Continuing my rage-based theme of posts this week... I watched Piers Morgan's interview with Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin, recently freed from 18+ years in prison for the murders of three young boys in West Memphis, Arkansas, and the subject of two HBO documentaries (Paradise Lost and its sequel), which created a worldwide outrage over their trial and conviction and eventually, 18 years later, led to their release by authorities who forced them to admit guilt under an "Alford plea" so that they wouldn't sue the state for wrongful imprisonment. I've been a huge supporter of the West Memphis Three since viewing Paradise Lost over a decade ago (it made my top 10 movies of the '90s on a list for this web site) but when I say "huge supporter" I mean I gave some donations and wrote about it on my blog once or twice and that's about it. And after watching the interview, I couldn't help but feel disappointed that the great relief and joy I felt at the release -- finally -- of three clearly innocent people was overwhelmed by a feeling of despair and anger over what had really happened over the past 18 years, particularly to Damien Echols, a life of absolute horror and torture that no freedom will ever be able to alleviate.
After the release of the HBO documentary to critical acclaim, the case became a sort of cause celebre as celebrities and activists from Johnny Depp to Eddie Vedder to Natalie Maines took up the case and raised monies for their defense, which eventually -- after 18 years -- led to their release. It happened back in August on the day before I left for my cruise to Bermuda and I meant to post about it then but I went on the cruise and then we got hit by a hurricane and I just kind of forgot a little. Even as I was so happy that an injustice had finally been righted. But when I saw them on Piers Morgan last week, I couldn't help but feel sad again. At the injustice of it all.
Echols spent the entirety of the last decade in solitarity confinement which consisted of a cell with no windows, no bed (just a concrete slab), not even any bars, just four walls and a slot for food. He had no interaction with any other prisoners or guards or any other humans besides 3 hours a week that he got to spend with a visitor (his wife Lorri Davis, who met and married him after watching the documentary). He hadn't seen sunlight in a decade. He hadn't seen the sunset in 18 years. He was nearly blind because the confined space didn't allow him to see far away. He had television, local channels only, but no computer or Internet -- he had never used the Internet his entire life (he was in prison in 1994 before it was widespread) and the only exercise he could do he had to do in his own cell. His health deteriorated (obviously), he attempted suicide, and basically through the sheer strength of his character he managed to maintain his sanity. But for fuck's sake. Half of his life -- the entirety of his adult life -- had been stolen by the state. By a state in the United States. By us. In our democracy. I guess in theory there's a chance that he is actually guilty and somehow the complete lack of any evidence whatsoever doesn't discount the chance that the prosecutors were right. I mean, it's true that somebody killed those boys and that's a horrific unthinkable crime. But in the 99.9999% chance that Echols and Baldwin and Misskelley are as innocent as it appears, how in the fucking world does this sort of thing happen, here in America, here in a democratic society, in the so-called "free-est" nation in the world, how does the treatment of Echols in prison even remotely coincide with the notion that we are even close to a free nation? His treatment is something you would expect in Iran or Soviet Russia or Serbia before their war. Hell, the Americans captured hiking in Iran got out over a decade quicker than the West Memphis Three, with just about the same evidence of wrongdoing in both cases. It's just stunning. And I find no joy in the release of these boys -- they were boys when this happened, just like the murdered victims -- it took too long to find any solace in their freedom. Not now.
I took a cab ride to the airport in Atlanta last week and the radio program the driver was listening to was discussing the Troy Davis case, a black man who had been executed in Georgia a week earlier despite a mounting volume of evidence that appeared to point to his innocence. The cab driver - an older black man -- took the opportunity to enlighten me on his opposition to the death penalty, an opposition I have shared my entire life, and while he rambled on about the Bible and God and the First Amendment and slavery, not making a hell of a lot of sense (at least to someone in a hurry to get to the airport), what struck me was that this was a new revelation for him, one that came after much soul searching (and before the Troy Davis case came to light), and it gave me hope. Whatever convuluted reasoning he had for changing his opinion -- in all fairness all he had to point out was the disproportionate number of black death row inmates vs. white ones -- I was slightly heartened that perhaps there is a changing of Americans' minds over an issue that has long appeared barbaric to me, one of the many issues in which our country lags far behind the rest of the civilized world and instead lines up with dictatorships of Middle Eastern Muslim nations in our methods. Here in New Jersey, we abandoned the death penalthy some time ago and I don't think we have ever executed anyone even when it was legal (since 1972) so it's not a moral issue that's all that pressing in our state's everyday lives. But still in America there are places (cough Texas cough) where killing citizens in the name of the state is not only still happening but is praised (ie. Rick Perry getting cheered by Tea Party members for signing off on the most executions in the nation as governor). It's appalling enough that we kill murderers out of some misplaced Old Testament "eye for an eye" agenda but the fact that so many -- 150+ and counting -- death row inmates have been exonerated by DNA or other evidence in recent years means we're not only killing murderers but also innocent people like Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin, caught in the wrong place at the wrong time and railroaded by a justice system that is not quite as fair or free as we've all been led to believe.
It's great that the West Memphis Three are finally free. But it should have happened at least 15 years ago. Or at the original trial. And someone killed those three innocent boys and got away with it. To this day. That's the American criminal justice system, at least in Arkansas. G0d bless the USA!