Photo by Ted Soqui
Seated behind a pane of smudged Plexiglas, his white prison garb a suggestive contrast to the puke-colored walls of the dingy cubbyhole he’s in, prisoner #SK931, Damien Echols, is explaining how he became Jyoti Priya Karuna, Lover of the Light Compassion.
“That’s the name my teacher Reverend Karuna Dharma gave me,” says Echols, his voice muffled through the wire-mesh strip along the bottom of the Plexiglas. “She’s the abbess of the IBMC, the International Buddhist Meditation Center, in Los Angeles. Your teacher gives you a new name once you’re a novice monk, as I am. The teacher’s name becomes the student’s last name.”
It was Frankie Parker, another prisoner on Arkansas’ death row, who introduced Echols to Zen Buddhism. Parker, known as Jusan, was executed by lethal injection on August 8, 1996, despite appeals for clemency by the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela and others. After Parker’s death, Echols “took refuge” — was inducted as a Buddhist layperson — with the Zen priest who had been Parker’s teacher. In 2001, Echols took the first steps toward total ordination with Reverend Karuna.
“I practice zazen meditation, yoga and tai chi,” says Echols, 28, his dark eyes staring out from behind wire rims that make the gaunt, raven-haired inmate look like a graduate student. “Any form of martial arts is really frowned upon here, so that’s out. When I first started, I was doing up to five or six hours of meditation a day. Now it’s more like an hour in the morning and an hour at night during weekdays.”
Meditating is made more difficult by the chaos of Echols’ surroundings. The schizophrenic next door to him is a Jesus freak and likes to watch Benny Hinn all day on the shared TV set. Also, the shouting of deranged inmates never ceases, and, from what Echols says, the majority of cross-cell confabs consist of one inmate telling another how many times he’s going to stab and/or fuck him, though not necessarily in that order. All of which is hardly conducive to spiritual pursuits.
Jason, Damien, Jessie by Chad Robertson
Echols credits the discipline of Buddhism with helping him to survive being in lockdown nearly 24 hours a day, seven days a week. He’s allowed a 10-minute shower three times a week, and every other day he’s supposed to get an hour of exercise in the yard, though more often than not the guards “forget.” In the 10 years he’s been in “safe keeping” (hence the “SK” prefixed to his number), he’s been the victim of the usual prison bullshit — like the time a guard planted a shank in his cell and subsequently confined him to the hole. Were it not for Buddhism and his wife, Lorri, an architect from New York who married Echols in a Buddhist ceremony in 2000 and now lives in Little Rock, his anger at being number one of the West Memphis Three — notorious convicted kid killers and causes célèbres — would have consumed him.
“I had to do something about it. Zen Buddhism has allowed me to control that rage. Without it and without Lorri, I would have given up long ago.”
Shortly after he says this, a blue-shirted guard knocks on the door to the visitor’s cubicle and tells us it’s time. Three and a half hours have passed. Echols rises, places a hand against the glass to thank me for coming. “I actually enjoyed it,” he says, seeming somewhat surprised by the admission. As I begin to follow the guard out the door, Echols bows to me Japanese style two or three times, an unexpected act of humility that both embarrasses and saddens me.
I walk out of that red-brick sore of a building, past tall steel fencing topped with razor wire, thinking of Echols returning to that 9-by-12-foot cell. As I head back through miles of farmland to the relative civilization of Little Rock, I wonder how Echols’ life could possibly get any worse.
The answer comes about a week later when, under the cover of darkness and with no warning, Arkansas’ Department of Corrections moves all 39 men on death row at Tucker to a so-called SuperMax facility, some 90 minutes south, where they will each be held in what is essentially solitary confinement. Echols’ cell is now three concrete walls and a solid steel door with a slit through which he’ll be fed. In one wall, behind glass, is a TV set over which he has no control. He cannot even listen to classical music on his small transistor radio because the prison’s thick walls make reception impossible. It remains to be seen if he will have access to all of the books supporters send him via his wish list at Amazon.com.
