Tuesday, October 09, 2007

West Memphis Three: Interview with Defense Attorney Dan Stidham

In previous posts I have mentioned the case of the West Memphis Three, the three teens (now adults) who were convicted in 1994 for the murder of three eight-year-old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas as an alleged ritual murder perpetrated by members of a satanic cult. Despite the sensationalism surrounding the trial, and that two documentaries and several books have been written as a result of this case, it has received little national mainstream media coverage, and next to none in the Christian community. Dan Stidham was the defense attorney for one of the accused, Jessie Misskelley, and he graciously agreed to answer a few questions related to this fascinating and troubling case.

Morehead's Musings: Judge Stidham, thank you for making time in a busy legal schedule to share a few thoughts related to this case. For readers who may not be familiar with it, can you summarize the case for them beyond what I've mentioned in my introduction?

Dan Stidham: John, it would be an almost impossible task to try and briefly summarize a case that is so complicated and fascinating as this one. When I am invited to speak about the case on college campuses, my basic presentation generally lasts anywhere from 4-6 hours. I usually will turn down any requests for a speaking engagement that won’t allow me at least 4 hours as my powerpoint presentation alone takes at least 4 hours divided into two segments, this just to get through most of the slides and answer a few questions.

The only “one-stop,” if you will, reliable and accurate account of the entire case is Mara Leveritt’s brilliantly written book, Devil’s Knot, and it certainly is not a short read. Once you pick it up, however, you can’t put it down.

The only way I can describe the case in just a few short words is to say that the WM3 case has become an icon for “Injustice in America.” It is a chilling account of just about everything that can go wrong within our criminal justice system if we don’t have the proper safeguards in place.

Morehead's Musings: For those interested in learning more about the case I recommend two HBO documentaries, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills and Paradise Lost 2: Revelations, as well as the book that you have already mentioned by Mara Leveritt, Devil's Knot: The True Story of the West The West Memphis Three (Atria Books, 2002). But there are a a few aspects of this case that I would like to focus on in our interview if we could. First, I am struck by the lack of any significant emphasis on forensics in either the investigation or the trial, and this in a case of triple murder that should have been filled with forensic evidence. Why was this evidence lacking, and why didn't either the Prosecution or the Defense pursue this area in more depth?

Dan Stidham: John, that is an outstanding question. The lack of any physical evidence in this case, a fact that has always been quite candidly admitted to by the Prosecution, is utterly amazing. The convictions are based entirely upon the ridiculous and confusing confession of a mentally challenged teenager with an I.Q. of a five year old child which was corroborated by no real physical evidence in the case at all. The confession itself is just so plainly and patently lacking of any real substance every person that I have ever talked to who actually bothers to read it in it’s entirety is left scratching their heads wondering how this alone could result in anyone’s conviction in our modern day criminal justice system.

I was asked to prepared a synopsis of the evidence in this case after the trials, and it was later updated after I was finally able to consult with some forensics experts on the case post trial after the airing of the initial HBO film. This synopsis appears on the wm3.org website and the link to that page is:

http://wm3.org/live/caseintroduction/synopsis_dan.php

Justice is supposed to be “blind,” but the reality of the situation in Arkansas in 1993 was that is was not. There was no State funded Public Defender system yet in place at the time of the slayings and no Death Penalty Resource Center or Capital Defense system in place at the time of the trials in 1994. In fact, the County and the State fought a rather protracted legal battle over who would be responsible for the legal costs associated with the trials. The County prevailed, and two years later my law partner and I, Greg Crow, finally received $19.00 per hour for the 2000 plus hours that we had expended on the case in defending our client. We had been told that we would receive an average of $50.00 per hour for our work on the case. In addition, we had no money whatsoever other than what Mr. Crow and I could pay out of our own pockets to retain experts which resulted in my having to beg experts to assist us. Two of the best, Dr. Richard Ofshe and Warren Holmes, answered the call for help because they were so convinced after reviewing the case file that my client, and the other two Defendants, were absolutely innocent of these crimes. Ironically, it took two HBO documentaries on the case before other “Freedom Fighters” started showing up to help. I find it less than amusing that some of the same “experts” who refused to even talk to me back in 1993, because I didn’t have $15,000 to retain them, have now rushed to volunteer to work on the case. What a difference a few movies makes!

The State of Arkansas, obviously understanding the shortcomings of the Arkansas Crime Lab and the quality of the Medical Examiner’s office, consulted with experts and laboratories from outside the State. We did not have that luxury. They had unlimited funds and legions of investigators. We had one volunteer investigator, and all our experts were volunteers. Simply stated, we had no funds with which to defend our client.

