Yesterday the Arkansas Supreme Court unanimously ruled that Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jesse Misskelley Jr. (aka the West Memphis Three) should receive a new evidentiary hearing, and that claims of juror misconduct should be examined.
“The court also pointed out Thursday that Circuit Judge David Burnett erred repeatedly in the case, including dismissing requests to consider DNA and other exculpatory evidence without a hearing. Burnett has been the focus of activists’ campaigns because of his pro-prosecution stances. He will not hear the new case because he was recently elected to the state legislature. Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel has also fought against a new hearing.”
The three teenage boys were convicted of killing three children in 1993 for what prosecutors claimed was a “Satanic ritual”, and used Echols’ interest in the occult and Wicca to help convince a jury, with no physical evidence and a coerced confession from the mentally challenged Misskelley, that they were to blame. Jessie Misskelley’s former defense attorney Dan Stidham, in an interview with John Morehead, paints a picture of the Satanic hysteria that surrounded the trial.
“…you really have to put this case into historical perspective. In 1993, the Satanic Bandwagon Folks like Dr. Griffis were mainstream and largely supported by both the media and established religion. We now know better, just like we now know that there are such things as “coerced confessions.” In 1993, virtually everybody believed that the phenomena of Satanic Ritualistic Homicide was very real, and perhaps even more regrettably, that no one, not even a mentally handicapped person, or a child, would confess to a crime that they did not commit. Thankfully, due in large part to pioneers with real credentials like Dr. Gisli Gudjohnson, Dr. Richard Ofshe, and Dr. Richard Leo, we now understand the dynamics of false confessions. By the way, not many people remember that Dr. Ofshe won a Pulitzer Prize for his work studying religious “cults.” He had a dual expertise.”
Over the years activists trying to prove the WM3’s innocence have gained high-profile support from Hollywood stars like Johnny Depp, and several books and documentaries have been produced about the case.
This new hearing may be the best chance for the WM3 to receive justice, and finally put an end to the shameful moral panic that jailed dozens of innocent people, sometimes for decades. By allowing this miscarriage of justice to continue we empower the subculture of “SRA” true-believers, give work to “occult expert” scam artists, and validate unrepentant politicians, social workers, and law enforcement personnel, who took part in convicting innocent men and women. As for Echols, who spends his days in solitary confinement “reading, meditating and practicing Reiki,” he just wants to experience the simple pleasures we take for granted.
“I miss the things that most people take for granted, things people don’t want, like rain … to go out and touch it and get wet, or to feel snow. I loved snow my entire life, and I haven’t had that in almost 20 years now.”
We’ll be keeping track of this case as the new trials start.