of misconduct. Last week after 18 years behind bars, the prisoners known as the West Memphis Three, entered an unconventional plea bargain arrangement called an Alfred plea, in which they pled guilty while maintaining their innocence. They were released.
The case was one of the last gasps of the satanic panic, a kind of national hysteria that Satanists using subversive literature and heavy metal music, among other things, were turning kids into killers and cannibals. Geraldo Rivera's 1988 Special Report exposing Satan’s underground offered a handy list of clues that your child might be crossing over to the dark side.
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Parents – warning signs that might indicate a child’s drift toward Satanism include abrupt emotional changes, changes in school habits, rejection of parental values, unusual interest in books on Satanism, black magic or witchcraft, obsession with rock music groups using satanic symbols or references. Rejection of friends, preference for being alone, medication, chanting, use of new vocabulary.
Mara Leveritt, author of a book about the case, called The Devil’s Knot, said that the FBI had thoroughly investigated and debunked most of the claims made during the satanic panic of the late eighties. But in West Memphis, Arkansas in 1993, the fear was still very much alive.
In West Memphis, I know that there were people who were already concerned about signs like pentagram graffiti in town. And the preachers were talking about how children were being drawn into the occult by Ouija boards. There was a lot of that still lingering in a fairly conservative part of Arkansas near the Mississippi River on the east side of the state. Then come these three murders, and from there on it was a wild ride.
Talk to me about how the satanic angle was played up by the media.
It was reported that Damien Echols had a cat skull in his bedroom. He wore black.
There seemed to be a lot of emphasis on the wearing of black. I mean, I know I would have been dragged in for questioning.
Yes, the wearing of black. As Jason Baldwin told me later from prison, we were wearing concert tee-shirts, a lot of concert tee-shirts that Jason had gotten when he’d attended them with his mother, and of heavy metal bands. And this was an area where some church leaders were inviting their young people in their congregations to burn recordings from these types of bands because the music itself was considered satanic.
And so when the police searched Jason Baldwin's home they took out 11 black tee-shirts, and that information was introduced at his trial.
But just as the media seemed to be pushing the satanic component of this case when it was being prosecuted, other parts of the media kept interest in the case alive and raised questions well after they were in jail.
That's exactly right. A producer at HBO noted a three or four inch report on this case right after the arrests in June of 1993 and passed it on to the team of filmmakers, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky. They immediately came to West Memphis, and they have since told me, with the idea that they were going to be making a film about crazed satanic teenagers killing three boys.
And Berlinger and Sinofky got a complete video recording of the two trials that were held, and in 1996 they released their film Paradise Lost. And they did a spectacular job of editing very lengthy trials into a very fair and accurate documentary.
And it was highly criticized by attorneys for the men in prison by the time it came out who said their own attorneys should not have let the defendants participate in the film. I know the judge deeply regrets having allowed that film to be made, and the prosecutors probably do too.
Damien Echols credits Paradise Lost with essentially saving his life.
I really do believe that without that footage of the trials the state would have probably killed me by now.
After that movie came out a group of people in Los Angeles who happened to work in the film industry started a website called WM3.org, right when the Internet was taking off. And that site became an archive of every bit of information in the case. People flocked to it. From there it was Facebook. Celebrities became involved. Millions of dollars was raised for new investigations.
And it was not until a year ago in August, Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam and Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks and Patti Smith and Johnny Depp came to Little Rock for a huge concert attended by 4,000 people.
I think when the powers that be in the state saw that, they realized that the tide had turned in Arkansas.
When the prosecuting attorney at the original trials was defeated in his run for the Arkansas Supreme Court – in large part because of his role in these prosecutions – that also had everybody sit up and take notice. And it was soon after that that the Arkansas Supreme Court ordered the new hearing on this case that ultimately resulted in what happened last week.
What does this say about the role of media in American justice? Do you need celebrities?
Well, I would say that your representation needs also to have a media representative. And there was one in this case. Lonnie Soury of New York was brought in to help with media management. And media was so key, was so essential and, and strategizing, and even at that, it took 18 years.
Mara, thank you very much.
Mara Leveritt is a journalist and author of the book The Devil’s Knot, about the West Memphis 3, about to become a feature film.