From the cacophony of screams to the silence of an Orwellian dungeon, Echols’ trials seem never-ending. He’ll need all the strength he derives from his Zen exercises to endure this latest ordeal. Even then, his extreme isolation from the world is especially troubling, almost as if the prison authorities are hoping he’ll commit suicide to save them the trouble of executing him.
Two thousand miles west, in an especially funky little cranny of Los Angeles’ Lincoln Heights, artist Emmeric James Konrad is hard at work on a giant crucifix in the studio of his townhouse apartment. Actually, the crucifix is still mostly in his mind and in his sketchbook: stark black-and-white images of three murdered 8-year-olds that will form the head and arms of a colossal 8-by-10-foot cross.
Help Me I Want Out by the Clayton Brothers
“I’ve already told them I want an entire wall,” says Konrad, excitedly. “I’m going to spray-paint a black outline around it. In the center will be the dead kid with the bite marks, on the bottom will be the stepfather, and below him will be the initials of the three kids, a line of red going through them, with the stepdad’s initials below. You know, like a gangbanger’s tags.”
Konrad’s creepy conception incorporates three famous photos of Christopher Byers, Stevie Branch and Michael Moore, as they were in life before their bodies were pulled from the muddy water of a drainage ditch running through a spooky patch of woods known as the Robin Hood Hills in West Memphis, Arkansas. They were found there May 6, 1993, a day after they had been reported missing, naked and tied ankle to wrist with their own shoelaces, like deer after the kill. The “stepfather” Konrad refers to is John Mark Byers, known to the viewers of the award-winning HBO documentaries Paradise Lost: The Child Murders of Robin Hood Hills and Paradise Lost 2: Revelations as the belligerent, mullet-headed oaf whose comic self-incriminations are lost on the Keystone Kops at the West Memphis Police Department.
Instead, the police alleged that the three children were murdered as part of some sort of sloppy satanic ritual carried out by Damien Echols, then 18, and his two cultic cohorts, Jessie Misskelley, 17, and Jason Baldwin, 16. Problem is, the cops never had any real evidence to link Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley to the slayings, which were especially brutal — Christopher Byers was emasculated. Though the boys had been mercilessly battered and mutilated, there was no blood found at the site, nor were any murder weapons recovered. This startling lack of clues encouraged the 80-member police force to look to the supernatural for an answer, and they found it in Echols, a self-described Wiccan at the time who liked to wear black, listen to heavy metal music and read Stephen King.
With the confession of the mentally handicapped Misskelley acquired through ye olde third degree and dutifully leaked to the press, and a public mood more akin to Marion Starkey’s The Devil in Massachusetts than Harper Valley P.T.A., the authorities railroaded Echols, et al., with the aid of two pliant juries. The alt-weekly Arkansas Times referred to them as “Witch Trials,” and the phrase “satanic panic” was bandied about. Misskelley and Baldwin caught life without parole. Echols got death and has been waiting to die ever since. They’re now known worldwide as the West Memphis Three.
“I wanted to bring it back to the three boys who were murdered,” says Konrad, a silver-haired, motorcycle-riding ex-Marine who, in paint-splattered jeans and T-shirt, looks every inch the artist. “I don’t want it to just be these guys get out of prison and it to end. I want it to be these guys get out of prison, and they get the guy who did this.”
Out of the paint-and-paper chaos of Konrad’s workspace emerge the faces of the dead children, rendered in charcoal, their spectral visages hovering like nightmares. In the background, Konrad’s CD player is cranking out a cover of the Stones’ “Paint It Black” by the L.A. band the Hyperions.
I feel a weird tingle, like a cold salamander slithering up my spine, as I look at the images.
“I want it to have that feel of an icon, like the Hispanic graves where they have the picture of the deceased. It’s been so hard for me to do this. Once I get going, usually I can bang stuff out, but this kills me. I have to keep walking away,” says Konrad.