At trial, Misskelley’s confession with all it’s impossibilities and factual inconsistencies, coupled with the “Satanic Panic” and hundreds of autopsy and crime scene photographs of the victims that were paraded in front of the juries prevailed over the tremendous lack of any real physical evidence and all the examples of “reasonable doubt” that we were able to demonstrate including evidence of alibi. The crimes were so brutal that someone “had to pay.” It is clear that the juries wanted to punish someone really bad. They did. The three Defendants were poor and expendable, and Damien Echols was the perfect “patsy” with all of his pre-trial and Courtroom antics with the media, and displayed in front of the jury.

Morehead's Musings: There have been forensic developments in this case since the trials. Can you touch on some of this?

Dan Stidham: There are some astounding recent developments in the case. There are some things that I can’t discuss because of confidentiality, and there are others that I simply don’t know about yet because we are waiting for more test results to come in. I can confirm what has been published in recent Court filings which are public record and other things that have been reported in the media. First, there has been some DNA recovered from some items of evidence in the case that does not match any of the three convicted men. Secondly, a hair recovered from a ligature that was used to tie up one of the victims has been linked by DNA to one of the victim’s stepfathers.

This is significant for a couple of reasons. First, the hair from the stepfather was not found on a victim that was not his own stepson. This is important in and of itself, but even more important when you think about where the hair was recovered from. It was lodged in the knot of the ligature itself, making the inevitable explanation by the State that it was merely a normal stepfather to stepson “secondary transfer” so ridiculous that one wonders if they will even have the courage to argue it. I can’t go into any more detail, but there are other significant forensic and evidentiary discoveries as well that will shed significant light on this case and make it even more obvious than it already is that the WM3 are innocent of these crimes. And speaking of “courage,” that’s all this case really needs. A little “courage” to do the right thing would go along way right now. I pray each day for someone to simply accept the challenge.

Morehead's Musings: Another area that intrigues me is the prosecution's claim that the three teens allegedly perpetrated this crime as part of an occult ritual which they did as members of a cult. This would seem a foundational part of their case, and yet as the first documentary reveals, the prosecution's "expert" on the occult and Wicca did not possess the necessary education or credentials to discuss let alone substantiate the prosecution's claim, and there is a wealth of good scholarly material available that debunks the existence of satanic cults and occult ritual crime. Why weren't competent scholars brought in to counter this foundational aspect of the prosecution's case?

Dan Stidham: First of all, as you point out, there is no such thing as “Satanic Ritualistic Homicide (SRH)” This is a mere invention by the so-called experts of the day back in 1993. According to the FBI and other research done in the U.K., there has never been a single case of SRH ever documented on the planet.

I know what you are thinking, “What about David Berkowitz and other Serial Killers who have proudly professed that they killed in the name of “Satan.” The difference is that these killings were the work of one deranged individual who suffered from some rather serious and profound psychological disorders, not the work of an organized group of Satanists who are sacrificing children, or even adults for that matter, as part of an organized Satanic Ritual. The “Devil” told me to do it, or the “Devil” in the form of the neighbor’s dog as in the Berkowitz case, are not the same thing as SRH.

Are there Satanists in the world? Sure there are. Do teenagers dabble in the occult? Sure they do. However, there is no evidence that any known group of Satanists have ever engaged in cult style ritualistic slayings. If you buy into the Prosecution’s theory, as set forth by the now “famous for lack of credentials,” Dale Griffis, then you would have to be compelled into believing that the West Memphis Case is the first ever case of SRH ever documented any where in the world.

I remember years ago watching Geraldo Rivera devote an entire episode of his show to the topic. He even had a Catholic Priest on the show as an “expert.” They told millions of viewers that there was a large group of Satanists in this Country that were kidnapping thousands of our children and killing them in “Satanic Rituals” all around the Country. There was a time when every missing kid was generally believed to have been the victim of SRH. These Satanists must be real good at hiding the bodies! Maybe they know where Jimmy Hoffa is?

I do know this, the three teenagers convicted of these horrible crimes, one of which who is on Death Row, are not sophisticated enough to pull off the robbery of a Seven-Eleven, much less a triple homicide. If anyone does believe that they were even remotely this capable, then I suppose that they would also have to believe that:

1. The kids were so sophisticated that they were able to kill all three victims, and sexually mutilate one victim which resulted in a tremendous amount of blood loss by that particular victim, while not leaving any of their own DNA behind at the scene; and

2. They were so sophisticated that they also managed to put a hair from one of the step-fathers inside a ligature binding one of the victims so that they could frame him for the crime 15 years later.

