Prairie Pop: To Hell in a Handbasket – “Paradise Lost” and the story of the West Memphis Three

The West Memphis Three were tried and convicted for Satanic murder, but only guilty of loving metal.

In 1993, three second grade boys were murdered in West Memphis, Arkansas—a deeply conservative community in the heart of the Bible Belt. Naturally, Satanism was blamed and suspicion was cast on a trio of outsiders: Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, Jr. “Fears of satanic cults reached their peak last week when the teenagers were arrested,” a local television station reported. “I heard things before about cults and I didn’t really believe it,” a local man told a news crew, “but some of the kids in the neighborhood said there is, and they found some animals back there that looked like they had been cut up.”

This was nothing more than a rehashing of the old animals-mutilated-by-Satanists urban legend, which had been debunked two decades earlier by FBI forensics experts. In the absence of facts, people let loose their darkest imaginations. A neighbor of one of the accused told reporters that she stopped letting her son play with Jason Baldwin after her husband saw some drawings he made. They featured snakes, weird sayings and other signs of devil worship. “Some of them,” she added, “they were Latin and stuff.” These stories spread through word of mouth, got picked up by the news media and then cycled back into the community’s gossip mill. This fact-distorting feedback loop quickly got out of hand.

“At some time, all three suspects lived in the Lakeshore trailer park,” another news program reported. “Residents here claim to have seen strange ritualistic meetings at the park prior to the murders.” Melissa Byers, the mother of one victim, said at the time, “We were totally unaware that there was a satanic cult in West Memphis, that there were Satan worshippers in West Memphis. I didn’t hear anything about this until my child was sacrificed to Satan. Then I heard about it!” To call it a modern day witch hunt wouldn’t be too far off the mark. “I’m all for them burning ’em at the stake, just like they did in Salem,” said Todd Moore, the father of another victim.

Jerry Driver, a West Memphis juvenile officer, said the region had been bursting with rumors of devil worship in the years leading up to the murders. The epidemic of Satanism that was supposedly sweeping the nation provided an explanatory narrative that let people make sense of this shocking crime. The police department asked Driver to come up with a list of those who might be satanically inclined, and Damien Echols was soon was singled out as the murderous ringleader.

“Damien’s name was mentioned early on by a lot of people,” said Gary Gitchell, chief investigator for the West Memphis Police. “He does act strange. He wears the black clothing which creates attention to him.” When reporters asked Gitchell how sure he was of Echols’ guilt, on a scale of one to ten, his Spinal Tap-esque reply was a confident, “Eleven.” Critics of the case argue that the West Memphis Three were targeted because they wore black, listened to metal and seemed strange. That was pretty much all that was needed to sentence Echols to death, and the other two to life in prison.

The eighteen year legal battle that ensued became a cause célèbre after the release of the 1996 documentary Paradise Lost and its two sequels. The films stirred the passions of thousands—including myself, a kid who grew up in the South at the height of the Satanic Panics. I wore black clothes, didn’t fit in, made weird art and was prone to shouting “Satan!” in crowded malls, just to mess with people. Like many others who were moved to tears by the Paradise Lost documentaries, my warped sense of humor and cynical attitude could have gotten me in serious trouble had I ever been in the wrong place at the wrong time.

During the trial’s closing arguments, the prosecuting attorney told the jury, “Anything wrong with wearing black in and of itself? No. Anything wrong with the heavy metal stuff in and of itself? No. But when you look at it together and you begin to see inside Damien Echols, you see inside that person and there’s not a soul in there.” It was this sort of thinking that sent him to death row. Earlier in the trial, the prosecutor asked expert witness Dale Griffis what devil worshippers looked like, and whether Echols fit the profile. Predictably, the teen did show signs of being a homicidal Satanist—an opinion based on the old man’s previous encounters with “people wearing black fingernails, having their hair painted black, wearing black t-shirts.”

The prosecution’s case hinged on Griffis’ testimony, despite his questionable training. To begin with, he took no coursework to earn a doctorate from Columbia Pacific University (an unaccredited distance learning school later closed by court order). When the defense objected to Griffis’ qualifications, the gum-chewing judge grew irritated. “I’m not sure in Arkansas or any other state that you have to have any kind of degree to be an expert in a particular field,” Judge David Burnett snapped. “I’m not persuaded at all by your argument about a mail order PhD.”

After eighteen years in prison, the three walked free in 2011 when new DNA evidence proved they had no connection to the crime. “Most likely these defendants, the state believes, could very easily have been acquitted,” prosecuting attorney Scott Ellington told reporters, explaining the plea deal that led to their release. As Damien Echols’ attorney Dennis Riordan said just after their release, “Does anyone believe that if the state had even the slightest continuing conviction that they were guilty, that they would let these men free today? That would have never happened.”

It’s heartbreaking that the West Memphis Three spent their entire adulthood in prison for no reason other than crazy conspiracy theories and religious paranoia about Satanism. If not for the attention raised by the Paradise Lost films, which helped generate funds for their ongoing legal defense, Damien Echols surely would have been given a lethal injection. “We were absolutely poverty stricken white trash,” he told the filmmakers. “I really do believe these people would have gotten away with murdering me if it were not for what you guys did—for being there from the beginning and getting this whole thing on tape.”

No matter how much he jokes about it, Kembrew McLeod does not worship Satan. He lives a peaceful life in Iowa City with his wife, son and two cats—none of whom he has sacrificed in a bloody ritual.

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