Archives For Arkansas

As speculated this morning, the West Memphis 3 have been released from prison in an Alford plea that allows them to be released maintaining their innocence, while still being considered guilty by the state of Arkansas.

Damien Echols talking to the press. Photo by Heather Crawford at KATV.

Here’s an official statement from Damien Echols on his release:

“To all my friends and family, my attorneys and advocates, and to those of you from every corner of this earth who have stood beside us these long years, please know that I will forever be indebted to all of you for helping me to become a free man. Each and every day I was the beneficiary of acts of kindness and humanity from people of all walks of life, of all ages, nationalities, religions and political persuasions. The enormity of the support Lorri and I received throughout this struggle is humbling.

I have now spent half my life on death row. It is a torturous environment that no human being should have to endure, and it needed to end. I am innocent, as are Jason and Jessie, but I made this decision because I did not want to spend another day of my life behind those bars. I want to live and to continue to fight for our innocence. Sometimes justice is neither pretty nor is it perfect, but it was important to take this opportunity to be free.

I am not alone as there are tens of thousand of men and woman in this country who have been wrongfully convicted, forced into a false confession, sentenced to death or a lifetime in prison. I am hopeful that one day they too will be able stand with their friends and family to declare their innocence.

This whole experience has taught me much about life, human nature, American justice, survival and transcendence.

I will hopefully take those lessons with me as I embark on the next chapter in my journey and along the way look forward to enjoying some of those simple things in life like spending Christmastime, Halloween and my birthday with those I love.”

Pagan journalist, media critic, and academic Peg Aloi, who has been covering this story for years, released a statement to me on hearing the news.

“Like many Pagans, I’ve been following this case since 1996, when the first documentary film came out. It’s impossible to overstate how important PARADISE LOST was in raising awareness about this case, or how controversial it was. Many viewers were convinced after viewing it that the West Memphis Three were innocent and had been railroaded; but many other viewers thought justice had been done. Certainly that is the sign of an effective documentary film that allows viewers to take in the events and make their own decisions; anyone who has yearned for justice in this case can’t help but be grateful to Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky for their part in documenting this case. It’s hard for me to believe these men have been freed. I hope whatever surreal feelings that Damien, Jason and Jessie and their loved ones are having now will very quickly give way to celebrating their hard-won freedom.”

Despite the drawbacks of the deal, this is a historic moment, one that helps put an end to a dark period in America. There will most likely be a glut of media and attention on this deal soon, and I will try to bring you the most relevant coverage in the days and weeks ahead, but for now I am glad the WM3 have been freed. For some of my past coverage on this case, click here.

Top Story: The Awl investigates allegations that millions of dollars in United States government funding to Christian NGOs, specifically Samaritan’s Purse, is being used to directly fund aggressive and shameful missions to “evangelize to and convert the trapped, weak and suffering.”

“…our research into the hush-hush tag team efforts of the Billy Graham Evangelical Association and Samaritan’s Purse found millions of USAID dollars going to Samaritan’s Purse aid stations in Haiti. Their mission: a coordinated effort by BGEA chaplains to evangelize to and convert the trapped, weak and suffering.”

Reporter Abe Sauer notes that Franklin Graham (president of Samaritan’s Purse), son of Christian evangelist Billy Graham, is especially fixated and obsessed with eliminating Vodou in Haiti.

“…in the case of Samaritan’s Purse, whose Haiti work is being heavily funded by the taxpayer-funded USAID, it could be to “take back their country from voodoo, despair, and sin,” one of the charity’s stated goals for the “Festival of Hope.” As Graham said of Haiti in his address at the Festival, “…the biggest need is the spiritual need.” (Graham and his crew are especially obsessed with the elimination of voodoo, as it comes up again and again in Purse literature. A recent personal update on work in Haiti from Franklin Graham himself reads, “Through our partnership, the three original churches have been able to establish 28 more—including one in a village that was infamous for voodoo….”) Video of the heavily promoted fundraising event has been erased from the Samaritan’s Purse website as a result of our questions to USAID.”

