The release Friday of the “West Memphis Three” – the men convicted in the 1993 killing of three young Cub Scouts in Arkansas – testifies to the power of the Internet and broadcast media in influencing the criminal justice system.
Questions about the prosecution of the case and conduct of the trial – raised by supporters of defendants Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley Jr. – generated widespread interest through such websites as “Free the WM3 Support Fund” and its “Free the West Memphis Three Official Blog.” Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube videos helped spread the word.
That would have been far less possible 18 years ago when this particularly heinous crime occurred. Not only have social media and websites aimed at affecting legal outcomes proliferated, but powerful search engines have created easy access to detailed case information and the assertions of advocacy groups.
Friday’s outcome was not a clear victory for the West Memphis Three (so-called because of the place in Arkansas where the crime occurred) or for the families of the three 8-year old boys. As the prosecuting attorney, Scott Ellington, put it: “Some are happy, some are angry, and others are perplexed.”
While maintaining their innocence, the three men agreed to a legal maneuver that lets them maintain their innocence while acknowledging that prosecutors have enough evidence against them. They were sentenced to time served, allowing their immediate release.
“It's not perfect by any means,” Mr. Echols said at a press conference Friday. “But it at least brings closure to some areas and some aspects.” The three say they will continue to fight to prove their innocence.
The solidity of the case against them began to crack when DNA evidence could not be linked to the defendants while at the same time indicating the possible presence at the crime scene of one of the boy’s stepfather. Questions also had been raised about the jury foreman discussing during jury deliberations a confession deemed inappropriate at trial. (That confession by Mr. Misskelley – reportedly elicited by police taking advantage of his low IQ – was quickly recanted.)
Last November, the Arkansas Supreme Court ordered a new hearing, asking a judge to consider allegations of juror misconduct and whether new DNA science could affect the conviction.
Over the years, much has been written about the case, and HBO is finishing up the third in a series of documentary films titled “Paradise Lost.” The HBO series, along with books and websites, helped generate broad support from such celebrities as actor Johnny Depp, “Pearl Jam” front man Eddie Vedder, and country singer Natalie Maines of the “Dixie Chicks.”
"This case is about the power of film and a main protagonist,” says Nancy Snow, professor of communications at California State University in Fullerton. “Without the 'Paradise Lost' series, you simply would not have the same level of celebrity cheerleading for justice. The main wrongly accused character, Damien Echols [the one defendant who had received a death sentence], has himself become a celebrity author and poet.”
Other observers say there’s a lesson here for investigative writers and broadcasters.
“I think this is actually the media at their best, shining a light on a situation in which the machinery of government apparently failed to do its job,” says Fordham University communications professor Paul Levinson, author of “New New Media.” “It asks the question – 'What other failures of the criminal system are out there?' – and provides the impetus that journalists should get on those cases and investigate them more fully.”
It's notable that Hollywood actors are spearheading the drive for social justice, including in the Memphis case, says Ben Agger, director of the Center for Theory at the University of Texas in Arlington.
“Many academics have become entrepreneurs oriented to getting grants that help public universities survive at an historical moment of massive disinvestment in higher education,” he says. “Ironically, this leaves Hollywood as the site of critical thinking and moral activism. This is a version of Hollywood that clashes with a People magazine portrayal of Hollywood simply as a celebrity culture, where the Kardashian wedding is foregrounded as weekly tabloid fodder.”
Staff writer Daniel B. Wood contributed to this report.