One of popular culture’s most celebrated causes finally achieved some (sorta, kinda) closure yesterday when it was announced that Jason Baldwin, Jesse Misskelley, and Damien Echols – otherwise known as the West Memphis 3 – would be freed after 18 years of incarceration.
The trio, convicted of a grisly triple murder in 1993, were set free after entering an Alford plea, an obscure plea that essentially admits guilt on paper, but allows the convicted to maintain innocence publicly. The “guilty” pleas seem to be a necessary evil in this case, as the legal procedure allows the three to walk with time served (18 years, to be precise), as opposed to serving out the rest of their life sentences (or, in Echols’ case, his death sentence). In a public statement following their release, Echols and Baldwin stated their intent to diligently work to fully exonerate their names.
Documentary filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky can be credited with a lot of the attention placed on the WM3 – their 1996 expose Paradise Lost was an in-depth look at the circumstances surrounding the murders of three young boys, and brought to light a lot of the inconsistencies in the case – inconsistencies like lack of motive, lack of DNA evidence, and a clear-cut real-life suspect emerging without so much as a peep from local law enforcement. A sequel followed in 2000, and the case started to get national-scale notoriety, bringing together disparate musicians and celebrities like Eddie Vedder, Natalie Maines (of the Dixie Chicks), Patti Smith, even Lord of the Rings filmmaker Peter Jackson, all of whom lobbied extensively for the release of the Three. The films postulated that the arrest of the trio was based almost entirely on their look – indeed, the three wrote gloomy poetry, wore black, even – gasp! – listened to those awful heavy-metal bands and even donned Metallica t-shirts to show their support.
The Paradise Lost films postulate that this image – foreign to the wholesome, corn-fed facade of small-town Arkansas – led the West Memphis denizens (law enforcement included) to believe that this threesome was capable of slaughtering three young boys. In the name of Satan, of course. Because, in real life, everyone knows that metal fans need to sacrifice virgin blood to their Dark God; we’ve all heard that Slipknot concerts end with all attendees quartering a goat and eating its heart. Sarcasm aside, it seems as though the efforts of misfits everywhere, appalled by the idea of scapegoating someone based on image alone, have paid off for now, as the Three will finally taste freedom for the first time in 18 years.
It’s not an entirely happy ending – after all, three young boys were murdered 18 years ago, and the Arkansas Attorney General has no plans to search for the killers (he’s convinced of the WM3’s guilt, unencumbered by things like “DNA evidence” and “probable cause”); and, of course, there’s that pesky little fact that the Three, while free for now, are still on record as convicted murderers. Their sentences have been commuted, but as far as the court is concerned, they viciously slaughtered three young boys. Damien Echols, in particular, seemed quite committed to exonerating their names.
Still, minor victories are victories nonetheless. This raises several questions: when will the families of the deceased receive closure? Who will take the rap for small-town crimes now that metalheads aren’t en vogue to scapegoat anymore? (I vote Juggaloes.) How are the West Memphis 3 going to take hearing 2011-era Metallica? (Not well, I’d assume.) What do you guys think?