They note that Samaritan’s Purse, working hand-in-hand with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA), is able to benefit from government funds by skirting along on paper-thin technicalities, confirmed by USAID officials, but who seem to lack the political will to do anything about it. This is a stark confirmation of several isolated reports and allegations regarding the activity of missionaries in Haiti. It’s bad enough that some Christian groups are taking advantage of the chaos in Haiti in order to win souls, but now it seems we’re paying for it as well.

No Pagan Drivers for Lowery: Former Democratic state Representative John Lowery is being taken to court by Eugene Keeler after he was allegedly fired from Premier Well Services (owned by Lowery) for being a Pagan only hours after being hired. Keeler has the backing of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and is being heard by a judge who’s dealt with Lowery before.

The EEOC case has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright, which could be interesting. When Wright ruled that a winter solstice display could be put up on the state capitol grounds — along with the traditional nativity scene — Lowery led the Arkansas Legislative Council denouncement of her decision, saying, “When this is allowed to happen in high places by people in authority societies become chaotic, economies collapse and nations are taken over by other nations.”

The Arkansas Democrat Gazette interviewed Selena Fox of Lady Liberty League about the case, though the article is behind a paywall if you want to read it. It should be interesting to see what happens in this case, hopefully it will be reported more widely, and more accessibly, than it has so far.

Do Religious Symbols Count Even If You’re a Racist? The Jewish Chronicle notes that a jailed racist, convicted of inciting racial hatred in the UK, had his Thor’s hammer pendant confiscated because it had “fascist meaning and neo-Nazi overtones.” After a complaint, it seems that Michael Heaton, an Odinist, had the pendant returned. The piece closes with a quote from a CST (Community Security Trust) spokesperson that seems to imply that, in their opinion, Odinism doesn’t meet the “relevant criteria” for equal treatment as a religion.

A CST spokesman said: “Norse and Odinist symbolism features extensively in Nazi and Pagan circles. Legislation on religious rights can make questions such as this a complex matter. But you might well question if this kind of symbolism should meet the relevant criteria.”

While I personally believe that Heaton is a vile, foul, sad, criminal, his odious beliefs don’t wipe away his rights under the law. To call into question whether genuine religious symbols appropriated by racists are still valid is to glide down a slippery slope that would eventually ban all religious symbols. Also, for an organization like the CST, who are watchdogs against antisemitism, to conflate Nazism and Paganism in such a casual way is troubling, to say the least.

The Boundaries of Civil Religion: Former Wild Hunt guest contributor Lee Gilmore, author of “Theater in a Crowded Fire: Ritual and Spirituality at Burning Man”, writes an essay for the USC blog The Scoop about the recent memorial for the victims of the Tucson shooting, and reactions (or non-reaction in some cases) sparked by the opening invocation of Dr. Carlos Gonzales.

The media response–or rather the general lack thereof–was telling. Those motivated to comment publicly on the blessing were mainly conservatives troubled by its implications. For example, Brit Hume of Fox News was baffled, saying, “By the time it was over with, he had blessed the reptiles of the sea, and he had prayed to the four doors of the building, and while I’m sure that all has an honorable tradition with his people, it was most peculiar.”  TheWashington Examiner went much further and called it a “a stark statement of  pantheistic paganism” and “a blatant violation of church and state.”

Glossing over the apparent hypocrisy–the biblical references in Obama’s eulogy did not seem to touch off a similar nerve–perhaps Gonzales’ invocation can be read as a vague nod to a loose, politically correct “spirituality” appealing to the so-called “liberal elite.” Yet the left wing of the blogosphere also had little to say about Gonzales’ invocation. (There was some insightful discussion from this vantage point taking place on a popular and intelligent Pagan blog called the Wildhunt.)

Gilmore notes that many American aren’t used to being taken outside “a generic and lightweight form of ceremonial deism,” as was done by Gonzales’ Native blessing. A transgression that may have sparked the absurd over-reaction is some quarters. She also touches on the “othering” of religious minorities in the United States, such as was done in this case, and that mainstream journalism has done a poor job in enlightening the public to their worldviews. The whole essay is worth a read, and you should check it out.