Morehead's Musings: Some of the unfortunate chapters in history include the American witch trials and the satanic panics of the 1980s and 1990s. There is a good scholarly body of literature on these topics that might have provided background considerations for the prosecution's argument for motive. Why weren't these considerations brought into the defense case, and in retrospect, do you feel like the socio-cultural context of Arkansas with its fundamentalist Christian population might have produced conditions that led to a contemporary witch hunt with the conviction of the West Memphis Three?

Dan Stidham: In order to answer this question, you really have to put this case into historical perspective. In 1993, the Satanic Bandwagon Folks like Dr. Griffis were mainstream and largely supported by both the media and established religion. We now know better, just like we now know that there are such things as “coerced confessions.” In 1993, virtually everybody believed that the phenomena of Satanic Ritualistic Homicide was very real, and perhaps even more regrettably, that no one, not even a mentally handicapped person, or a child, would confess to a crime that they did not commit. Thankfully, due in large part to pioneers with real credentials like Dr. Gisli Gudjohnson, Dr. Richard Ofshe, and Dr. Richard Leo, we now understand the dynamics of false confessions. By the way, not many people remember that Dr. Ofshe won a Pulitzer Prize for his work studying religious "cults." He had a dual expertise.

The conditions were quite obviously very ripe for this kind of thing to happen in Arkansas in 1993 because it did happen here in Arkansas. But I do not believe for an instant that this type of situation is unique to Arkansas. The atmosphere that allowed this type of phenomena to occur can, and does, happen anywhere and everywhere. Perhaps I am na├»ve, but I think that this type of thing happens more as a result of simple unadulterated intolerance to anyone different than that held by the mainstream in society, rather than due to any particular set of religious mores, or beliefs. It’s a matter of being “different,” outside the mainstream of society, wherever that happens to be. Is Arkansas different than New York City or L.A.? You bet it is. When you are in L.A., you see a thousand “Damien Echols” walking down the street and no one seems to think anything about it, or even care. People wearing Black clothing and listening to Heavy Metal Music are the norm in some places around the Country, but not in Arkansas in 1993.

Intolerance can raise it’s ugly head in many other contexts besides religion, i.e. race, age, gender, sexual preference, etc., etc. We see examples of this throughout history, both ancient and recent. Also, it is worth pointing out that the similarities between this case and what happened during the Salem Witch Trials almost exactly 300 years ago is absolutely stunning.

Remember, the first “Witch Trial” occurred in Salem, Massachusetts, not West Memphis, Arkansas! Will history repeat itself again, I hope it won’t, but unfortuneatley, I bet it will.

Morehead's Musings: As I have researched the witch trials and satanic panics, and then looked at the situation surrounding this case, it seems to me as if Christian sociophobics and the creation of an evil social other played a large role in arrests and outcome of this case. And yet curiously, while various Neo-Pagans, celebrities, musicians, and people from the general population have rallied around this case to raise awareness and raise funds for appeals, I have not been able to track down much if any concern for social injustice from Christians on this issue. Has your experience been different? Might the concerns about an alleged satanic cult involving a Wiccan confirm the worst fears and stereotypes of Christians and this then turns away any consideration of speaking out on this issue?

Dan Stidham: My experience has been quite different from the inside looking out as opposed to only being exposed to the case based on what I saw in the media. I get a lot more letters, emails, phone calls and other outpourings of support from people all over the World that you would identify more as “Christians,” than I do from people whom you would describe as “Pagans, celebrities and musicians.” The difference is, simply put, that the media shows up when “celebrities and musicians” take a stand on social issues. When John Doe Citizen starts a “WM3 Awareness Group” in Russellville, Arkansas; Lincoln, Nebraska; Ft. Meyers, Florida; or Fort Hays, Kansas, the media just doesn’t seem to care. But these are the folks who fight the fight in the trenches every day. Out there organizing fund raisers and raising awareness in their communities about this case.

Having said that, the “celebrities and musicians” who do get the media attention are an integral part of the fight for justice in this case. These are folks who have figured out that they have a unique power to change things in the World, and they are not afraid to step up and fight for what’s right. For this, I admire them greatly. They also have more resources to assist than most other folks. While I have not met them all, many of the “celebrities and musicians” that I have encountered while working on this case have left me in awe of them when I consider the magnitude of their impact and contributions to the case. I am not in awe of them because they are famous, but instead because they are famously compassionate about social justice, and the plights of others less fortunate. The more I got to know them, the more I realized that they don’t fit the stereotypes of “celebrities and musicians” and are really no different than anybody else and are truly wonderful human beings.

