It was 18 years ago that I first learned about Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley. They were three Arkansas boys then, the same age as I was, from a place that didn’t make a lot of sense to me. They weren’t so very foreign to me, though. They looked like my friends.
I heard about them, at first, as three teenagers who committed a horrible crime, killing three boys near a creek in the woods. There was no ‘alleged’ presented to me then, at least in my own mind. Later, the documentary Paradise Lost captured my attention, because I remembered a vague detail or two about the case, dubbed Murder at Robin Hood Hills. The alleged perpetrators were subsequently dubbed the West Memphis Three.
It’s important to stop here and recognize that three little boys lost their lives. This is not the stuff of asterisks and footnotes.
Their names were Michael Moore, Christopher Byers, and Steven Branch. They were all born in 1984; today, they’d be men in their late twenties.
I watched the film with an objective eye; the kind of objectivity available only to an unaffected mind. As scenes progressed, a likely outcome started to form in my mind, as it does with any movie. But the outcome I expected didn’t happen, and I was confused. Intrigued. Befuddled.
Enraged? Not yet. I was still a teenager, after all, and a starry-eyed one at that. Still young, I thought at the time that justice would soon be served. After all, I’d just watched something play out before me on popular television. There couldn’t possibly be an HBO film made about a flawed murder case without an inevitable redemption coming soon. Could there?
Damien, Jason, and Jessie weren’t immediately redeemed. And I was not part of their tireless fleet of supporters, who never stopped researching, documenting, filming, filing, trying. I was among the thousands who learned of the case initially, knew something wasn’t right, and eventually lost sight of it in the midst of our own lives.
It was more than a decade later that I was reminded of the case again, this time through a follow-up documentary spearheaded by the same team who never left the WM3’s sides. All three men, now in their twenties, still looked like people I’d call my friends.
Today, all of us in our thirties, the WM3 walked out of prison collectively for a crime they each contend they did not commit. This is a contention with which I agree.
Eighteen years have passed since Damien, Jason, and Jessie were sent to prison for the murders of three young boys. In the same time, I have graduated from college and from graduate school. I’ve made countless friends. I’ve watched my oldest niece grow up and my youngest niece born. I’ve won awards for my work at fancy hotels, skied down mountains in Montana, and kissed the Blarney Stone, among other adventures.
I’m so lucky.
I did not, like the West Memphis Three, need to concede guilt to gain my own freedom, or worse, sacrifice nearly two decades of my life to prove my innocence to most, but still not all. That’s what happened today, when Damien, Jason, and Jessie walked out of prison, free men. They took what’s known as an Alford Plea, and with their families at their sides, they walked away free, convicted men. The irony seems lost on the State of Arkansas, which currently sees no need to pursue other investigative avenues in the murder cases of Steven Branch, Michael Moore, and Christopher Byers.
Still, tonight the WM3 are fumbling through what must be a strange journey into their first night out in the world after so many years. In some ways I hope and assume this is a welcome uneasiness. And I understand and accept that, while I don’t see justice, this is a good day.