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"Go tell Mankind that there are Devils and Witches; and ... those night-birds least appear where the Day-light of the Gospel comes ..."
Cotton Mather, 1689
Through the summer of 1692, twenty people were executed in Salem, Massachusetts. Nineteen were hanged, one was pressed — buried beneath large stones until dead. The twenty had been convicted of diverse crimes, but all their offenses were deemed by the court to be witchcraft. Satan inhabited them, it was said, and threatened every believer, every God-fearing and gospel-reading soul in the town.
Three-hundred years later, the devil by-passed the northeast and showed up in Arkansas. At least, that was what a lot of folks believed.
Three kids. Two bikes. An afternoon in West Memphis, Arkansas, May 5, 1993. The eight-year-old boys — Steve Branch, Christopher Byers, and Michael Moore — had miles to ride before they slept. Then something happened.
When they did not return home that evening, the boys’ parents reported them missing.
Damien Echols was strange. He was eighteen, wore black clothing, listened to Pink Floyd, read Ann Rice novels, and had an interest in the occult. A Crittenden County probation officer, Jerry Driver, was among those who thought it a matter of time until Echols was trouble. Driver had been keeping a keen eye on the teenager, questioning him about the death of a girl in a community far from West Memphis, questioning him about Satanism and cult activity in the area. In the year prior to the events of that May, whenever there was a witches’ sabbath, Driver and his crew were out in force, tracking phantom blood-drinkers, stalking night birds. For his part, Echols explained the difference between paganism and Satanism, but Driver was a pentragram-chaser and Echols had the five-pointed star tattooed on his chest.
Early on the afternoon of May 6, police found the bodies of the three young boys submerged in a drainage ditch. They were nude, hog-tied with their own shoe laces. Autopsies would later reveal that all the boys suffered blunt-force trauma to the head. Two of them drowned. Christopher Byers died from blood loss caused when a sadistic killer tortured and castrated him.
It is understandable that no one in the police department comprehended this brutal crime, and that the people of West Memphis were stirred to a fever of fear and anger. The murderer of three children was loose in their little area of the world.
Jerry Driver could think of only one person capable of what seemed to him sacrificial murders committed by a satanic cult: Damien Echols. The cops agreed. Chief Investigator Gary Gitchell would later assert his absolute certainty about how the investigation evolved. Given the lack of a crime scene, a murder weapon, a motive, evidence of any cult activity, or anything connecting Echols to the dead boys, such certainty was truly a miracle.
When repeated interrogations of Echols produced nothing, a local woman suggested to Jessie Misskelley, an intellectually-challenged teen, that he go to the police and incriminate Damien Echols. In a twelve-hour session, the seventeen-year-old Misskelley gave West Memphis investigators Echols and his friend Jason Baldwin, sixteen. Misskelley also confessed his own involvement in the triple satanic sacrifice despite having little idea what Satanism was. Will miracles never cease?
Evangelical Christianity is structured, rigid, and offers The One True Way. The Gospels are the sacred texts; the churches are at center in the lives of believers. Damien Echols pondered religion. He converted to Catholicism, but soon faded from attendance at St. Michael’s Church in West Memphis. He also considered the mysteries of the universe, his place in the scheme of things, his identity in the world. He struggled with depression, was hospitalized, took his prescribed antidepressant medication, and continued to seek meaning and stability for himself. There were no absolutes for him, no comfort in having good and evil defined for him, in never having to think. When God is manifest in the trees and rocks and streams, and Man is just another of God’s animals, good and evil coexist in the natural order, and Scripture is nothing more than the literature of a time.
In the absence of evidence, one must sometimes extemporize. Stephen King novels suddenly assume devilish proportions. The lyrics of Pink Floyd become damning. Black t-shirts metamorphose into proof of guilt. At court sessions, a frenzied public hurled stones. Between hearings the locals hurled rumors. The trials were acts in a play, chapters in a poorly-written novel. There was no case. There were the three murder victims and how they died, nothing more.
Hysteria ruled. Some called this dizziness "satanic panic." Jessie Misskelley and Jason Baldwin both received sentences of life without parole. Damien Echols, considered the ringleader, was sentenced to death. The myths and madnesses of a community had infected the criminal justice system.
Damien Echols is now twenty-eight years old. He awaits death at the hands of the state. Jessie Misskelley and Jason Baldwin age in Arkansas prisons. Were there other possible suspects? Yes. Did the West Memphis police pursue them? No. Did police compromise the site where the three bodies were found? Yes. Was evidence overlooked in this case? Yes. There have been two documentary films about this case, at least two books, two benefit audio albums, and there is an active international organization dedicated to freeing the "West Memphis Three." Despite the interest and activity, the Arkansas Supreme Court has denied appeal after appeal in the matter. After a decade, time is running out for Damien Echols.
By the fall of 1692, the citizens of Salem, Massachusetts had satisfied their purgative needs. Increase Mather, Cotton’s father, urged the court to disallow "spectral evidence" at trial. The suspected witches who remained in custody were acquitted or pardoned, and quietly released. The court could not resurrect those who were provided with "due process" and executed.
Free the West Memphis 3 2000 The Truth - Steve Earle; Wrong And Important - Rocket From The Crypt; Boys In Black - L7; Heavy Heart - Supersuckers; The Harder They Come - Joe Strummer/The Long Beach Dub All-Stars; Rains On Me - Tom Waits; Poor Girl - Supersuckers; Indicted - Tony Scalzo; Wrath Child - Zeke; Hostile - Kelley Deal; Hwy 5 - The John Doe Thing; Untitled Lullaby - Mark Lanegan; She - Murder City Devils; Highway To Hell - Nashville Pussy; Our Last Goodbye - Killing Joke
Rise Above: 24 Black Flag Songs to Benefit the West Memphis Three -- For the cause of fundraising for the defense of a trio of legally bound Arkansas headbangers--one of whom is currently on death row on the basis of hearsay testimony-- Henry Rollins has resurrected the sacrosanct songs of his legendary former Los Angeles hardcore band Black Flag . Much as he first joined the popular Flag by jumping on stage and grabbing the microphone, Rollins here assigns lead vocals to a bewildering array of guests, including Iggy Pop, Dean Ween, Corey Taylor of Slipknot, Tom Araya of Slayer, Queens of the Stone Age, and Ice T. The Rollins Band convincingly serves as caustic backing band throughout. Protest music godfather Chuck D. of Public Enemy appears as well, though simply to introduce the album.
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