On August 20 the New York Times reported on the freeing of Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr., commonly known as the West Memphis Three. Imprisoned seventeen years ago for allegedly murdering three young boys in a satanic ritual, their freedom was won through DNA evidence as is so often the case nowadays. The article mentions a 1996 documentary about their case that led to a national campaign to win their release:
An award-winning documentary, “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills,” was released after their convictions, bringing them national attention.
Benefit concerts were held, books were written, a follow-up documentary was made and a movement to free the “West Memphis Three” grew in size and intensity, drawing those intrigued by the case and those who saw a kinship with the men at the heart of it.
“I was kind of going through the same clothing style: long hair, dark clothes,” said Mecinda Smith, 30, one of the hundreds of supporters who had come to the courthouse, holding posters and wearing “Free the WM3” T-shirts.
“We were just trying to stand out and be different,” said Ms. Smith, who was 12 when the murders took place.
Last night I watched it on HBO and like all their documentaries, it can be also bee seen on-demand from Time-Warner or on your computer using HBO Go. Additionally, you can rent it from Netflix, as well as a follow-up documentary made in 1999 titled Paradise Lost 2: Revelations. Meanwhile, “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory,” which was shown at this year’s New York Film Festival and scheduled for HBO next year, brings the case up to date.
These films were co-directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, who also worked on “Brother’s Keeper” together, another film about marginal members of society being accused of a capital crime. In that film, a mentally impaired brother is accused of a mercy killing of his own brother on a dilapidated farm that he shared with another brother. Despite the fact that the three elderly men were reclusive and shabby-looking, this did not prevent their neighbors from pitching in to help them find a lawyer and build solidarity for the accused brother. It is a singularly inspiring film and also available from Netflix, including a streaming version.
Berlinger is also the director of “Crude”, the courageous and radical story of Chevron’s attempt to force the people of Ecuador to accept the toxic waste legacy of Texaco, a company absorbed by Chevron, that has left land and water despoiled and thousands ill. He has been in a running battle with Chevron over the oil company’s demand to see his outtakes as part of a bid to prove that they have no responsibility for the damage.
There is an obvious affinity between the characters in “Brother’s Keeper” and the West Memphis Three. The prosecution relied heavily on the testimony of Jessie Misskelley Jr., who had an IQ of 72 and who was grilled by the cops for 12 hours after being arrested. He was pressured to testify against his two friends Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin, who—like him–came from poor and dysfunctional families. Echols in particular was the easiest to demonize since he listened to heavy metal music, dressed in Goth style and described himself as a Wiccan. In a rural Arkansan town in the early 1990s, this was not the way to endear you to the community, least of all the cops. Like many towns in the Bible Belt, it was also a breeding ground of Baptist churches that took the idea of Satan very literally.
When the local cops could not find the actual killers of the three boys, they victimized Echols and his two friends who they calculated a jury would find guilty just on the basis of their appearance. While Misskelley and Baldwin did not share Echols’s Goth lifestyle, guilt by association could be relied on by local prosecutors. As Echols states in the film, West Memphis was a modern version of Salem, Massachusetts.
With a complete lack of physical evidence, the prosecutor is forced to rely heavily on questions to Echols on the witness stand about his reading habits, particularly the Satanist Aleister Crowley who the youth has actually never read, only heard of. On his Wiccan beliefs, Echols states that he was drawn to them because they stressed the eternal female principle. One can only wonder how he survived growing up to the age of 17 in West Memphis, an ordeal by fire equal in some ways to the next 17 years he would spend in prison.
The Salem-like hysteria that pervaded this trial overlapped with the “repressed memory” sexual abuse cases of the period that were documented in another powerful HBO documentary titled “Capturing the Friedmans”, about a gay computer programming trainer who supposedly sexually abused dozens of his students in his basement classroom on Long Island without them ever telling their parents. Although Satanism was not a factor in the trial, it relied completely on the “repressed memories” of his students who described wild orgies in the basement prompted by the suggestions of the investigators.
The two themes of ritual satanic abuse and repressed memories, however, did come together in the infamous McMartin preschool case of 1983. Young children were pressured into “remembering” that the satanic teachers and care-givers at the school lured them into orgies as wild as that took place in the Friedman basement. The wiki on the McMartin case states:
Some of the accusations were described as “bizarre”, overlapping with accusations that mirrored the just-starting satanic ritual abuse panic. It was alleged that, in addition to having been sexually abused, they saw witches fly, traveled in a hot-air balloon, and were taken through underground tunnels. When shown a series of photographs by Danny Davis, the McMartins’ lawyer, one child identified actor Chuck Norris as one of the abusers.
Some of the abuse was alleged to have occurred in secret tunnels beneath the school. Several investigations turned up evidence of old buildings on the site and other debris from before the school was built, but no evidence of any secret chambers was found. There were claims of orgies at car washes and airports, and of children being flushed down toilets to secret rooms where they would be abused, then cleaned up and presented back to their unsuspecting parents. Some children said they were made to play a game called “Naked Movie Star” in which they were photographed nude. During the trial, testimony from the children stated that the naked movie star game was actually a rhyming taunt used to tease other children—”What you say is what you are, you’re a naked movie star,”—and had nothing to do with having naked pictures taken.
Although I have been harshly critical of Alexander Cockburn in recent years, this Wall Street Journal piece on the McMartin miscarriage of justice reminds me of how his writings back then inspired me to take up the cause of the left after 11 brutal years in a Trotskyist sect:
Wall Street Journal
February 8, 1990
The McMartin Case: Indict the Children, Jail the Parents
Ray Buckey is a man whose life has already been effectively destroyed. The first charge of child abuse against this teacher at the McMartin day-care school in Manhattan Beach, Calif., was laid against him in the summer of 1983. The allegations against him had been extorted from her two-year-old by a mother — now dead — with a history of mental illness who also claimed that an AWOL Marine had sodomized her dog.