Konrad is but one of about 20 artists set to participate in a show at downtown’s sixspace gallery September 6 through 20. “Cruel and Unusual: An Exhibition To Benefit the West Memphis Three” is meant both as a fund-raiser for the WM3’s legal-defense fund, the entity that pays the legal bills associated with the appeals for the three convicts, and as a commemorative event to mark the 10th anniversary of their arrests, in June of 1993. Featured will be the artwork of Marilyn Manson, Raymond Pettibon, Exene Cervenka, Robbie Conal, Shepard Fairey, Glen E. Friedman and others. Winona Ryder will host the opening-night reception Saturday from 5 to 10 p.m., and Jello Biafra will be in house to render one of his spoken-word rants. Also present will be Arkansas journalist Mara Leveritt, signing copies of her eyeball-popping exposé Devil’s Knot: The True Story of the West Memphis Three (Atria/Simon & Schuster), the bible for anyone interested in the crime.
Raymond Pettibon’s Remember the West Memphis Three
The exhibit’s being organized by the L.A.-based Web site www.WM3.org, also known as the West Memphis Three “support group,” run by a handful of Angelenos who for the past seven years have tirelessly publicized the case and helped turn it into a movement on par with the effort to free Rubin “Hurricane” Carter in the ’70s. The art show is the brainchild of Chad Robertson, a painter and graphic designer with extensive contacts in L.A.’s art world. His girlfriend, Kathy Bakken, one of the founding members of the WM3 support group, introduced him to the case.
“She broke it to me on our first date,” says Robertson, who with his spiked black hair looks like he’d still fit right in at the Big O skate park in Orange County where he spent his early teens. “I borrowed the Paradise Lost videos from her and watched the first one by myself. I was kinda like, ‘Man, something’s wrong, but those guys are fucking crazy.’ Then I watched the second one, and I was like, ‘Holy shit! These guys are so fucking innocent.’”
It’s a common reaction for those who’ve seen both documentaries. In the first, filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky left viewers with the niggling feeling that Echols, Misskelley and Baldwin may have had something to do with the crime, even though there appeared to be nothing of substance in the prosecution’s case. However, in the sequel, Berlinger and Sinofsky go bare-knuckles with the proposition that the West Memphis Three are guilty. They focus on the drug-addled, borderline-psychotic behavior of John Mark Byers, the mysterious demise of his wife, Melissa, whose cause of death is still “undetermined,” and the highly suspicious way he just happened to lose all of his teeth around the same time bite-mark evidence became a crucial issue in the appeals process. In short, it’s difficult to come away from Paradise Lost 2 and not believe that the West Memphis Three are the victims of a colossal miscarriage of justice.
Initially, Robertson planned to paint only the three men, but then he read an interview with Henry Rollins, a supporter of the WM3 who last year released Rise Above: 24 Black Flag Songs To Benefit the West Memphis Three and has since been doing a worldwide tour to support the album, which includes covers by Iggy Pop, Lemmy and Ice T. (According to Rollins’ Web site, $10,000 has gone to the WM3’s legal-defense fund so far.) In the article, Rollins discussed the case and his activism, saying he’d run out of ideas and would like to hear from anyone who had any. The proverbial light bulb went on over Robertson’s head, and “Cruel and Unusual,” a particularly apt title in view of Echols’ recent treatment, was born.
“Originally, I picked Raymond Pettibon just based on his artwork,” says Robertson. “He’s so outspoken, with an extremely interesting point of view. And I felt he would be a really great voice for what’s going down — the strangeness of this matching the strangeness of his art. Then I picked some of my heroes, like Exene — X, of course, was my all-time favorite band. Then, as the show started picking up speed, Kathy brought in Matt Mahurin, and Grove brought in Floria Sigismondi. So it wasn’t all just my choosing. But the original, core people were, and they were based on the punk rock values, shall we say.”
Many artists in the show expressed a personal connection to the case in addition to a desire to raise awareness of the larger issues involved. For Dead Kennedys founder Jello Biafra, the idea of people being sentenced to life in prison or death row because of their appearance and their musical tastes struck a nerve.
“I was an outcast from the moment I started school,” explains Biafra, “and it took me many years before I became proud of that. It still meant I wound up accused of many things I didn’t do both at school and at home, and it kind of stoked a fire inside of me as far as my strong opinions of the justice system go.”
