Thursday, August 16, 2007

West Memphis Three, Satanic Panic, and a Call for Christian Involvement in Social Justice

I've commented in a previous post on my discovery not long ago of a shocking murder case in Arkansas in 1993 that involved three teens convicted for the murder of three eight-year-old boys. The condemned are called the West Memphis Three, and the story of their trial and conviction is just as disturbing as the murder of the young boys.

An overview of the case are summarized by the WM3 website:

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 over 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 read through a number of the materials coming out of the trials, watched the Emmy award winning documentary Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills on the trial, and recently ordered Paradise Lost 2: Revelations for a consideration of the various developments in the case since the 1994 trials and convictions, many of which are detailed here. (Additional information is available in the books on the subject, including Mara Leveritt, Devil's Knot: The True Story of the West Memphis Three, and Guy Reel, Marc Perrusquia, and Bartholomew Sullivan, The Blood of the Innocents.) As I have reviewed this case several things amaze me. First, the crime scene was bungled by law enforcement, and this was evident in the lack of forensic evidence, let alone any that tied the accused to the crimes.

Second, the suspects only came to the attention of authorities after one of them offered a confession and identified the other two as alleged perpetrators. But there are problems with the confession. It was recanted, only 45 minutes of a 12 hour police interrogation was recorded leading to questions about leading the witness, and the defendant has an IQ that puts him in the category of the mentally retarded. This hardly seems like an ideal starting place for identifying suspects, let alone securing convictions.

But third, and even more amazing is that soon after the bodies of the boys were discovered rumors began to circulate that the killings were the result of a "satanic cult" in the area. (Shades of the Laci Peterson case where the media circulated stories about the kidnap and murder resulting from satanic cults in Modesto, California.) While good scholarly research (and at least one FBI report debunking satanic and occult ritualistic crime) points out that such conceptions of satanic cults cannot be substantiated and the evidence for them is wholly absent, this became a major facet of the prosecution's case, so much so that they brought in an "expert" in the area to testify. However, under cross-examination he that he did no coursework for either his masters or doctorate, and had taken no classes in esotericism, the occult, or Wicca in order to receive his "degrees."

With this lack of evidence and a credible foundation directed at the accused, why did the case move forward and why were the three considered part of a violent, sexually deviant satanic cult? Because of stereotypes confirmed by the way these kids looked, and the non-traditional interests (at least in that part of the country) they displayed. At least one of the defedants enjoyed heavy metal music in the form of Metallica, wears black, has read occultist Aleister Crowley, and identified during the trial with Wicca. Interestingly, in his closing arguments, the prosecuting attorney said that while these items individually are not a problem, put them together and allegedly they reveal something sinister, no doubt confirming the suspicions and fears of the Christian townspeople, and feeding into long-standing sociophobics about the evil religious other as part of our unfortunate history of not only satanic panics, but also with-hunts.

I also find it interesting (and startling) that while artists, musicians, and the Neo-Pagan and esotericist communities have gotten involved in raising awareness of this case in the hopes of righting an injustice, I could not find any Christian voice on the matter through an Internet search. Perhaps my search did not find something that is indeed out there. Or perhaps because evangelicals tend to circulate in their own subculture, coupled with the fact that this case has not received major national news coverage, few Christians are aware of or concerned about this case. Are we not concerned out of a lack of awareness, or because we lack a concern for social justice directed toward alleged representatives of those groups that represent our spiritual and cultural bogeymen?

While my blog has a limited readership I'd like to hope this post can rectify the Christian silence on this issue. We are fond of quoting the ten commandments but at times it seems as if we forget the one about not bearing false witness against our neighbor, particularly when it comes to our Neo-Pagan neighbors. This case is a classic example of stereotypical and folkloric tales of satanic cults that do not represent reality. Where is the Christian voice on this issue of social justice? There is much that we can do to help, and I hope that my Christian readers will promote this issue on their blogs so that we too can make a difference.


Phil said...

Speaking of satanic heavy metal music, Zao's "Free the Three" from the album "Parade of Chaos" was my first exposure to this terrible injustice. It is a very powerful track.

I have not searched extensively, but in my perusing this is the only 'Christian' support I've stumbled upon for the WMT.

Lainie Petersen said...

This information is now up on my blogs, John, and I hope it will do so good. I also put the information up on my Cornerstone Survival Guide website at . Thank you for this pointed call to action.

John W. Morehead said...

Thanks for joining in the effort, Lanie!

Anonymous said...

I linked over from the the "wild hunt blog" ( a Pagan blog) and was thrilled to see you take up the cause of exposing this injustice.

John W. Morehead said...

Thanks for your "thanks." I think it's only right that those interested in social justice issues as well as religious freedom, including Christians, should promote such issues publicly. I hope our communities can work together on this and other issues of common interest.

Peg said...

We covered this on starting in 1996, already three years after the murders. Back then, there were even some pagans and Wiccans who did not want to be associated with Damien's brand of Wicca. But it's obvious to anyone who looks into the matter theat these three young men were railroaded.

The wheels of justice turn slowly. Thanks for bringing this tragic and urgent matter of injustice to the attention of your readers.

Jarred said...

I hope that more Christians look into this and speak up as a result of your call here. Thank you for living your principles like this.