Seeing the Future in Russia: The AFP reports on the popularity of doing fortune telling in Russia between Christmas and Epiphany, and why that tradition endures to this day.

Psychologist Svetlana Fyodorova puts the faith in fortune-telling down to Russians’ close links to their pagan past. ”Russians love fortune-telling because it frees their subconscious,” she told AFP. ”As compared to Europe, in Russia Christianity is young and the traces of a pagan traditions can still be felt here,” she said.

Something that no doubt worries the Russian Orthodox Church, who are increasingly testing the waters of social control now that they are ascendant once more. With signs of a crack-down against religious minorities intensifying, those who look for signs in the wax, or throw shoes out the window, should be careful.

That’s all I have for now, have a great day!

Did talk of a mother’s (alleged) adherence to Wicca cause her to lose custody of her child? That is the allegation of Andrea Hicks, who said that Chicot County Circuit Judge Robert Vittitow improperly considered her religious views in his ruling.

“In her appeal of Chicot County Circuit Judge Robert Vittitow’s decision, the mother noted Vittitow described Wicca in his opinion letter as ‘a religion, movement, cult or whatever it that may be.’ The judge also wrote that while the mother testified she was only joking when she told the boy’s father that she was involved with Wicca, the ‘court believes she is much more involved than she would lead us to believe.’”

Hicks’ first appeal was denied, even though the two dissenting judges believed that the ruling ‘impermissibly considered’ her faith. You can read the opinions of the judges on the appeal court, here (Andrea Hicks v. Joshua A. Cook). Now, somewhat unsurprisingly, a motion to rehear the appeal has been denied with the same justices dissenting.

“In a dissenting opinion Wednesday, Hart said Circuit Judge Robert Vittitow interrogated the mother about the practice of Wicca and made an explicit finding that she was practicing Wicca in his written order. Even if the mother did practice Wicca, “there is absolutely no evidence that practicing Wicca was in an way harmful to the child,” Hart wrote. Hart also accused the child’s father of making “vile and slanderous” statements in his response to the petition for rehearing…”

It is becoming blatantly obvious that a miscarriage of justice is happening here. Why don’t a majority of the Appeals Court judges see it too? The Arkansas Blog has a possible theory.

“Judges Robert Gladwin, David Glover, Wendell Griffen and Pryce Marshall formed the all-male majority in favor of the mother losing custody. Judges Jo Hart and Sarah Heffley formed the all-female dissent.”

So a guy accuses his wife of being a witch in court to a male judge and wins custody, and when the decision is appealed, it, and a subsequent petition for a rehearing, are voted down across gender lines? I’m no patriarchy conspiracy theorist or anything, but this stinks to high heaven. Judge Jo Hart obviously thinks so too.

“As the appellant points out, this court committed a clear error by ignoring the obvious fact that the trial judge based his change-of-custody decision in large part on his finding that the appellant was a participant in some nefarious “cult.”

…As I stated in my dissent, even if it were proven that the appellant was a practicing Wiccan, that conclusion can have no bearing on the decision to change custody. The majority makes a clear mistake of fact because there is absolutely no evidence that practicing Wicca was in any way harmful to the child or even that there were any practices conducted in the child’s presence. Accordingly, this cannot be a reason for changing custody.

… Finally, I am compelled to mention that the appellee’s intemperate response to the appellant’s rehearing petition was not only inappropriate but was vile and slanderous. He argues, among other things, that the majority was correct to allow the trial court to make a custody decision based on his perception of the appellant’s religious beliefs because not all religions are worthy of constitutional protection. He denigrates Mormons, asserting that “Mormons practice incest and child marriages,” and proclaims that “Wicca is a cult, not a religious belief.” He admonishes that “this court is committing a grievous error if it allows cult activities to be protected” and that the “trial judge appropriately ruled in this case after carefully considering the facts.” In light of the appellee’s further illumination of this issue, I simply cannot say that the trial court’s decision was “appropriate.” I lament that this court has accepted the appellee’s invitation to embark on a grand inquisition.”

This case needs some national attention, and some serious legal muscle, immediately. If this is allowed to stand, you better not be a Pagan thinking of getting a divorce in Arkansas any time soon.