257,000 Jurors are Unanimous: Not Guilty
Part 1: The Trial of the West Memphis 3
The opposition to the death penalty is based on two deeply held convictions: first, that the government has no right to kill a person, not even the most depraved person, and not even for the most heinous crimes. The second is that almost everyone on death row is innocent.
The latter belief is puzzling as opponents of capital punishment, for the most part, support the American jury system. Yet, they easily discount the fact that each and everyone living on death row has been judged by a jury of their peers to be guilty "beyond a reasonable doubt." In fact, the verdict has to be unanimous or, else, the trial judge has to declare a mistrial.
Curiously, the distaste for the death penalty compels its opponents to believe that the jury must have erred, the prosecution must have withheld exculpatory evidence, the police must have coerced the confession, or that the defense must have been utterly incompetent. If all this isn't enough to cast a shadow of a doubt, activists will tell you that the convicted is a victim of the prejudices of the jury, the justice system, or of the society at large.
©WMPD: Damien Wayne Echols
Just such a case is currently winding its way through the Arkansas state courts, the trial of the "West Memphis Three." Besides, of course, National Public Radio, the case has attracted the attention of cable TV, the large television networks, and much of the Nation's print media. But the greatest prominence that this case enjoys is on the internet.
A search on Yahoo for the "West Memphis 3" produces 257,000 hits, 99.9% of them utterly convinced that the "WM3" are innocent of the charges. Most pages mindlessly reproduce material from the premiere site for the cause, wm3.org. The well-made site, created by three media professionals, an art director, photographer, and a screenwriter, receives much of its support from people in the entertainment industry, actors, directors, producers, and, last but not least, the heavy metal band Metallica.
The craze was started by the Emmy Award-winning HBO documentary "Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills," produced by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky. Pretending to have come to West Memphis to witness the trial of one of the most heinous crimes ever committed in Arkansas, the 1993 murders of three 8-year old boys in a small wooded area, the Robin Hood Hills, the film makers quickly get into action. Early on, they identify John Mark Byers, stepfather of one of the victims, as the real killer and position him in front of the camera so that a star from his son's grave casts an ominous shadow over his forehead. The two also arrange for one of the most macabre scenes in the documentary in which Byers and the father of one of the other victims shoot up pumpkins bearing the names of the accused.
Smitten by the attention paid to him by the film makers, the not-so-bright Byers presents them with a small gift: his old hunting knife. Triumphantly, Berlinger and Sinofsky turn the knife over to the West Memphis Police Department after noticing a blood stain on the hinge. Sadly for the defense, the stain matches Byers' own blood and the shape of the knife edge is inconsistent with the pattern of cuts found on the victims.
The documentary follows a simple script: If you wear a black shirt, paint your fingernails black, and listen to Metallica music, you're liable to be found guilty of just about any crime in a community of trailer park hickeys. A witness for the prosecution who testifies that aspects of the crime and items found among Echols belongings point to the involvement of a satanic cult, is dismissed as a "cult cop" who received his doctorate from a mail-order university.
Jessie Lloyd Misskelley is tried separately as his taped confession implicates the other two defendants. His counsel tries valiantly to question the validity of the confession, but fails to convince the jury. Misskelley is found guilty of taking part in the murders and sentenced to life plus 40 years.
The trial of the other two defendants, Charles Jason Baldwin and Damien Wayne Echols, takes place in nearby Jonesboro. The proceedings drag on, with the prosecution slowly building a rather circumstantial case against Echols. The pace quickens when Echols, leader of the WM3 and center of the media attraction, takes the stand. In an attempt to deny any connection with satanic cults, Echols testifies that he changed his name to Damien in honor of Father Damien, a Catholic priest who ministered to lepers in Hawaii (Damien is Satan's son in the 1976 horror movie classic "The Omen"). He also professes an interest in Wicca, an obscure pagan religion that worships the natural world.
Master of Magick: Aleister Crowley
Echols contends that he hardly knows Aleister Crowley, considered by many as the father of Satanic pop culture ("Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law"). During cross-examination, Echols is forced to admit that Crowley is one of only three names, besides his own, that he wrote down on a piece of paper, using a secret alphabet; the others are his codefendant and best friend, Jason Baldwin, and his newborn son.
From this moment on, the outcome seems inevitable: the jury finds both defendants guilty of the three murders. Baldwin is sentenced to life without parole, Echols is given the death penalty.