Thursday, July 19, 2007
Satanic Panic and the West Memphis 3
For the first time in the fourteen year history of the West Memphis Child Murders, there is actual physical evidence conclusively pointing to a suspect--- And as most people with functioning brain stems expected, it does not point to the West Memphis 3.
The DNA of Terry Hobbs, stepfather of murder victim Steven Branch, was found in the rope used to tie up one of the murder victims. You can read the forensic report here.
There was a time when I thought the West Memphis 3 did it. One of the suspects had allegedly made a full confession, and West Memphis Police Chief Gary Gitchell (Think Inspector Clouseau with a southern accent) never tired of regaling reporters with information that appeared to be the result of a small town rumor mill on crack than any true investigative work.
During the first trial, we found out just how questionable the confession was. Wannabe professional wrestler Jessie Misskelley, whose IQ tested at the lower end of comfortable room temperature, was questioned by police for three hours, only 46 minutes of which was recorded. In this “confession”, he told police that the murders took place in the afternoon before the three young victims were even missing (Something the police can be heard coaching him on even on the recording). He said that one of the boys was raped, which turned out not to be true. He insisted that the boys were all tied up with rope, when in fact, two were tied up with their own shoelaces.
If such a “confession” had been made in New York or Massachusetts, it would have been tossed immediately as having been worthless. But he confessed to something that piqued small town hysteria.
When asked why he, Damien Echols, and Jason Baldwin killed the three boys, he claimed to have been a member of a satanic cult for three months, and that the boys were killed as part of a ritual.
A quick Google search on churches in West Memphis showed 66 distinct results--- That’s quite a bit for a town of only 28,000 people. Church is part of the daily life in the town. When you cry “Satanism!” you get a response.
The defense team for the three defendants asked for a change in venue--- Certainly not an unreasonable request considering that Chief Gary Gitchell and his Mini-Me, Detective Bryn Ridge seemed to be in front of the cameras more often than Britney Spears’ hoo-ha.
But it ended up playing into the hands of the prosecution--- The trials were moved to perhaps one of the few places more heavily churched than West Memphis. Jonesboro, Arkansas has 206 churches and is so bound by biblical doctrine that alcohol cannot be legally sold in Craighead County.
The jurors spent months listening to stories about Satanism, including unintentionally comical testimony from occult killings “expert” Dale Griffis (Revealed under cross examination to be the customer of a mail order diploma mill) who, with a straight face, said that the defendants’ taste in music (Pink Floyd and Metallica) and their taste in literature (Stephen King and Anne Rice) was proof of their Satanism.
And the jury returned with the shocking, yet at the same time predictable verdict--- Guilty as charged.
The news broke two months ago that the case was being reexamined by, among others, noted forensic pathologist Dr. Michael Baden, perhaps best known as the focus of HBO’s “Autopsy” documentary series.
Did Terry Hobbs do it? Perhaps. I do not know. I know that when John Mark Byers, the stepfather of another of the victims, heard erroneously that bite marks had been found, he had his teeth removed. I’m not aware of a strong connection between Byers and Hobbs, so I have no idea if they would have worked in concert or why they would have done it.
But at the very least, this is evidence that should be heard in court, and it’s high time that this case got a second look. The three fendants have lost fourteen years of their lives already. Damien Echols is known to have been raped and severely beaten in prison. Jason Baldwin was just moved from one facility to another as part of an investigation into abuse at the hands of prison staff. The case against them was so weak that my suspicion is that there were only 24 people on earth who couldn't find reasonable doubt--- Unfortunately, they were the jurors at the two trials. They deserve to have evidence that might exonerate them be heard. And all of us deserve the truth--- For if three men wrongfully convicted of this murder sit in jail, then the person or persons who did it walk freely among us.