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Times photographer Brian Chilson and I pulled out of Little Rock in the dark on Friday morning, 4 a.m., heading to Jonesboro to see it all happen. We've been all over the state like that over the years, him riding shotgun with his camera between his feet and a cup of truck stop coffee balanced on his knee, but I can't recall us ever leaving so early, or the two of us being so excited.
I have a very personal connection to the West Memphis Three case. I suppose a lot of people feel the same way. For me, it's because the story is the reason I became a reporter in the first place.
In college, before I ever dreamed of being a journalist, I read Bob Lancaster's original, 1994 reporting on the WM3 trials in the Arkansas Times. He was the first to call into question whether or not the three had gotten a full and fair trial, or even if they were guilty to begin with. Later, I read Mara Leveritt's 1994 interview with Damien Echols, in which he said — in so many words — that he had essentially been convicted and sentenced to death on charges of being a small-town weirdo. Later still, I saw the documentary, "Paradise Lost."
Every time I saw or read something new on the case — most of that coming from Mara — I'd recall my teenage years: bad attitude, black clothes, flipping through religions like a pad of paper, loner, lover of a lot of the same odd books and odd music Echols loved. I'd think: "That could have just as easily been me."
In 2002 — just moved back from Lafayette, Louisiana, with my wife and son, my father not a year in the grave and my heart still broken by his death — I saw an ad in the back of the Arkansas Times looking for a reporter. Being a journalist was never in the cards for me before that moment. I'd toyed with the idea in college, but soon figured I didn't want to spend the rest of my life writing about traffic accidents and sewage projects. But when I saw that ad, I remembered those early stories on the WM3 in the Arkansas Times, before almost anybody else had even considered the idea that Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley were anything less than guilty as sin, and I realized that I wanted to be a part of that.
I thought of all this as my wife's Honda moaned north through the dark toward Jonesboro, toward what might be a resolution to the story that started me in that direction in the first place — some kind of resolution, anyway, other than Baldwin and Misskelley dying in prison; other than Echols walking down the longest hallway of his life to face the needle. The headlights discovered the pool table-flat land north of Searcy foot by foot. The off ramps to sullen towns where zealots might see the Devil under every rock materialized out of the gloom and then fell away. Before long, a thunderstorm reared up over the edge of the world, its guts crawling with yellow lightning.
We were on a long straightaway through the soybean fields when a small sedan with its flashers on rushed up to our bumper then swung into the outside lane and blew past at 90, tail lights soon disappearing into the murk.
We sure do get in a hurry out here, I thought, in this world where time is all we have for sure.
By dawn on Friday, the parking lot outside the Craighead County Courthouse annex — a squat, brown building with all the charm of a bricked-over shipping container — was already a quarter filled, the big satellite trucks growling fumes into the damp air. There were only a handful of supporters there by then, three or four kids in black T-shirts with posterboard signs and a homemade banner painted on a bed sheet. They mingled with the reporters, in their ties and sensible skirts. At one point, a wall of dark clouds rushed over the city like a drawn curtain, causing the camera crews and newscasters to seek shelter with the kids under the overhang in front of the courthouse, but it never did much more than sprinkle for most of the day.
Judge Laser had set an in-chambers meeting with interested parties for 10 a.m., with the public hearing to follow at 11. By 7 a.m., the crowds had started to swell — at first maybe a hundred, then two hundred, then exponentially growing to easily a thousand. They clustered at every door, hoping that would be the one the WM3 would choose to grab their first breath of free air. Up on the second floor, a balding man in a shirt and tie frowned down on the crowd from a window for much of the morning, at times sitting so still that he looked like a painting of a man through the gauzy screen. At one point, a prisoner transport van rolled to the curb in front, causing a flurry of activity. Turned out it was a switcheroo, with the WM3 slipped in the back of the courthouse from an SUV.
By 9 a.m., the parking lot was a circus. Inside, the line to get into the fourth floor courtroom where the public portion of the hearing was to be held was so deep that the fire marshal closed that floor, with uniformed police officers warning even the press away from the elevators. One person who had no trouble getting past the guards, however, was Pearl Jam lead singer Eddie Vedder, who slipped in a side door. He was shorter and thinner than I would have imagined — this man who informed so much of my 20s — but often smiling as he waited with the WM3 faithful to be ferried up to the courtroom. Dixie Chicks lead singer Natalie Maines arrived a few minutes later, looking very thin and with her hair cut almost down to the scalp, eyes hidden behind a large set of Ray Bans.
