Rant of the Week

Damien Echols


Unless his appeal to the Supreme Court succeeds, Damien Echols is going to die some time in the next year or two.  He was charged  with the murder of three little boys in the town of West Memphis, Arkansas.  After a trial in which no conclusive physical evidence was presented, he was convicted and sentenced to death by lethal injection. 

I think most people, even if they occasionally become aware of some negligence or corruption involving the police, generally believe that justice gets done and that bad guys get caught and life goes on.  Give a thought, if you will, to Damien Echols, and to Guy Paul Morin, and David Milgaard, and Donald Marshall.

The most disturbing thing about the Guy Paul Morin case to me was not that the police made a mistake. (If you believe the police themselves, 99% of the time they are faultless.) It is the fact that the methodology used in handling the evidence was designed not to investigate the crime and identify a suspect, but to make a case against a suspect they had already decided was guilty. And they decided he was guilty because, well, he was a little weird. He was single and lived with his parents. He liked to play the recorder. And with the public very upset about the rape and murder of little Christine Jessop, there was a lot of pressure on the police to make good their mandate as protectors of the weak.   Maybe they really believed Morin did it.  Maybe they were happy to have a reasonably believable case.  Maybe they were just plain incompetent.  The bottom line is, the evidence against Morin was never very good but the police and the crown attorneys decided to pursue the case against him anyway.  

If you look closely at the Donald Marshall and David Milgaard cases as well, the similarities are striking: shady informants, suppressed evidence, and intimidated or bribed witnesses. In each case, the police decided first who the suspect was. Then they seemed to see their task as that of playing a game, moving the correct pieces along a board until they had achieved the desired result, a conviction, without any regard for the truth. Along the way, they consciously discarded any evidence which might have implicated other suspects.

The pattern is repeated in the Damien Echols case in Arkansas, except the circumstances are far more egregious than they were in any of the three recent Canadian wrongful convictions.

On May 6, 1993, the bodies of three eight-year-old boys (Steven Branch, Christopher Byers, and Michael Moore) were found in a creek in Robin Hood Hills near West Memphis, Arkansas. The police investigated of course, but couldn't identify a suspect. In fact, it appears likely that they let the man slip right through their fingers, when an officer was called to a local restaurant after a man covered in dirt and blood entered the woman's washroom. The officer refused to go in and the man left. Blood samples taken the next day were conveniently misplaced by the time the trial rolled around.

With no other likely suspects at hand, the police turned the focus of the investigation onto Damien Echols, a local teenager who was known to be "different", by local fundamentalist Christian standards. Damien wore his hair long, dressed in black, listened to heavy metal bands like Metallica, and talked weird. The cops were familiar with him and didn't like him. And some of the cops, fresh from a workshop led by a hopelessly inadequately trained "psychologist" on satanic cults, became convinced that Damien was their man.

I won't go into all the details of the pathetically incompetent investigation, the politics, the leaks to the press, the intimidation, the bloodlust of the citizens. The details are available on the Internet at www.gothamcity.com/paradiselost.

Better yet, there is a riveting documentary on the case called Paradise Lost. Suffice it to say that the police had their suspect…. but no evidence.  This might prove to be an obstacle to the average citizen, but the West Memphis Police were nothing if not resourceful.  They pressed forward with the case anyway.  Jurors aren't necessarily bright, and the defence lawyers in town are even dumber than we are.   What if we just make the guy look like some kind of weirdo Satan worshipper?   Then we won't need any evidence:

The judge took one look at the prosecution's hopelessly inadequate "case" and tossed it out right? In America, you can't convict someone of a crime without proof, right? Yeah, right. Maybe in a Disney film. The police tried to pressure Damien into a confession, but he was too smart for them. Well, how about Jessie Misskelley, a boy distantly acquainted with Damien, and very susceptible because, after all, he had the mental age of a five-year-old. It only took eight hours of relentless intimidation to get Jessie to sign away all his rights and make a "confession". Never mind that the confession was incorrect about all the important details of the crime, and never mind that, as a developmentally delayed youth, his constitutional rights were ignored. The confession implicated Damien and Jason Baldwin and the two were arrested. And once Jessie realized that he was not going to be freed in exchange for his "help", as promised, he immediately recanted his confession and denied any involvement. And never mind that he was placed by witnesses 30 miles away from the crime scene at the time the murders were committed… well, you get the idea.

The odd thing is that the dubious confession wasn't even admitted into evidence at the trial of Damien and Jason. And without the confession, there was virtually no evidence at all. No motive. No weapon. The police couldn't even demonstrate that they knew where the crime had taken place. The prosecution merely characterized Damien as a member of a Satanic cult (he was actually interested in Wiccan, not Satanism) and let slip that Jessie Misskelley had confessed and been convicted for the crime as Damien's accessory… and the jury, which surely barely exceeded Jessie's capacity for reasoning, convicted him. Even more preposterously, Jason Baldwin was convicted, apparently for the simple reason that he was a friend of Damien's.

Damien was sentenced to death by lethal injection, Jason to life imprisonment. It is only through the good fortune of having HBO present with their cameras that their predicament got any attention at all. Even so, the appeal to the Arkansas Supreme Court (howdy y'all) failed, and Echols' only hope right now is an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, loaded with all those tough-on-crime justices that Reagan and Bush have been appointing for the past fifteen years.

It is hard to have any faith in humanity after becoming acquainted with all the facts of this case. But, hey, let me really add to your cynicism:

The families of the victims did not fare much better.

These are the normal, law-abiding citizens the police in West Memphis sought to protect from the deadly and dangerous Damien Echols?

From the documentary, Echols, who dominates the second half, comes off as the most intelligent and articulate persons in West Memphis, which, I guess, does make him "different". But he was foolish enough to be cryptic, though honest with the police and in court when he would have been wiser to be silent. His attorneys did not adopt a wise strategy and it is only in comparison to them that the prosecution's efforts resembled a "strategy" at all.

It is hard not to despair for humanity. First there is the atrocity of the murders, and the fact that the perpetrator is still free. Then there is the graceless lust of the victim's families for revenge. Then there is the gross incompetence and negligence of the police. The hack of a judge. The phony "expert" on Satanic cults. The gullibility of the jury. The facetiousness of the Arkansas Supreme Court. The disgusting political machinations of senior politicians who fear that a concern for justice will be misinterpreted as softness on crime. The subsequent disasters in the lives of the victims.

A sensitive person could be forgiven for wanting to opt out of the human race. Let me confess that when I was younger, especially when I was in college, I thought there was a certain worldly-wise cache to this kind of cynicism. Secretly, we assumed that we would be proven wrong, that the world could be better, and that we would be admired for being aloof from it all. Well, I'm over 40 now, and the glamour of it has worn very thin indeed. Nowadays, it's just depressing.


All Contents Copyright Bill Van Dyk
 1997 All Rights Reserved