Poster artist and billboard liberator Shepard Fairey, he of the ubiquitous Obey Giant images, met Robertson at Rollins’ free Amoeba show back in December to promote the Rise Above CD. Fairey, who recalls being harassed by Southern cops for “looking funny,” instantly signed on, and did a blue-and-black silk-screened poster of Rollins to benefit the WM3. Sales of the poster have so far garnered the legal-defense fund $2,000, and Fairey’s doing a two-tone silk-screen of the three young men for the show.
Punk rock Daumier Raymond Pettibon’s Remember the West Memphis Three is a scathing, hilarious denunciation of America’s backstabbing snitch culture wherein Joe Citizen is your worst Stalinist nightmare come true. Other than its title, the pen-and-ink drawing does not refer directly to the case.
“It’s human nature to have concerns raised by the things you’re closest to,” explains Pettibon. “I think the fact that it had to do with rock music and that sort of thing probably brings a lot of attention to it from artists and musicians and so forth. That’s a genuine response, but in my case, I’d be suspicious of going in that direction because this sort of thing happens, it’s systemic. That’s kind of the problem when there’s so little attention raised to the many victims of the justice system.”
In November, the support group went to Arkansas to visit the WM3 in their respective prisons. It was Robertson’s first trip, the umpteenth for the other hardcore members of this late-30s-to-early-40-something Mod Squad, which includes writer and prop maestro Burk Sauls, photographer Grove Pashley, Frontier Records owner Lisa Fancher, and graphic artist Bakken. The art show was already in the planning stages, but stepping through the looking glass into the reality of the Arkansas pen motivated Robertson. Using images he captured with a digital camera, he created an oil-on-canvas triptych of the young men reminiscent of Lucian Freud and David Hockney. Titled simply Jason, Damien, Jessie, the men’s faces are studies in fear and suffering, their features made to seem double-exposed, thus intensifying the emotions portrayed.
In comparison with the trip, organizing the show has been a whiz. “Everyone’s been really great in calling me back, and everyone’s said yes,” Robertson says. He finally settled on gallery newcomer sixspace at 549 W. 23rd Street, downtown, whose owners generously donated their time and space. “They’re a really awesome young married couple, Caryn Coleman and Sean Bonner,” says Robertson. “Glen Friedman was their first show, which is pretty cool. I love his work, and I really liked the people who were showing up there. It’s not like a gallery where little rich ladies go to buy paintings, like at Bergamot.”
The advance buzz for the show has spread to such places as the New York Post, Wired magazine, MTV.com, People.com and Eonline.com. Robertson deserves credit for what promises to be a successful event. However, “Cruel and Unusual” is in fact just the most recent manifestation of a pop-culture phenomenon that has its ground zero in Los Angeles with Sauls, Pashley, Bakken and Fancher — the core of www.wm3.org. In the midst of this Big Nowhere, there are actually a few human beings lurking about, and a goodly number work in the entertainment biz, believe it or not.
“Everybody has their function,” explains Fancher, who runs punk-pioneer label Frontier Records (Adolescents, Circle Jerks, Suicidal Tendencies) from her small house in Valley Village. “Kathy and Grove are real Web-savvy, graphic artists and all that kind of stuff. We’re all really good friends now, which is really an amazing byproduct of this whole thing. We actually go to the movies and do non–West Memphis things together. But it’s tough, we feel so attached to the guys, it’s like it’s happening to your family or something. When you actually go to the prisons, you’re just so drawn to their plight.”
Since Fancher was already familiar with mail order, she eventually slid into the role of heading up the merchandising department for the site. One of her ideas: a POW (“Prisoner of West Memphis”) bracelet modeled on the POW/MIA bracelets sold by Vietnam-vet support groups in the ’80s, with the names of all three men in black, their arrest date and a blank space to fill in their eventual release date. Proceeds go to maintain the Web site and publicize the case.
Bakken, an intelligent woman with a generous smile and charming Kentucky twang, designs advertising for Fox Broadcasting, but creating movie posters has always been her passion. It was while she was working for an ad agency with a contract to do the art for HBO’s America Undercover series that she first saw Paradise Lost. It was 1996, and she had taken the video home as research for the key art, which she designed. In it she recognized everything she loathed about the South, the narrow-mindedness and religious bigotry.
