Monday, August 06, 2007

Christian-Pagan Intolerance, and the West Memphis Three

In posts on this blog, as well as TheoFantastique, I have commented on my ongoing research project related to Western esotericism and Neo-Paganism, and how film and television in horror and fantasy help shape popular conceptions of these spiritual pathways. One of the issues that I am passionate about that relates to this is that of intolerance. I note that it takes place in the Christian community in relation to Pagans and other esotericists, but it also takes place on the other side of the coin as directed at Christians and Christianity. In my recent reading of the Pagan site Witchvox, I was therefore pleased to read the article "Anti-Christian Prejudice in the Pagan Community" by Pax. At least if we recognize that it exists in both communities, and we talk about it publicly, perhaps some of us can begin to deal with these issues. I know that I try to do my part with my dialogue with Pagans, and in my participation in the list for the Alternative Religions Educational Network, where the motto is "Freedom for religion means all religions."

Beyond this, my research project also made me aware of an interesting case that I am surprised I had not been aware of until just last week. I refer to the infamous West Memphis Three. As the website describes the case:

Shortly after three eight-year-old boys were found mutilated and murdered in West Memphis, Arkansas, local newspapers stated the killers had been caught. The police assured the public that the three teenagers in custody were definitely responsible for these horrible crimes. Evidence?

The same police officers coerced an error-filled "confession" from Jessie Misskelley Jr., who is mentally handicapped. They subjected him to 12 hours of questioning without counsel or parental consent, audio-taping only two fragments totaling 46 minutes. Jessie recanted it that evening, but it was too late— Misskelley, Jason Baldwin and Damien Echols were all arrested on June 3, 1993, and convicted of murder in early 1994.

Although there was no physical evidence, murder weapon, motive, or connection to the victims, the prosecution pathetically resorted to presenting black hair and clothing, heavy metal t-shirts, and Stephen King novels as proof that the boys were sacrificed in a satanic cult ritual. Unfathomably, Echols was sentenced to death, Baldwin received life without parole, and Misskelley got life plus 40.

For ever 14 years, The West Memphis Three have been imprisoned for crimes they didn’t commit. Echols waits in solitary confinement for the lethal injection our tax dollars will pay for. They were all condemned by their poverty, incompetent defense, satanic panic and a rush to judgment.

I have done enough reading on the satanic panics of the 1980s and 1990s, and the various historic witch-hunts to know that this case may be a tragic legacy of these strange socio-cultural phenomena. In addition to these considerations, "according to the DNA Status Report filed on July 17, 'none of the genetic material recovered at the scene of the crimes was attributable to Mr. Echols, Echols co-defendant, Jason Baldwin, or defendant Jessie Misskelley.'" For further information on this case see the WM3 website, and pick up copies of the documentary on the case on DVD titled Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, as well as the book Devil's Knot: The True Story of the West Memphis Three.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to recognize that something is very wrong with this case, and this may indeed be an instance of gross misjustice that Christians should be involved in just as much as Pagans. Perhaps we can work together to overcome our intolerance toward each other, and to right a social and judicial injustice.


Steve Hayes said...

My wife spends a lot of time watching the Crime and Investigation Channel on TV, and, like passive smoking, I absorb quite a bit of it. One of the thing that comes across in many of these historical reconstructions is the number of time the police, under public and media pressure to solve a case, manipulatte the evidence to fit the suspect rather than looking for s suspect who fits the evidence, and so ignoring or downplaying evidence that doesn't fit the suspect.

Lainie Petersen said...


I am SO happy to see you bring attention to this case. I learned about it a few years ago, and felt that something wasn't "quite right" about the investigation/prosecution/conviction(s). I think that it would be great for Christians to get involved in investigating this case and, possibly, reverse what may have been a terrible wrong.

Let me know if you have any ideas.

John W. Morehead said...

Lainie, in terms of what we might do as Christians, I think making the case known on our blogs and other public forums is a first step. Then we can connect with this the idea that Christians should be involved in this case since, unfortunately, Christian anti-statanism and anti-occult perspectives helped fuel this fire. finally, we can visit the website for more specific steps of action and involvement.