Morehead's Musings: Do these three young men have any hope of appeals left?

Dan Stidham: Yes, tremendous hope is still out there. While this fight is far from over, I am more hopeful today than at any other time during the past almost 15 years that I have been working on the case. Thanks to the generosity and hard work of the people I described above, in response to your last question, we have finally put together a team of lawyers, investigators and forensic experts that are second to none. I can tell you without hesitation that they are the best I have ever seen.

Morehead's Musings: How can interested readers get involved in helping with this case?

Dan Stidham: By just remembering that everyone counts and everyone can make a difference. There are support groups all over the World who are dedicated to this fight. The best place to start is the http://www.wm3.org/ website. It is filled with information on how everyone can help. Also, please continue to pray for Justice, not just for the WM3, but for Justice for the victims’ families who deserved so much better than what they got in terms of an investigation and closure for the death of their loved ones. We can also never forget that a killer is still out there, and this killer needs to be brought to justice.

Morehead's Musings: Judge Stidham, once again, I think you for making time for this interview, and thanks as well for being the only attorney from the original trials who has continued to be involved in working for justice for these young men.

Dan Stidham: I sincerely appreciate your kind and generous words and the opportunity to talk about this very unique case. I hope that you will allow me to thank some very special folks who have inspired me to keep moving forward in this case, even in it’s darkest days, and on the days when it seemed no one cared, and I was all alone in the fight. There were only two days that I wanted to quit. Not just quit the fight, but quit the legal profession as well. This was the two days after the Arkansas Supreme Court affirmed Misskelley’s confession in a 7-0 decision. After licking my wounds for a couple of days, I emerged with an even stronger resolve to keep fighting, thanks to the support and encouragement from my family who never complained about all the time I was gone from home working on this case.

Also, I cannot thank enough the people from whom I got all the emails, letters and prayers from. They may have been complete strangers at the time, but a phone call or a letter of encouragement, out of the blue, would sustain me for weeks and even months. Sometimes these strangers became friends, good friends. “Good friends” are like my own family to me, and I have made many good friends from all over the world. Regrettably, I have lost touch with some of these folks over the years, but all of them have become my heroes in this case. My “heroes” have names like Bruce, Mike, Joe, Mara, Lanette, Grove, Burk, Pam, Mark, Richard, Warren, Kathy, Lisa, Eddie, Kevin, Winona, Laura, John, Mandy, Michael, Ron, and a very wonderful and special person whom I have never even actually met, at least not in person, because she lives all the way on the other side of the planet, way “down under.” She inspires me on an almost daily basis, and I must say, Jill, thank you, from the bottom of my heart.

John, I thank you, for your interest in Justice, and your interest in this case.

5 comments:

Lainie Petersen said...

Thanks, John, for this excellent interview. I've updated my new blog with a reference to it: Everyone, particularly Christians, really need to think long and hard about this case.

Kay said...

I had never heard of this case. Interestingly enough, however, I did see an episode of "Cold Case" (the fictional show,not the realcrime TV show) which featured a plot line almost identical to the West Memphis Three story. I'm willing to bet that the episode was based on this.

Anonymous said...

A really good interview ~ thank you for bringing attention to this case ~ I was literally in shock for weeks after viewing the 2 documentaries ~ with the horror of the crime and the injustice that followed. Subsequently, I read Mara Leveritt's well researched book containing most of the facts ~ and I was even more convinced that Damien, Jason and Jessie are innocent. Thanks to great people such as Dan Stidham (who after nearly 15 years is the only original attorney still working on and promoting justice for the men) ~ the truth hopefully will finally emerge and justice prevail. He certainly deserves a medal for all his compassion and hard work. Jill ~ Western Australia

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your continued support of the other three innocents of West Memphis.
To Kay, yes the season premiere of Cold Case's 5th yr was inspired by the WM3, with one of the documentary directors contributing. It is amazing that this show was willing to find the convicted, innocent. Yet, it is almost impossible to get any media coverage for the WM3. I ask that all supporters email all networks, newsshows and programs, requesting updates on this tragedy!
If you are not familiar with this case, please visit www.wm3.org and find out more.
Thanks again!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting this interview. i was so shocked by the Doco's done on these boys, sorry they are men now and have lost half of thier lives because of thier wrongful inprisonment. Isn't it about time we set them free. i have read Devil's Knot and also Damien's book Almost Home, i recomend them both for a good read. Thanks again