On May 5th of 1993, the bodies of three 8 year-old boys were found in a drainage ditch near a truck stop in West Memphis, Arkansas. The three children had been tied hand-to-wrist with their own shoelaces, struck with enough force to lose consciousness and left to drown in the runoff water not far from their homes.
The West Memphis Police, unprepared to manage such a devastating and emotionally charged crime were unable to even start a proper investigation. Instead of seeking outside help, they decided to target a local teenager who had been in their books for years under the label "devil worshipper."
Damien Echols was known around the small town for dressing in black and for being interested in the occult, horror movies and heavy metal music. The police knew that in him, they had a chance to convince the local parents that "the monster" had been apprehended. All they needed was evidence. They collected books that Damien had bought or checked out at the library and some disjointed and inconsistent testimony from people claiming to know about "satanic cults" that Damien was involved with.
Jessie Misskelley, a teenager with a learning disability was brought in for questioning, and after a day of badly conducted interrogation, he finally began to say "Yes, sir" the leading and coercive questions the police were hounding him with. Jessie implicated himself as well as Damien and Damien's best friend Jason Baldwin.
The trials of all three men have been shown in recent years to be textbook examples of biased, rush to judgement kangaroo courts, and after over a decade of support from outraged individuals from all over the world, the three young men, known as the West Memphis Three, gained the attention and eventually the money necessary to mount an actual investigation into their situation. Some of the best forensic scientists in the world were brought in to analyze the facts and the evidence that wasn't destroyed or lost by the West Memphis
Police, and it was shown very clearly that the West Memphis Three could not be shown to have been involved in the murders.
18 years after the convictions, the state of Arkansas, realizing that they were bound to lose if the case were tried again, threatened to drag the case on for another 10 years or more, unless the West Memphis Three agreed to an Alford Plea. This rare legal maneuver grants the state immunity from legal action while releasing the West Memphis Three, who despite having to legally accept their convictions, are able to maintain their claims of innocence.
The situation has long been reminiscent of a hostage situation; a stand-off in which there is no official answer to anyone who asks why Damien, Jason and Jessie were all released from prison if the state of Arkansas genuinely regarded them as guilty of a triple child homicide. It's a clear case of immunity granted in exchange for a hostage release. Certainly the state knows they're innocent, but refuses to be accountable.
Jason, Jessie and Damien spent 18 years of their lives behind bars for something they clearly did not do, and the state of Arkansas continues to refuse to accept any responsibility for a litany of abuses and insults to the American system of justice. Fortunately, it is now possible for the West Memphis Three to fight for the exonerations they deserve from the outside of a prison cell.