She shared the tape with two friends — Sauls, whom she knew from the time she was working for CNN in Atlanta, where he’d been a video-store clerk and an aspiring filmmaker, and Pashley, a commercial photographer from Ogden, Utah, whom she’d met here in L.A. They were both intrigued, though maybe Sauls more than Pashley at first.
The group hopped on the still-nascent Internet, but found only dribs and drabs. After HBO showed the film, they began discussing the case on different newsgroups. A Harvard student named Max Shaeffer built them a small, four-page Web site about a year after the film came out. He graduated, and they took it over.
Since then, it’s grown to a gargantuan 850 pages and includes an extensive archive of photos, court documents, evidence, trial synopses, press accounts, interviews, the latest news on the appeals process, updates on the health and welfare of the three inmates, links, and even QuickTime footage of Baldwin and Misskelley. According to Bakken, the site averages 1,500 to 2,500 hits a day, but spiked as high as 70,000 hits a day when Paradise Lost 2: Revelations was shown on HBO. Their announcement-only e-mail list has 4,000 addresses, and their active discussion list includes more than 800 people. Though there are other West Memphis Three Web sites and message boards, WM3.org is the grandpappy of them all. Many, such as the fiery Arkansas Web site ARWAR.org, use information and photos culled from their cyber progenitor.
One of the more amusing bits of self-promotion on the site is the popular black T-shirt featuring mug shots of Baldwin, Echols and Misskelley and the slogan “Free the West Memphis Three” in white. Sauls designed the shirts, which sell for $25, and they’ve achieved a sort of cult-icon status. Dawson’s Creek characters have worn them, as have socially conscious celebs such as Eddie Vedder, Corey Taylor of Slipknot, Henry Rollins, South Park co-creator Trey Parker, Metallica’s Jason Newsted, and Eddie Spaghetti of the Supersuckers. After every sighting, a photo and a news item with the exclamation “John Doe Wears the Shirt!” goes up.
And yet the support group’s influence is far more profound: The Web site also raises money for the prisoners’ commissary accounts, which allows them to buy such exotic items as bread, peanut butter, vitamins and toothpaste. They provide a direct link to their Amazon wish lists, usually the safest way to send the WM3 books. The attorneys for the three men keep the support group at arm’s length for legal reasons, but the Web site has long opened with a letter from Lorri Davis, Damien Echols’ wife, asking for donations to the WM3’s legal-defense fund, an entirely separate entity, from which many of the lawyers, investigators and others laboring on the case are paid.
“What they’re doing has been instrumental in keeping this case in the public eye,” says Misskelley’s longtime lawyer Dan Stidham, the roly-poly Atticus Finch of the Paradise Lost films. “Unfortunately, in a lot of these cases where a miscarriage of justice has occurred, there’s no Web site, no HBO documentary. They have the tendency to get swept under the rug, especially here in the South, where the death penalty tends to be more prevalent.”
Indeed, there might never have been a Paradise Lost 2, or at least not one in its present form, had it not been for the support group. Much of Paradise Lost 2 deals with the efforts of the Web-site folks to affect the case. They more or less play the part of narrators, traveling to Arkansas to witness the appeals process, interacting with unusual characters like John Mark Byers, and asking the questions that we the audience would ask if we could. Their amateur sleuthing got noted profiler Brent Turvey involved, which led to the discovery of bite marks on one of the victims. Dental impressions were taken of all three of the convicted men, and none of those impressions matched the bite marks.
Unfortunately, Judge David Burnett, the judge in both trials, who, through a quirk in Arkansas law, is allowed to rule on his own trial as a part of the appeals process, did not agree that this new evidence was significant.
“Burnett decided he was an odontologist and said they weren’t bite marks, though he’d just been told they were,” says a contemptuous Sauls. “The court ordered dental impressions taken from the guys in prison when they apparently figured it was worth doing. But when the results came back and they didn’t match, he says, ‘Oh, they aren’t bite marks.’”
