Your worst fear probably goes something like this: A cop arrests you for something you didn’t do. Not just “something,” but the ritualistic murder and sexual mutilation of three 8-year-old boys. You’re convicted on the basis of someone else’s confession contradicting key facts known by police and your interest in heavy metal, black clothes and world religions. A judge sentences you to death row, where you quickly become the plaything of hardened criminals while prison guards stand around laughing at you.
Every man’s nightmare actually happened to three young men from West Memphis, Arkansas. Jessey Misskelley, Jason Baldwin and Damien Echols, known collectively as “the West Memphis Three” became poster children for the awful extremes that small-town paranoia and insularity can reach. The documentary Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills first brought the case to public attention. Originally planned as a meditation on the broken state of American youth, the film’s directors quickly realized that a mockery of justice was taking place in West Memphis. After sentencing, the trio became a cause célèbre for such man-tastic celebs as Johnny Depp, Eddie Vedder and Henry Rollins. Rollins even released a CD of himself singing Black Flag songs for the first time in 20 years to raise money for the cause.
Arkansas released the West Memphis Three today after new DNA evidence compelled a new trial. The trio entered Alford pleas—they don’t admit guilt, just that a jury would convict them again—and have been let go with time served, plus a ten-year suspended sentence. The decision is not without detractors. John Mark Byers, the father of one of the victims, stated that: “This is not right, and the people of Arkansas need to stand up and raise hell. Just because they admit to this today, it’s not over.”
Race and religion aren’t the only ways police profile. The police picked up the West Memphis Three because they were different in a place where being different can be deadly. The trial would be a joke if it weren’t so tragic. “Expert” witnesses with mail-order degrees invoked long-discredited theories of “Satanic ritual abuse.” Prosecutors attacked defense witnesses for being from New York City a la vintage Pace Picante ads. The terms “Metallica,” “Wicca” and “black clothing” were used frequently, but little hard evidence was presented. Not to put too fine a point on it, the West Memphis Three were railroaded to death row and life in prison by all of the worst impulses of small-town America.
More important, however, is the broader effect of profiling. The time when the West Memphis Police Department could actually find the killer is long gone. Rather than being men, admitting mistakes and taking lumps, the WMPD has decided to continue with the farce that the trio actually killed these children. The Alford pleas entered are little more than a game of “cover your ass.” If you have any doubt as to the innocence of the West Memphis Three, ask yourself: How many convicted child murderers are released with time served after 17 years?
Profiling on any basis, whether it targets young black men, Muslims in turbans or teenagers in Metallica t-shirts doesn’t bring anyone to justice. On the contrary, in the case of the Robin Hood Hills Murders, it allowed psychopathic butchers to walk free while three intelligent and sensitive young men were thrown to the wolves.
The true killers of Stevie Branch, Michael Moore, and Christopher Byers will never be brought to justice now. So ask yourself another question: What if one of them were your son?