It was not long before Ray Buckey had direct experience of the operations of the justice system. The Manhattan Beach Police Department sent a letter to 200 families whose children attended McMartin that read in part, “Any information from your child regarding ever having observed Ray Buckey to leave a classroom alone with a child during a nap period, or if they have ever observed Ray Buckey tie up a child, is important.”
By spring 1984, Mr. Buckey, his mother, grandmother, sister and three fellow teachers had been arrested, and the police now claimed no less than 1,200 alleged victims of abuse. Briefly released, Mr. Buckey was rearrested and jailed for five years. On Jan. 18 of this year, after a trial that lasted more than two years and cost $15 million (making it the most expensive criminal trial in U.S. history), a jury acquitted Mr. Buckey and his mother on 52 counts of molestation. On 13 remaining counts of molestation and conspiracy against Mr. Buckey the jury was deadlocked (though it seems a majority was convinced of his innocence) and a mistrial on these counts declared.
Any sane society would have granted the Buckeys peace to recover as best they could from this horrible ordeal. But on Jan. 31, Los Angeles County District Attorney Ira Reiner announced that Ray Buckey would be retried on at least some of the 13 counts. The decision came after a period of grotesque agitation by the parents of the supposedly abused McMartin children. They appeared on talk shows, and terrorized the Los Angeles Board of County Supervisors into voting 4 to 1 to urge the district attorney to a new trial. (If he did not, they wanted the board to call upon the state attorney general to take the decision out of Mr. Reiner’s hands.)
Mr. Reiner, who is running for the office of state attorney general this year, has in the recent past lost well-publicized cases. The McMartin verdict was another blow, and he obviously felt he had to put Mr. Buckey back in court or face taunts for being soft on child abusers. Mr. Reiner was also presumably under great pressure from Attorney General John Van de Kamp to retry Mr. Buckey, since Mr. Van de Kamp is running for governor and public sentiment is strongly against the jury’s verdict of Jan. 18. So here are two men with tremendous incentives to put Mr. Buckey back in the dock — in an atmosphere so polluted with hysteria it must be doubtful whether any jury could be assembled to assure Mr. Buckey a fair trial.
The psychological squalor is even more disturbing. The McMartin case was but one in nearly 40 episodes across the country between 1983 and 1987 in which prosecutions against teachers or supervisors in day-care centers were prompted by children’s accusations.
Many of these accusations, taken seriously by parents, social workers and the justice system, were of the most fantastic nature. McMartin children said they had been marched to cemeteries to dig up bodies. One child said he had seen his teacher fly. In 1985 children in Pennsylvania said teachers had forced them to have oral sex with a goat. In 1986 children in a preschool in Sequim, Wash., said they had been made to watch animal sacrifice in a graveyard. In Chicago, the kids said they had watched a baby being boiled.
Terrible injustices were done in this extraordinary replay of the 17th-century Salem witch trials. People were tossed into prison for years, on the say-so of infants. In all 50 states children as young as two or three can testify to abuse, without corroboration from adults and without physical evidence. In many states they can make charges without having to endure cross-examination, being bounced up and down on a judge’s knee in private chambers. In some states the charges can merely be repeated as hearsay by adults.
What was the reason for this wave of self-evidently preposterous stories about a satanic network terrorizing infant schools, and other tales of ritual abuse?
Society seems to have a periodic need for witch trials. At the onset of the Reagan era there weren’t really any Communists around to persecute, so the hunt went back to the traditional exorcism of Satan, whose horns and cloven feet assumed the form of the local day-care teacher.
The 1980s also brought the great onslaught against Freud, arguing against Oedipal fantasy and in favor of the reality of physical abuse. These days many people like to claim they were “abused” as a child. It’s a way of absolving yourself for screwing up by shifting the blame to your infancy, when you can’t be blamed for anything. From these gymnastics, by which “therapists” make their money, the adult emerges guilt-free.
Also, the charges were quintessentially Reaganite, in that they took child abuse out of the family, which is where 99% of it occurs, and put it into day-care centers, which in the Schlaflyite scheme of things are abodes of Satan. Again, some parents probably feel a fair amount of guilt for dumping their children in day-care centers anyway, and are obviously ready by way of compensation to support passionately whatever their children may claim. Of course, any considerate parent, social worker or sane therapist (as opposed to the hysterical self-promoters who mostly feature in these cases) would realize that months and years of interrogation and court procedures are the very last things a child needs after a genuine case of abuse. The public investigation and litigation merely magnify the hurt.
The trouble is that these parents now have a huge emotional investment in “the case,” whether it be McMartin or similar episodes. Indeed, in some of these court trials the parents also have a strong material interest, in the form of very substantial awards by insurance companies that cover day-care centers.
So now the McMartin parents can triumphantly torture poor Ray Buckey again, abetted by the cowards and opportunists in the justice system. But if people can be prosecuted on the words of children, then children should take full responsibility for what they are saying. If a child says he saw Ray Buckey kill a horse with a baseball bat (which one did claim) and if this charge is disproved (which it was), then the child should be indicted for perjury, with present prohibition against such infant indictment removed.
If a parent abetted the child in this false accusation, then this parent should be indicted for perjury, too. If the court then establishes that parent and child were lying, at least the parent should suffer the consequences. A few well-publicized sentences of imprisonment of parents (along with “therapists” and social workers, it goes without saying) and we would see a speedy end to these disgusting miscarriages of justice.