I don’t remember much about the year 1993, was it particularly interesting? But I do remember the sensational reaction that pulsed through the nation with news of the horrific homicides of three adorable second graders that took place “West of Memphis.” The news coverage was frenzied and chaotic. The incessant need to find the satanic person who did this was paramount. It was like the hysteria of the McMartin Daycare case from the 80's all over again. The pressure had to have been huge on that tiny police force; and that pressure understandably became blinding. Perhaps born from the pledge to "serve and protect" or perhaps the need to be the town heroes.
I remember simply being grateful it was on the other side of the state — the Arkansas Delta and not the separate and distinct rolling mountains of this northwest pocket. It happened; but thankfully not here. It was rather easy to turn a blind eye to the events. Within days they had arrested suspects. And when they found them guilty, it must have been because they were. Illogical logistics took a back seat to the comfort of knowing that justice was served. Who dared to question detective work, expert testimony, judicial competency or prosecutorial conduct.
It never occurred to me that what happens in Arkansas affects us all.
The State of Arkansas cast three teenagers into a dungeon of Hell and then walked away — one death sentence, one life sentence, one sentence to ever prevent parole. Two decades later, the mishandlings, ethical issues, betrayals, and injustices of this case have slowly bubbled to the surface like boils in all their ugliness.
Who knew that FBI assistance in the case was rejected. Who knew the entire case was based upon a recanted confession – a confession obtained after more than 5 hours, without audio or video record, without an attorney present, with the consent (but not presence) of a parent told that only his son was not a suspect and would be returned home shortly. Who knew it was a confession basically spoon fed after timeline and inaccuracies were first provided. Who knew that all the parents and guardians of the victims were not interviewed and ruled out in the case, as is standard protocol now. Who knew that key evidence was destroyed or went missing. Who knew investigators were tainted by merely how the suspects looked, what they wore, what they read, their demeanor and their economic station.
Documentaries serve these findings well and your viewing of the Paradise Lost series and West of Memphis is encouraged rather than elaborate on all those details here. The State considers the case settled unless legal defense (not police investigation) brings compelling new evidence to light.
Rulings and plea bargaining, as recently as last year, continue to spawn from this case. We should all be concerned about the obtainments of false confessions emanating from duress. We should all demand that every single Arkansan be granted a full audio/video interrogation by our justice system. We should all be vitally concerned about wrongful convictions in our state that send many to rot in prison. We should all be equally concerned that any friend or family member that becomes a homicide victim that justice will prevail regardless of time, expense or consequence. Our empathy should weigh equally for grieving loved ones regardless of race, creed, or class. We should all expect fair and balanced reporting by our media sources. We should expect that "serve and protect" applies equally to the accused.
We should all care that the prime living years of three teenagers were traded for the complacency of the masses and that their exoneration will take even more of a struggle than their prison release.
We should all care that someone who committed something so heinous as to harm, terrorize, kill, hogtie and leave to drown three little boys continues to live in our state.
Please take the time this week to consider the ramifications. Plan to see the documentary, "West of Memphis" while we are fortunate to not only have it play in Fort Smith, but to have it play as a regional premiere courtesy of Sony Classics and the MovieLounge. Please find time Friday, if you can, to attend the panel discussion that will delve into legal aspects of the case, courtesy of the Arkansas Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the MovieLounge. Please also find the time to listen to an incredible Arkansas author and "justice fighter", Mara Leveritt, who will be speaking at UAFS on 2/13 and the FSPL on 2/14.
You see, what happens in Arkansas not only affects us all; it defines us.