West Memphis Journal
Torn by 3 Lost Boys and 3 Convicted Youths
WEST MEMPHIS, Ark. — The patch of woods has been cleared, the shallow ditch has been rerouted, the Blue Beacon Truck Wash has been torn down and 16 years have passed. But though the setting where three 8-year-old boys were found killed, naked and bound, in 1993 is unrecognizable, the crime still has the power to dominate the front page of the small newspaper here and bring tight smiles to the lips of civic boosters.
For years, outsiders have raised questions about the guilt of the three misfit teenagers, Jason Baldwin, Damien Echols and Jessie Misskelley Jr., who were convicted of the murders. But more recently, a steady dribble of new evidence has begun to seep into the consciousness of West Memphis, eroding the once nearly unanimous belief that those outsiders — including rock stars, HBO filmmakers and the creators of “South Park” — did not know what they were talking about.
To Shaun Hair, 30, who left West Memphis for college after the killings, it was a jolt to hear friends and neighbors begin questioning the verdict. “I was like, ‘That’s stupid, quit buying the hype,’ ” he said.
But when Mr. Hair, who returned to the area in 1999 and now works as a criminal defense lawyer, re-examined the case, he found it troubling. “If I were the defense attorney,” he said, “I would want a retrial.”
Mr. Baldwin and Mr. Misskelley are serving life sentences; Mr. Echols is on death row. Their convictions were based on an error-riddled confession by Mr. Misskelley, who later recanted, and testimony about satanic cults. Scant physical evidence was presented.
Since new DNA evidence drew renewed attention to the case in 2007, witnesses have come forward with new information about the victims’ whereabouts in their last hours and the knife that prosecutors suggested had been the murder weapon. A “tip line” established by the defense fund for the West Memphis Three, as their supporters call the convicted men, has attracted calls expressing the hope for a new trial.
“Come on Arkansas, Supreme Court, give them the chance to prove their innocence,” said one caller from a local area code in September, who did not leave his name but said he did not mind if his comments were released.
Even the parents of the victims have had second thoughts. Early this month, Pam Hobbs, whose son Steve Branch was killed, became the second parent to say she believed that the West Memphis Three were innocent.
Still, the trial remains a delicate subject in West Memphis and its county, Crittenden. The mayor of West Memphis, William H. Johnson, declined to be interviewed about it. Linda Miller, who owns a health food store with her husband and believes that the convictions were wrong, said she was wary of speaking her mind because the issue was so “polarizing.”
In Little Rock, a two-year-old advocacy group, Arkansas Take Action, formed by a pair of restaurateurs and Mr. Echols’s wife, Lorri Davis, to raise awareness of the case, has held successful rallies and a candlelight vigil, and even drummed up new evidence of jury misconduct. But it cannot claim a single member in Crittenden County.
That is partly because residents have other preoccupations, including poverty and tensions between black residents and the West Memphis Police Department. The city’s population, about 27,000, has long been stagnant, and the housing boom that overtook so many communities bypassed West Memphis.
Instead of a historic town square, West Memphis is largely defined by a mile-and-a-half stretch where two interstates come together, funneling more than 30,000 trucks a day through the town and giving it a generic, transient air. The once-wooded crime scene was sandwiched between that stretch and a residential neighborhood called, as Lila Bailey, 68, a longtime resident, put it, “Garden Something.”
The unusual murders — three children from three different families — were also a deep trauma for a town small enough for only a degree or two of separation. Questioning the results of the trial, some residents said, is tantamount to questioning the local police, prosecutors and judges, and can feel like disloyalty to the victims. Perhaps because they lived through it, few have studied the case in the same detail as the West Memphis Three supporters have. There is a strong urge to move on.
After the trial, said Ramona Taylor, a city councilwoman, “People felt comfortable that the problem was resolved, and this was an anomaly. It was not representative of our community or of our youth.”
Janine Earney, the director of the Crittenden Arts Council, said she becomes angry every time she reads about the West Memphis Three — who, she points out, were not even from West Memphis, but the next town.
“I don’t think anyone from the outside can look at what happened in this community and judge it,” she said.
But a lack of open debate about the case does not mean that there are no deep, if quiet, misgivings about the convictions. From his living room recliner, Mrs. Bailey’s husband, Otto, offered his opinion. “I bet if you polled three-fourths of West Memphis,” he said, “they would say those boys had nothing to do with it.”