Another Southerner, who hails from Tallahassee, Florida, Sauls is the smart-ass of the group. His loft in the Brewery complex downtown is part fun house, part freak show, part workspace filled with items he’s made for his other gig: freelance movie-prop maestro. When I visit him for the article, he’s hard at work pumping out fake Nazi gold bars for the film adaptation of the Hell Boy comic book series. On his bookcase is a little portrait he painted of the West Memphis Police Department’s Chief Inspector, Gary Gitchell, the person primarily responsible for arresting the WM3, his hands dripping blood and gore.
“My connection to it is that it’s just familiar to me,” Sauls remarks in what’s left of his Deep South drawl. “I grew up in the Bible Belt, and I remember everyone talking about devil worshippers. I remember hearing the argument that if you don’t go to church, that means you must worship Satan, because if you don’t worship Jesus, then it follows automatically that you must therefore worship Satan. And if you worship Satan, what’s stopping you from killing people?”
As an erstwhile son of the South, I can remember the kind of moronic, Bible-thumping totalitarianism he’s describing. Most denizens of Los Angeles have no idea. You never know what’s going to come out of Sauls’ mouth next. In glasses, his head shaved like a homeboy’s, he has this oddball sang-froid that makes him difficult to read. But he admits that his “second job” affects him.
“It’s tough sometimes, especially visiting the guys in prison, which is depressing,” he says. “And it’s sad to think about the kids who’ve been murdered. There are one or two people out there who’ve accused us of supporting child-killers. But part of the reason we got so heavily involved in this thing is because on our first trip out there to Arkansas, we met Dan Stidham. He put a bunch of the autopsy photos in front of us. I guess he was testing us, you know. Since we were from California, he probably thought we were ‘Save the Whales’ kind of people. He laid these horrible pictures out, and it was shocking. Not something you see every day. But we really looked at them, and really began to realize how terrible and complicated this crime really was.”
Grove Pashley recalls that moment with Stidham back in 1996 as being a real turning point for him personally. Tall and physically fit, with dirty-blond hair and blue eyes, Pashley describes himself as a “behind-the-scenes guy,” who’s not afraid to call up the lawyers, the press or whoever needs calling. He says Sauls and Bakken “were the first to jump on this,” but Pashley was holding back a bit up until that point.
“It had a huge impact on us when we saw the dead children,” says Pashley. “We realized for the first time, it wasn’t just these three guys who are serving sentences, it’s these three little children as well. And Dan said this to us — and it was so true back then — the only people around who are going to help these guys are sitting in this room right now. We’d discussed doing the support fund before, but that is when reality hit. It gave us a responsibility I almost didn’t want to take on. I always feel like I didn’t choose it, it chose me.”
Pashley’s stark, black-and-white pictures of Damien, Jessie and Jason will also be in the show. Like Sauls, Bakken and Fancher, he’s usually wearing one of the POW bracelets. But he took it to the next level after the second film came out, getting WM3 tattooed in Braille on the inside of his left wrist. “For me, it’s about blind justice,” he says, as if he wants to help justice read. There’s the sense that the WM3 have “marked” him, just as the tattooist did with needle and blue ink.
“There are times and days when I get consumed by it,” he says. “And it seems to all happen at once. Most of the time when I’m working on it myself and seeing the stuff that’s going on and knowing what’s going on and convinced as I am that they didn’t do this crime, I get really optimistic. But when I see how slow things go and I can see that the money is in such desperate need — more now than during the trial — and when I talk to people in Arkansas who say it’s not going to happen on the state level, I wonder, ‘God, how much more do we need?’ What’s it going to take to convince these people that these guys are innocent and that they got a real killer out there?”
“I just know we’re right,” Bakken says. “I’m just so convinced, so adamant that these guys are going to get out one of these days, and my job is to try to make their lives easy and bearable until then — giving people access to them, so their viewpoint is always focused outside prison instead of in. They’re not convicts. They’re not normal prisoners whose lives have become prison. They’re always focused on us, on their girlfriends, or their wives. They have all of these supporters giving them all of this love. Sending them letters, money, offering to help. I like keeping them focused that way. So they’re not making their life in prison, they’re preparing for life outside.”
