Some days I missed, when the proceedings got too tedious or too depressing, but most days I sat through those boys' murder trials. Sat out in the cheap seats, the back pews, with victims' relatives and defendants' relatives, where every face, right down the line, showed the strain of enduring grief. Faces tightened or twisted or sunken with hollows, eyes with the life cried out of them or leached out by long insomnia. There were three defendants--all boys, not a one of them threatening any time soon to cross over into adulthood. One in the first trial, Jessie Misskelley Jr., age 18 now but mentally probably not half that. Two in the second trial--Damien Echols, 19, said to be the principal killer, who hatched the crime; Jason Baldwin, 16, looking 14, named as associate killer. Three teenage boys charged with killing three small boys, second graders, on the balmy, mosquito-swarmed evening of May 5, 1993, at West Memphis.
The victims were Steve Branch, Chris Byers, and Michael Moore. All eight years old. Friends, out playing together late that afternoon. Snatched up, probably at twilight time, in or near a patch of woods not far from Interstate 40--a happy sylvan hideaway "with hills and trails and woods, with places to play and explore," the prosecutor said. Stripped, hogtied with their shoelaces, tortured: one of them, Chris, bleeding to death after being mutilated (his penis cut off, among other knife wounds); all of them tossed naked and still bound into a drainage ditch where Michael and Steve, the two who were still alive despite having had their skulls bashed in, drowned.
How long this might have taken no one who might have known has said. Probably dark, in the small hours, when their heads were pushed under that muddy water and held under it. Their clothes pushed down into the ditchbank mud and slimed over.
A long drive to and from these trials. Mornings before daylight to Corning or to Jonesboro, midwestern-like towns on Arkansas's periphery, as West Memphis is, seeming farther away than they are; caught often behind the morning schoolbuses, more than once in a chill rain. Legal wrangling occupying the typical a.m. court session, then a somber lunch at McDonalds (these weren't trials that encouraged the appetite), dawdling over the last fries trying to imagine how it happened and why; then afternoons of testimony that never, ever clarified anything; then the weary drive home again at dusk, watching the dark settle across those endless tragic cropfields, the broad guilty delta where this crime was conceived and came to pass. The spectator's route. Every one of these roundtrips a Dantean journey trying to find a trustworthy perspective on a cruel little piece of Hell.
Two trials. The first Jessie Misskelley's, in Corning, a nice, odd town, an old railroad town, in a one-story courthouse that looks like a vintage-'50s nursing home, starting Jan. 19 this year. Jessie M. a strange-looking little character, small and frail, giving the impression of being deformed in some elusive Dickensian way, his manner that of some furtive rodential creature--a tranquillized squirrel perhaps. A passivity about him so profound it strains credulity; he sits all day facing away from judge and jury, staring at his feet; slumping farther and farther floorward in his chair as if he might ooze down and become a puddle between his shoes. Hard to see this scrap of person as an agent of evil.
His trial was separated from that of the other two defendants for two reasons, it seems in retrospect; one, he gave police a statement last June, a month after the killings, that was construed as a confession, and the judge determined that it couldn't be used as evidence against the other defendants; and two, Jessie M. was thought not to have participated in the actual murdering of those little boys. He might even have got off with a lesser charge than murder but for one damning detail in that June statement to police: At one point during the torturing, little Michael Moore slipped his bonds and ran off into the night. And it was Jessie Misskelley, so this statement said, who chased him down and dragged him back to his doom.
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