West of Memphis


When crisis strikes, when something so horrifying happens that we can’t even think about it, often times any explanation for it can make us feel better.  In Amy Berg’s 2012 documentary West of Memphis, we saw the story of the “West Memphis Three” from start to finish, including the police work done during the case and trials.  No matter how you approach the documentary, there is no avoiding the corruption of some of the people involved in the case.  Humans inevitably fear and avoid ambiguity and uncertainty, and this fear is significantly heightened in times of crisis and stress.  When people are afraid, angry, or out of their element, they can be made to believe things that they might not otherwise.  

On the evening of May 5th, 1993, three eight-year-old boys went to ride their bikes, promising to be home by 5:00.  Mark Byers, one of the boys’ stepfather, called the police at 7:00, very worried about the boys’ whereabouts.  Police started searching, and the search became more and more thorough, until on May 6th, at 1:45 pm, the bodies of Stevie Edward Branch, Christopher Mark Byers, and James Michael Moore were found in a drainage ditch nearby.  The last time anyone saw them was at 6:30 on May 5th.  

In the days and weeks following the murders, people in West Memphis and in the news started to speculate, coming up with several explanations for who could have done it, and what their reason could have possibly been.  However, there was one story that really stood out, and also made people feel better, thinking that no normal person could possibly do such a thing.  The one story that really stuck was that the murders had a strong connection to satanic cult rituals.  During the 80s and 90s, many teens became part of the Goth subculture, dressing in dark colors and listening to metal music.  Much like rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950s, and rap in the 1990s, metal music and goth culture frightened people who were considered “normal.”  In an article published in August 1993 about the connection between “gangsta rap” and real-life violence, Dr. C. DeLores Tucker said, “...gangsta rap encourages vulnerable youngsters to commit horrible acts of violence," just based off of two incidents.  For decades, adults in authority have been extremely afraid and insecure about music’s effect on “youngsters”.  

Damien Echols was known by people in his neighborhood as a high school dropout, strange, unpersonable, and antisocial.  Jason Baldwin was a fairly close friend of Damien’s.  They both listened to metal, and Baldwin is even wearing a Metallica shirt in his mugshot.  The third boy in the West Memphis Three was Jessie Misskelley, Jr.–a boy who lived in a trailer park with his father, and whose IQ was 70 or lower.  However, while many people think the three boys were arrested as a result of them all being friends, Misskelley didn’t really know Jason, and only knew a little bit about Damien.  People who knew Jason Baldwin said he was very quiet and easygoing, and they couldn’t even imagine him doing anything like the murder.  Jessie was known as a bit violent, and people thought he was “slow”.

When the West Memphis Three were first arrested, there were people from the neighborhood outside the courthouse yelling “Shoot them!”, “Baby killers!”, and “Devil Worshipers!” When one teen boy from the area was being interviewed by a newscaster, he said, “I was surprised about Jason Baldwin because he’s the quiet one of them all, but...I wasn’t surprised about Jessie Misskelley and...Damien Echols.  ‘Cause I just expected that from them sooner or later.”  Without much evidence or information, people were perfectly content with believing that the three teens committed the murders.  When asked, “On a scale of one to ten, how solid do you think the case is now?” Chief Inspector Gary Gitchell simply responded, “Eleven,” even though the only large piece of evidence they were going off of at the time was Jessie Misskelley’s “confession”.  

The West Memphis and state police conducted a series of interrogations, and asked a number of people questions about the boys in court.  Many people who went to school with Baldwin and Misskelley claimed that they had heard about Baldwin and Echols killing cats and dogs as satanic rituals, and one girl said Echols had invited her to a “satanic cult meeting,” even though people who knew Baldwin and Echols extremely well (family, girlfriends, etc.) said that they never did anything related to the occult.  The police paid no attention to the claims of those close to the boys, but fully believed the claim of Michael Carson, a then 16-year-old juvenile delinquent on several drugs, that Jason Baldwin had told him all about murdering the boys.  

When Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley were finally “freed” (but not exonerated), it seems that no one paid attention to or talked about the authorities and officials that wrongly accused the three of the murders, and who then bent the truth about the evidence they found.  It stayed this way, even after DNA evidence of the killer being Terry Hobbs (one of the boys’ stepfather) was found.  This could have been because no one wanted to think or talk about it anymore, or because no one wanted to imagine the possibility of a seemingly “normal” person committing the murders.  

In Joseph Goebbels’ essay “Knowledge and Propaganda” he talks about how world leaders get to the heights of power they get to.  He says, “History proves that the greatest world movements have always developed when their leaders knew how to unify their followers under a short, clear theme.”  The cast of the West Memphis Three can be seen as following this idea, the “short, clear theme” being that the murders were part of a satanic cult ritual.  Even though it might not have been a completely rational conclusion looking back on the case, it was simple, and easy to listen to, making it a successful story.  

Every day, we are surrounded and affected by biases and prejudices, whether we realize it or not.  While these biases can sometimes be bad, it is good just to recognize that they’re there, and try to understand them.  The judicial system in this country would benefit greatly from observing and recognizing these biases.  One of the greatest parts of humans is our ability to feel emotions as strongly and as passionately as we do, but sometimes our emotions can cloud our judgement.  It was only natural for people to be extremely angry and upset about the murders in West Memphis, but they did not realize how distorted their judgment was, and as a result, three teens lost a huge portion of their lives in jail for something they didn’t even do.