Ok ok, I know. Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory isn’t a TV show. It’s a movie. But, I DVR’d it on my television and it’s blowing my mind so I had to share.
I’ve done my fair share of following the cases of the West Memphis 3. (If you haven’t, here’s the short version from Wikipedia.) I’ve read books on the charged – Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, Jr., and Jason Baldwin — and they were finally released last year after spending 18 years in prison. To recap, the three were arrested when they were in their teens for killing three younger boys in the woods near their neighborhood. They were accused of being Satanists, and after a day worth of questioning, Misskelley (who is mildly mentally challenged) gave a false confession. They had always maintained their innocence, and had been put on a national stage after the first HBO movie about them. In 2011, they were released, having entered Alford pleas, which allow them to assert their innocence while acknowledging that prosecutors have enough evidence to convict them.
I have to admit, I’m only about halfway through Paradise Lost 3 but it just brings up all these questions for me as a journalist. It mixes actual crime scene footage and interviews done from the time of the deaths in the early 90s to now. In the beginning, the media asks the police chief how sure he is of his case on a scale of 1 to 10 and he says 11. That is then followed by talk of how the whole thing was blown out of proportion and how he shouldn’t have said stuff like that. You have these parents, who are sitting on their couches in the 90s talking to the media saying things like if the WM3 were burned at the stakes, it wouldn’t even be enough for them. Then you have their interviews in the later 2000s and they’re blaming the police department and the media for misleading them.
The police chief tries to explain the pressure that was on them back then. And he talks about the media adding to that pressure, saying it was about as crazy as semi-recent coverage of Michael Jackson. And at that time, it was kinda unheard of.
So then I start thinking, what would I — a former cops reporter and current newspaper editor — have done if I were reporting on that case back then. Obviously, all of our crime stories are based mostly on the statement of police. I know that they often keep things from us. And I’ve fielded plenty of phone calls from loved ones of suspects saying that I was wrong, and the police are wrong. But I always tell them, we have to report what police are telling us. They’re their authority. But I always, ALWAYS give them a chance to tell their side of the story. I don’t know too much about the “other” side to the story back then. It seems like one of the girlfriends of the suspected talked about how he wasn’t a monster. But having done that interview, too, I tend to know that people can be blind to things they don’t want to see in people they love.
And it’s not like it was all the media’s fault. I’m not sure I would have done anything differently than they did back then. You listen to the court testimony. You listen to the jury. To the families of the victims and the accused. And you try to make sense out of the story. I’m not sure what you do if the root of it all was a lie. And to be honest, that scares the crap out of me. It gets down to the base of what I’ve been taught to do. Listen to people, tell their stories, yes. But you must verify, verify, verify. And when an entire legal system and community turns on someone, what do you do then?
I’d say now, you continue to follow-up. You tell the stories of these men who went into prison in their teens. Who were sentenced to life in prison or even death. Who were betrayed by nearly everyone they knew. Who by some miracle, are now free. And it shouldn’t be a miracle. It should have never happened. People should do the right thing. The legal system should afford every right to every accused.
It makes me so mad. And it makes me so sad. And scared. But you know what blows my mind the most? The West Memphis 3 themselves.
It’s what Damien Wayne Echols — who was accused of being the ringleader; who was blamed for just wearing black and being weird — simply said: If I focused on the things I can’t change, the things that have hurt me, what people have done to me, then they would have already broken me. They would have killed me inside and out. I can get up in the morning and I don’t feel sorry for myself, I don’t hate my life. You have a lot of people in here that all they can think about is what they don’t have and how much they want out and how much they want something else. But for some reason, this situation has helped me to see more of what I do have and to be thankful for that. You know, I have, in a lot of ways, I have a truly incredible life.