“I personally can’t imagine Damien ever being executed,” says Pashley. “That would affect me too much. I would just be so bitter and angry.”
The more I learn about the case, about the incompetence and corruption of the officials in Arkansas, the more I too am fearful of how it will all end. Mara Leveritt’s book Devil’s Knot documents in heavily footnoted detail how drug trafficking through Crittenden County — where West Memphis is located — has tainted the legal process there. She proffers evidence that John Mark Byers was a narc for the Crittenden County Drug Task Force, and she alleges a systematic pattern of preferential treatment given to Byers in a series of sometimes-violent criminal incidents before and after the murders took place. Byers, who reportedly lives in Tennessee somewhere near Memphis, could not be reached for comment, but his bizarre, antisocial behavior in both Paradise Lost films has done nothing to calm the speculation surrounding him. Leveritt says the West Memphis Police Department “bent over backwards” not to investigate him properly.
“If you look at the way the police questioned John Mark Byers, it does not conform to the way police in any other police department in the country I believe would look at a man with that record,” Leveritt tells me. “The very fact that here is a guy whose stepson is murdered and nowhere in the police investigative file is there a mention of the fact that he was convicted of a ‘terroristic threatening’ of his ex-wife. It boggles the mind.”
While looking into Leveritt’s claims, I spoke to Victoria Hutcheson, who testified against Jessie Misskelley and who was instrumental in helping the West Memphis Police Department pin this triple murder on the WM3. Now 40, and still in Arkansas, Hutcheson expressed profound regret for her role in the investigation and Misskelley’s trial, and she claimed she was under duress from the West Memphis PD to act as she did. She said there were indirect threats by the WMPD at the time to implicate her in the crime, and possibly take her child Aaron from her. As for her testimony against Misskelley:
“Someone should have checked my blood alcohol content. It took a lot for me to get up there and say all that. I can’t sit here and tell you I lied, because I don’t want to go to prison for — whatever it is — perjuring myself without an attorney present. But someone should’ve checked to see how many pills I’d had before I got on the stand. There were certain times I even threw Stidham some remarks, trying to steer it another way. That’s a part of my life I regret, very much so. Jessie was like a little brother to me. And I had to make a choice between him and my son.”
Asked specifically about the story she told, of attending some sort of witches’ orgy in the West Memphis woods with Misskelley and the others, she was intentionally vague.
“That story evolved. Can we say it like that? Instead of the story was real, the story was anything, it evolved.
“I thought that one day I could take it all back. I don’t know how I can without it ruining me.” Later, she added about the police, “Yeah, it’s just their story, that’s the only one that works. You don’t come at them with anything else. They were running the show.”
Hutcheson says she lives in fear of Byers coming after her, and says she believes Byers had something to do with the crime. Interestingly, at least one of the jurors in the Echols-Baldwin trial concurs with her suspicion of Byers, who had to testify at the trial when he gave the HBO filmmakers a hunting knife with blood on it that they subsequently turned over to the West Memphis PD (Tests showed that it could have been either Byers’ blood or the blood of his murdered stepson.)
“I truly believe he was there or had something to do with it,” former juror Sharon French told me regarding Byers’ testimony. “But he wasn’t on trial. Us jurors discussed that, that he was there, but we couldn’t do anything about that because he wasn’t on trial.”
As for Echols, she explained her regret this way:
“I’m sorry I voted to give him the death penalty. I have one son who’s about their age. During the trial, everyone thought they were guilty from the start. Now I don’t know. He maybe ought to have a new trial. If the DNA proves he didn’t do it, I hope he gets off. Now I hope both or all three of them get a new trial, if there’s new evidence and DNA.”
Nevertheless, the police, the prosecutors and the judges involved remain hostile to any idea that they may have convicted the wrong men and let the real killer or killers remain free. Prosecutor Brent Davis, who bears an eerie resemblance to Brad Dourif’s character in Mississippi Burning, says he has “not one iota” of a doubt. His former deputy John Fogleman, now a circuit-court judge, claimed he was still convinced, though he says, “There are always little nagging doubts about things, things that don’t make sense, or don’t add up.”
