In West of Memphis, Jason Baldwin, Jessie Misskelley, and Damien Echols spent years in prison for murders they did not commit. When the bodies of three eight-year old boys were found in Robin Hood Hills, West Memphis, police hurriedly decided that Echols, full of teenage attitude and a lover of heavy metal, was involved. They also went after his friend, Baldwin (16 years), as well as Misskelley (17 years). The latter was not even close to the other boys. As the case developed, it was evident that a number of social factors greatly influenced every little development. Watching the video opens one’s eyes as to the role played by factors like age, social class, social status, media, and popular culture in the criminal justice system.
After the mutilation and killing of children, it is only natural that their parents and families at large be provided with answers. In fact, natural justice dictates that the murderers are locked up. But in the same breath of justice, the wrong people should not be held accountable and made to take responsibilities for crimes they do not commit. It is clear that the police and prosecution committed numerous errors of omission or action, without which the case would have certainly been concluded differently.
Even prior to their investigation, the law enforcers had decided that the killing was a satanic ritual. They did this even before focusing on Echols. In this context, popular culture affected the progress of the case since such a move was instigated by widely popular lectures at the time on how to identify and spot satanic behavior or activity. It was common knowledge that a teenage cult operated in the area. Special emphasis was on ‘teenage’ since this influenced the police’s suspicions and subsequent investigations that later determined the direction of the case. As such, they believed that only people of this age bracket would have possibly committed the murders. Even more naturally, one would have been easily tempted to think that the children killed were ‘taken out’ by one or more of their own. In this regard, it is noted that the police could not imagine that, for instance, an older person would have committed the crime.
The police were right in focusing on the nature of the crimes and connecting them to a ritual killing, but accuracy is central here. Assumptions should be just what they are: assumptions. Was a necklace found at the scene of the crime? The answer here is rightly ‘NO’. It was confiscated from Echols after he was arrested. The blood found on it was consistent with that of Steve Branch, interesting! But it was also consistent with 11% of the entire world population (Berg et al., 2013). The prosecution erred to a great extent because it did not offer this fact at trial. Such a weighty revelation would have had a significant impact on the case, but the prosecution was blindly determined to nail the ‘criminals’. In this regard, the effect is a possible injustice to the accused. About the much talked-about teenage cult operating in the locality, there is no evidence to support that. Even if it existed, there is no proof to support a link between Echols and the said cult. The error made here by the police is due to Echols’ adolescent metal fan’s expected interest in a cult. `
The police would have also erred in not investigating Hobbs in connection with the murders. In assuming that he had no motive, an error of omission and wrongful assumption was committed. He was a character well known for his violent nature. In fact, he had even beaten up his wife, a strong support point for his violence. To make matters worse, he told lies about seeing the boys that fateful day. His alibi was proven as false when seen with them, and he could not account for the large disparity in the stretch of time. One would argue that the evidence against him is as much as it is against Echols and the rest of the accused.
Another aspect of error in the case can be deduced from the ‘confessions’, especially Misskelley’s. It was manipulated and forced by the police. Socially, he is mentally retarded, and they tend to take advantage of this. How could confessions from a person of such social and mental standing be trusted? He may have confessed several times but to be noted keenly is the change of story in each new confession. He was isolated and locked in a room from 9 A.M to 9 P.M. Conflicting in his ‘confession’ are the times the children were still in school. With such a state of affairs, they still managed to get what they wanted people to believe to be the true confession. They then shared it with the media. Maybe they did this because they knew no one would question the extent of truth in the admission. The focus on Misskelley can be looked at from a very critical point of view. Why would the police focus on him so much even when his friends testified that he was at the wrestling match that evening? They even provided exonerating evidence by bringing pictures from the match. The sign-in sheet from the match provided in their testimony would have been enough to set him free, as this was a strong alibi. He was simply not present at the scene of the crime in the time of the murder. Does this development not conflict with his confession?
The police and prosecution together did not provide proof that Misskelley, Baldwin, and Echols were individually or together near, around, or at the scene of the crime. There is no DNA evidence to point this out. On the contrary, the DNA evidence points out to one of the children’s step-father, well-known for beating up the child with belts and sexually abusing the boy and his daughter (Berg et al., 2013). One wonders why the court does not put him to task to prove his innocence. Further, the prosecuting attorney in a press conference stated that it was the state’s belief that there was a possibility for the three to have been acquitted. But critically considering this, the plea was offered to technically take away the right to sue the state.
Echols’ death sentence raises the question of continuity or elimination of the penalty. It should be abolished since it poses a potential risk of executing innocent people (Cromie, & Zott, 2013). This is because no matter how efficient and developed a justice system may be, human failure will always remain a possibility. Unlike other sentences like imprisonment, it is irreparable and irreversible. Besides, it goes against human and fundamental rights, and freedoms of an individual.
It is easier for one to think the accused were actually involved, but there is a need to base everything on evidence. In any case, the entire case should be re-opened and new evidence, incriminating or otherwise, be considered. However, one wonders if the courts and police would want proceed with the above suggestion since they know they erred, by letting social factors take a center-stage in their investigation.
Berg, A., Cave, N., & Ellis, W. (2013). West of Memphis. S.l.: Sony Pictures Home Ent. Web. Retrieved from http://www.cbsnews.com/videos/west-memphis-3-free-50111713/
Berg, A., Jackson, P., & Walsh, F. (2013). West of Memphis. Hilversum: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.
Cromie, J., & Zott, L. M. (2013). The death penalty. Detroit, MI: Greenhaven Press.