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Posts Tagged ‘Almost Home’

We are tangled, we are stolen, we are living where things are hidden -Eddie Vedder

He just needed someone to blame, to take his grief out on. He wasn’t interested in facts or evidence. –Damien Echols

 

 

In 2001 I was a junior in a small, rural high school. I was taking classes through my high school in partnership with the local community colleges so that I would be ahead of the game when I got to college in two years. One of the classes I took was Introduction to Sociology. It was the professor in this class that first presented me with the film Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills.

 

 

I was an awkward and moody and very angsty youth, especially my junior year. I remember sitting in that classroom with my all black outfit and my snarky sense of self and feeling the eyes of each of my classmates on me. One person even made the comment “that would have been you.” I was mesmerized and terrified by what was happening on screen because that very easily could have been my story. And every single person in that room knew it.

 

 

A little background on the West Memphis Three:
The West Memphis Three are Jessie Loyd Misskelley Jr., Charles Jason Baldwin, and Damien Wayne Echols. In May 1993 three eight-year-old boys: Stevie Edward Branch, Michael Moore, and Christopher Byers were reported missing and later discovered dead in a drainage ditch off of I-40 in their hometown of West Memphis, Arkansas:

The condition of the bodies of the boys was indicative of mutilation and sexual assault. For years rumors of Satanic worship and Black Magic swirled around the tiny, Southern town. Standing out against the crowd much like myself, Damien, Jason and Jessie were immediately fingered for the crime as it so obviously must have been part of some Satanic Ritual and the three young boys were the sacrifice. However, there was no evidence to support that it was any of the West Memphis Three who committed the horrible crime, or that the crime had anything at all to do with Satanism. The three maintain their innocence today, along with millions of world-wide supporters and several celebrities including Eddie Vedder, Natalie Maines, Johnny Depp, Peter Jackson, Jack Black, Patti Smith, Fran Walsh, Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky, and Henry Rollins, but that’s just naming a few.
After being found guilty on all three counts (despite a bumbled trial complete with lost evidence, public hysteria, false confessions, admited police incompetence, unexplored possible suspects, and a biased jury) Damied was sentenced to death, Jason and Jessie were to receive life in prision without parole.

Cut to August 18, 2012: An Alford Plea was struck and the three walked free.

 

If it sounds asinine, that’s because it is. After sitting in that classroom and viewing this film, I was outraged. It was obvious to everyone in my class that if something like this were to happen in my hometown, I could be jailed for life and/or sentenced to death because I was wearing a black outfit, I read Stephen King novels, I had a Metallica CD in my car! I began to read everything I could about the case and to write letters to the three boys. I put money into their prison accounts, I donated to the WM3 Defense Fund monthly, I sent them gifts from their Amazon.com wishlists, I let them know that the world wasn’t forgetting about them; that the world knew they were innocent and being punished unjustly.

So, this is a book blog, and what does all of this have to do with books? Well, good question. In honor of the one year anniversary of their release from prison, I wanted to share two books that I think capture the madness of the whole case. The first is Devil’s Knot: The True Story of the West Memphis Three by Mara Leveritt.

Leveritt is an Arkansas journalist who covered the initial trial in the local papers. Realizing the preposterousness of the entire affair, she went on to support the three and release this book full of facts, photographs, court records and interviews. A few years earlier, my mom and I spent all of Thanksgiving Day watching my DVD’s of Paradise Lost 1 & 2 (these are two HBO Documentaries by Bruce Sinofsky and Joe Berlinger that shine a light on all of the unjust facts of the case. The video I watched in my Sociology class was Paradise Lost 1. There is a documentary done by Damien, his wife Lorri Davis and Peter Jackson of The Lord of the Rings fame called West of Memphis that will be released in theatres this December. See the links at the bottom of this post for a trailer for West of Memphis. A fictionalized account of Leveritt’s book starring Reese Witerspoon is set to be released sometime in 2013. I don’t know how I feel about this. I like the documentaries because they bring a spotlight to the case, but a fictionalized film only serves to make it look made up; like a story. There is absolutley nothing fictional about this tragedy at all). After watching the videos and talking it all over with me, my mom became convinced that the three boys were innocent as well, and if not innocent, then certainly not given a fair trial. I gave my mom a copy of this book last year and she said “it was a good book, because the author was very un-biased. At times I found myself wondering if it could have been possible for those boys to have done it…” Leveritt is extremely un-biased, that’s what makes her a first-rate journalist. In this book she does a stellar job of presenting the facts and letting the reader come to their on conclusions of what really happened that summer night in 1993. And even after reading this book, reading all of the articles on the subject, watching all of the documentaries, and just generally educating myself on the case, I still found myself changing my mind about who the guilty party really was.

Last May I finally had the chance to visit West Memphis and to see it all for myself. Before going there and after reading Leveritt’s book, I was convinced that the murderer was most likely Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of Stevie Branch. However, aftering physically being there, I have changed my mind and I now strongly feel that the killer was most likely a stranger from out of town. The position of the highways and the fact that this town is nothing but a truck-stop town makes it entirely possible that it was some sick-o just passing through. My money is on a suspect known only as Mr. Bojangles because of the ineptness of the West Memphis Police Department. 

 

The second book I want to recommend to those of you wanting to gain more insight into this case is Almost Home: My Life Story Volume 1 by Damien Echols.

This is the memoir told in Damien’s own words from prison. This is a book to read if you want to get a sense of what an unjust legal system does to it’s victims. The book is not a great work of literature, it’s not the best written, but it is exceedingly honest and heartbreaking. This September I am very excited to announce that Damien is releasing his  second book (it’s not volume 2. When asked about that, he states that there will not be a volume 2 and that volume 1 is out of print, so I consider myself lucky to have gotten a copy.) called Life After Death which he wrote last year on the topic of his release from prision.
From IndieBound.org: “Now Echols shares his story in full—from abuse by prison guards and wardens, to portraits of fellow inmates and deplorable living conditions, to the incredible reserves of patience, spirituality, and perseverance that kept him alive and sane while incarcerated for nearly two decades”. Hearing the case from soundbites on NPR and the nightly news was one thing, but hearing what it was like straight from the horses mouth will haunt your dreams.  I can not recommend these two books enough. They are both superior sources for those of you who may not know much about the case yet or for those of you who are long-time supporters of the three. Whichever of those categories you fall under, pick up these two, you won’t regret it, and I hope to see some of you become supporters soon!

 

 

I implore you to see also:

 

 

 

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