The West Memphis Three are free. People are jubilant. Justice and all that.
About six months ago, I read Devil’s Knot by Mara Leveritt. Prior to that, I had never even heard of the West Memphis Three. While reading the book, I noticed that it seemed to pick and choose which trial testimony it presented (without saying that it was excluding a number of witnesses from the narrative), and then moved on without talking about what happened on cross examination or redirect. (Any lawyer knows that a perfectly good direct examination can be quickly torn apart by a decent attorney on cross-examination.) This seemed strange to me, so after finishing the book, I looked on the Internet for more information and came across the Callahan site, which has all of the case documents; the wm3blackboard, a not guilty site; WM3 Hoax, a guilty site; and various other information sites, such as The Truth About the West Memphis Three and Jive Puppi, the discussions over at Find a Death, and the Paradise Lost documentaries. Reading through (and watching) the various viewpoints made clear that both Devil’s Knot and Paradise Lost I and II left out a lot of information. Reading through the viewpoints also made clear that there was a huge group of people who believed the WM3 were innocent, as well as a fair amount who believed fully in their guilt.
One look at the Callahan site reveals the sheer breadth of this case. It is not a simple case. There are thousands of pages of documents, transcripts, trial testimony, witness statements, and reports. It’s overwhelming. I wanted to read a summary from the “guilty” supporters, since I had just received what I assumed was an accepted summary of the “innocence” supporters in Devil’s Knot. The Truth About the West Memphis Three summarizes some of the bigger issues (i.e. alibis, confessions), and provides links to Callahan. However, in going through the numerous West Memphis Three sites on the Internet, it is very difficult to find a non-biased, objective source summarizing information on the case. Every site is one or the other. It’s also a difficult case to summarize due to the sheer quantity of testimony, witness statements, and hearings. Even a perusal of any of the sites makes it clear that you can’t take anything at face value that is said about this case because so much misinformation is floating around – and I say that as a person who has read few of the Callahan documents. I can’t imagine what I would see if I read every document on the entire site.
For example, people say that Jesse Misskelley Jr. was interrogated for 12 hours before he gave his confession to police on June 3, 1993 without his father’s permission, and without being read his rights. They then ignore his many other confessions. In fact, the police timeline shows that his father picked him up, and then Jesse went to the police department. The police read him his rights, then they took him with them and went out and got his father’s written consent for a polygraph, after which they returned to the police station and he was Mirandized again. According to this timeline, the interview began at 10:00 a.m., and at approximately 2:44 p.m. Jesse began confessing. In between 10:00 a.m. and 2:44 p.m., they drove Jesse to get his father’s permission to take the polygraph and administered the polygraph (which he failed). This isn’t twelve hours of interrogation without permission. His father knew exactly where he was and what was happening. At most it began after three or four hours of interrogation in the middle of the day.
That’s confession number one. Jesse also admitted to his lawyers in the summer of 1993 that he was there when the boys were murdered. On February 4, 1994, he again described his involvement to police officers who were transporting him back to prison. On February 8, 1994, three days after he was found guilty by the jury, he confessed again to his own attorneys. On February 17, 1994, he again confessed, over the objections of and against the advice of his attorneys, who were sitting in the room with him.
This is just one example. There are further examples concerning Jesse’s intelligence and whether he was “mentally retarded,” as those who support innocence claim, and examples concerning Damien’s mental health (and lengthy psychiatric record), as well as the three’s ever changing alibis. Coerced confessions no doubt exist. But did that happen here? Did it happen five times, two times after conviction, once when his attorneys were sitting right next to him, pleading with him not to make the statement? And this doesn’t even cover witness statements by other people in town and other prisoners who claimed that Jesse, Damien, and Jason all admitted to being involved in the crime. Could those people be lying? Sure, maybe. But maybe they aren’t. There are a lot of unanswered questions about this case. I, for one, don’t know if the West Memphis Three are guilty or innocent. I haven’t fully read the case files.
Without reading all the underlying documents, it is difficult to conclude whether anyone’s online analysis (or documentary) covers everything and portrays all of the relevant facts. Saying something enough times doesn’t make it true. It’s not hard to twist facts when you ignore the ones that don’t support your position, which is where Devil’s Knot and Paradise Lost fail. The only place that offers an unbiased look is Callahan, where there are thousands upon thousands of documents, investigative reports, and transcripts posted. If you have the time to read through all of them, maybe you can determine how you feel.
When I came to the conclusion that there was no way I could decide one way or the other whether the WM3 are guilty or not without reading all of the documents on Callahan (which I doubt I will ever have time to do), it made it all the more surprising to me to see the number of people out there who are jumping up and down for joy at the release of these three men, and the sheer number of celebrities who are behind this cause. Lots of teenagers were shown on television with signs “Free the WM3!” outside the courthouse. People all over the blogosphere and news discussion forums are proclaiming innocence and “justice.” Many argue that there is absolutely no physical evidence (there doesn’t have to be) and that they were convicted based on Jesse’s twelve hour, mentally retarded, coerced confession. (Ignoring that Jesse’s confession was not admissible in Damien and Jason’s trial. Also ignoring that Jesse confessed four more times after that.) It’s difficult to take the “innocence” people seriously when they obviously haven’t read many of the documents from the case itself, and instead rely upon what other people have (wrongly) told them or what Paradise Lost showed, which wasn’t the full story. They seemed to have merely jumped on the bandwagon, rather than investigated what happened. Maybe they're right; I don’t know. All I know is based on what little I’ve read on Callahan some are basing their premise of innocence on incorrect facts.
I have no doubt that there are people out there who have devoted thousands of hours to reviewing all of the case information on Callahan and have come to the conclusion that the three men were unfairly convicted. I also have no doubt that there are people out there who did the same thing and came to the opposite conclusion. I also believe that there were probably mistakes made in the investigation, and that perhaps the men deserved a new trial. But how many of the people out there who are celebrating have read the entire case file? Has Natalie Maines? I saw on one site that she admitted in a related deposition (one of the fathers of the murdered boys sued her for defamation after she accused him of murder) that she didn’t have much knowledge of the case. I’ve been unable to find a copy of her deposition to confirm, but that wouldn’t surprise me. Has Johnny Depp or Eddie Vedder spent hours on Callahan? Maybe they have. Or maybe they just watched Paradise Lost and assumed it contained the full story.
The recent coverage by the mainstream media would lead one to believe that it is open and shut that the three men are innocent -- ignoring that they just plead guilty, and are legally guilty in the eyes of the law. I would love to actually see an objective view of the evidence presented by Dateline or 20/20 or in a documentary, as opposed to the biased viewpoint that is pervading this case. It’s pretty amazing that a few celebrities and a lot of money can get a man off death row. It feels like such a whitewash.
And worse, forgotten in all this “celebration” is that three little boys were brutally murdered 18 years ago.