Saturday, January 21, 2012

Case of West Memphis 3 by no means closed

It plays out like an episode of Criminal Minds or CSI. But unlike those shows, the police and prosecutors in this case didn't possess state-ofthe-art forensic tools. Nor, for that matter, did they possess the cerebral powers of their fictional TV counterparts.

The case in question is that of the West Memphis 3, a trio of teens convicted of the grisly murders of three eight-year-old boys in the redneck community of West Memphis, Arkansas, back in 1993. Based on hearsay and barely a scintilla of evidence, authorities were quick to come down on the three teens, largely because the community wanted immediate satisfaction and the suspects were essentially deemed white trash.

Mercifully, folks around the U.S. and, later, the world, soon got wind of a potential and monstrous miscarriage of justice and decided to act - especially since one of the teens was sentenced to die, while the other two were given life sentences. Soon celebrities came on board.

But what really set events going was an HBO documentary called Paradise Lost. There was no resolution in that doc, just a lot of doubt raised. Same, too, for a sequel.

But there is resolution of sorts in Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, the conclusion to the trilogy, which airs tonight at 10 p.m. on HBO Canada.

This last two-hour instalment - which debuted to rave reviews at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival - is absolutely chilling and riveting. It was only through the unrelenting investigation by a group of concerned citizens, lawyers, and major-crime analysts that some form of justice did prevail and the three wrongly accused were set free from prison after 18 years.

But the doc offers a frightening reminder that, in a rush to judgment, anyone can be railroaded - which is not the happy conclusion we usually get from our brainiac investigators on TV.

There were next to no leads when the naked and hog-tied bodies of the three murdered eight-year-olds were found in a wooded area outside West Memphis. A $25,000 reward was offered and, a month later, Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley - teenagers known as The West Memphis 3 - were arrested.

The lead police investigator was so certain they had apprehended the right guys that he boasted that, on "a 0 to 10 scale, it was an 11," relating to their guilt.

For what it's worth, the three teens claimed they were innocent and had never run into the three murdered kids. But Misskelley, who had originally told the police he was at a wrestling match miles away at the time of the murders, later confessed to witnessing the crime after intense questioning. Misskelley, sadly, is also mentally challenged and prone to uttering falsehoods under incessant grilling.

That confession turned out to be rather shaky, so the investigators went looking elsewhere for incriminating material and soon they thought they had found it.

Yup, despite the fact there was no physical evidence that the three teens were at the scene of the crime, the major clue the police and prosecutors uncovered was that Echols, a Johnny Depp-look-alike who favoured Goth clothing and heavymetal music, was part of a Satanic cult. This, naturally, led to the conclusion that he and fellow devil-worshippers killed the kids as part of a sadistic ritual. The alleged cult expert providing all this insight got a bogus mail-order PhD degree - from a university advertising on the back of a book of matches - and had no formal training in the field.

No matter - this was enough to convince a jury that the teens were guilty and that Echols should be put to death by lethal injection.

But the alarm bells were sounded. Eddie Vedder, Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks and even Johnny Depp - able to empathize with look-alike Echols about people jumping to conclusions based on a person's looks and clothing - all jumped aboard. A West Memphis 3 Support Fund was set up.

Real forensic investigators and FBI profilers joined the group and would tell all who would listen that the authorities had the wrong people.

In fact, the experts pointed out that there was more compelling evidence - a strand of hair at the crime scene - possibly incriminating a stepfather of one of the murdered kids. It turned out that the man was prone to violence, had a criminal record and was the last person seen with the three boys.

Regardless, several appeals were turned down. But in a last-ditch plea to the Arkansas Supreme Court, lawyers for the West Memphis 3 were able to present new evidence. And a deal was struck in which the three were released by claiming innocence though pleading to a watered-down guilty plea - largely, to get out of jail immediately. This also saved the state more embarrassment and a possible hefty lawsuit.

The three are still fighting to clear their names and, with the help of high-powered backers, are hoping to find the real murderer.

Kudos to directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky for keeping the case going all these years, and for reminding us once again that fact can be a lot more frightening than fiction.