Some of the things that don’t add up include why in 1992 — one year before the murders — Judge Burnett formally expunged Byers’ felony conviction of threatening his ex-wife with an electric shocker. There’s also the fact that 10 years ago, Brent Davis declined to prosecute Byers for a scam that involved the theft of two Rolex watches from UPS, even though he had confessed to the crime, according to Leveritt’s book. And there’s the mysterious death of Byers’ wife, Melissa, who never awoke from lying down to take a nap with her husband in March of 1996.
The apparently “incarceration-proof” Byers finally did 15 months in prison, but only after he was nabbed for selling Xanax to undercover narcotics officers in an incident even Arkansas police couldn’t ignore. But it goes higher than Arkansas. Leveritt’s book discusses an incident in which Byers was arrested in Memphis in July of 1992, nearly a year before the murders, by Sheriff’s deputies on charges of conspiring to sell cocaine and carrying a dangerous weapon. Sometime during the night, he was taken into the custody of the U.S. Marshals Service. The paper trail ends there.
Chief Deputy Tommy Thompson, at the U.S. Marshals Service, Western District of Tennessee, responded to a Freedom of Information Act request by stating, “We do have some records in our computer of him being in our custody in 1992.” But he added, “Our headquarters will have to advise me what can be released.” A few days later, the Justice Department formally rejected the FOIA request on grounds that releasing the information would be a violation of Byers’ privacy.
Damien Echols may be one of the best-read individuals I’ve ever met. In fact, he tells me he limits himself to a book every couple of days because his eyesight is getting so poor. Physically, with his pale complexion and coal-black hair, he looks like Jack White of the White Stripes. He’d fit right in at some coffeehouse in Santa Monica talking about Carl Jung or Martin Heidegger, two of his favorite authors. During our meeting, the conversation jumped all over, from his interest in tarot to Buffy the Vampire Slayer (“How could they cancel that show?!”) to the significance of certain dreams and nightmares. He tells me that his dreams are mostly about the West Memphis PD harassing him.
If he gets out, Echols plans to move as far away from Arkansas as he can get, definitely to the West Coast, where many of his friends live. “Seattle sounds nice,” he tells me. Also, his pal Eddie Vedder lives there. “I’d like to open a used-book store, but with really good used books. But it wouldn’t just be a bookstore. We’d sell oils and incense, things like that, and give classes in yoga.” He says he just wants to disappear after this is all over. He doesn’t think about death, he says, or worry about his appeals process. He leaves dealing with the lawyers to Lorri, who is his bridge to the outside world.
It was through Lorri that he granted this visit at the last minute, knowing that, as he told me in a telephone interview in 2000, most people “cannot separate me from the case.” Because he was seeing me against the advice of counsel, Lorri had asked me not to record our conversation or take notes. My account here, including the quotes, is taken from memory and from notes made afterward.
Last year, Echols’ lawyers petitioned the Arkansas Supreme Court to retest some of the biological evidence for DNA using more sensitive tests than were available a decade ago. After granting them several delays, the Supreme Court finally ordered that Echols’ defense get the testing done before a deadline that will just have expired as this paper goes to print. When I pressed Joe Margulies, Echols’ top lawyer, as to why the defense was letting this valuable opportunity slip away, he hung up on me, saying coldly, “If it doesn’t meet with your satisfaction, that’s unfortunate.”
In my rental car, passing through small towns that look like they’ve been trapped in amber since Eisenhower was president, I keep thinking of that line in the Dylan song about Rubin Carter: “How can the life of such a man/Be in the palm of some fool’s hand?” That was off the 1975 Desire album, and Carter’s ordeal wasn’t over until a federal judge ordered him released in 1985 and prosecutors declined to retry him a third time. Echols may have a long road ahead before justice is done, if he can stay alive long enough to walk it.
“Cruel and Unusual: An Exhibition To Benefit the West Memphis Three” will be at sixspace gallery September 6 through 20.