Outside, everybody you can imagine was in attendance: girls with nose rings and mini-skirts and spiked hair; an old man in a cap that proved his service on some Navy destroyer years before; a baby sleeping serenely on her mother's shoulder. At one point, I spotted two men in dark suits, black beards and matching black fedoras skirting the edge of the crowd, one pacing three feet behind the other as if there was an invisible bar that secured them chest to spine. Bruce Sinofsky and Joe Berlinger — the directors of the two "Paradise Lost" documentaries and a third still to come next year — were there, alternately whispering instructions to camera crews and answering questions for reporters. Berlinger said that he was 29 years old when he started making "Paradise Lost," and is almost 50 now. To see the case come to a conclusion and know their film had a lot to do with it is a good feeling, Berlinger said. He went on to say that if the WM3 did plead guilty to win their freedom, he couldn't blame them. "If I was on death row and had spent 18 years under the conditions Damien has spent, I would take a deal too," he said.
"It's amazing how quickly — when there are political interests and perhaps Dustin McDaniel's gubernatorial run at the end of the year and an embarrassing evidentiary hearing — it's amazing how quickly things can change," he said. "The prosecutor put someone in prison for something they didn't do, and low and behold, BOOM, they can come out."
Throughout the morning, the only way to know when a family member of the defendants or the three young victims was present seemed to be to listen for the hoofbeats of the media. Somebody from the case would walk up, and soon a forest of pole-mounted microphones would sprout up around them, reporters pressing in from all sides with cameras and recorders. At one point, Pam Hobbs, the mother of Stevie Branch, was spotted on a sidewalk beside the courthouse, solemnly puffing away on a cigarette. The cameras and boom mikes moved in and clustered around, refusing to disperse even when Hobbs said she had no comment. Finally, they just filmed her smoking, Hobbs politely turning her head as she exhaled so as not to blow smoke on the congregation.
Damien Echols' mother, Pamela Metcalf, was one of the first family members of the WM3 to arrive, and she came in a wheelchair, pushed by a black-haired woman with a passing resemblance to Damien. Metcalf sat in her chair at the edge of a sidewalk for a long time, staring at the doors of the courthouse, before somebody finally thought to ask her if she was a Somebody. The press dutifully assembled around her after that — 360 degrees at times, not just in her face — and soon she was a woman at the bottom of a well; frail, frowning, dark hair lying on her back and looking as if she wished she could be anywhere but there at that moment. The first question was inevitable: What would she say to her son when she saw him?
"The very first thing I will say to him is I love him," she said. "He knows I'm here for him. I've always been here, and I always will be, and it's time to come home."
A little while after Metcalf arrived, Steve Branch appeared. The father of 8-year-old Stevie Branch — one of the boys stripped and drowned in Ten Mile Bayou all those years ago — Branch's anger seemed to come off him in waves as he spoke to reporters. Unlike some other family members of the victims, Branch had not been swayed by the WM3's case for innocence. On Thursday, he'd tested a gag order imposed on family members and attorneys to register his displeasure about the plea deal. As he spoke on Friday, a radio station van running a live feed in the parking lot played back his words a half-second later, lending a strange echo effect. He said he'd tell Judge Laser that it wasn't too late to change his mind.
"I want [Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley] to go back," he said. "If they're released, at least let them go to another trial and let another jury find them innocent. Don't just give them their walking papers. Don't just set them free just because they said they killed my son."
A few minutes before the hearing, John Mark Byers arrived at the courthouse. Nobody had to ask if he was a Somebody. Byers, who once cursed the WM3 to hellfire at every opportunity, changed his tune a few years back, and has since become a vocal supporter of the WM3. Tall, bald, pale — the kind of guy who might have been cast as a gravedigger in a 1950s melodrama — Byers literally shouted into reporters' outstretched microphones, his voice booming off the front of the courthouse. The plea deal, he said, was "bullshit."
"I want justice, and I want the three of them to be free, and I have no animosity whatsoever towards the Three," he said. "I know they're innocent, and I have been on their side and fighting hard for them since 2007 when I realized I was wrong. They did not kill my son, and this is wrong what the state of Arkansas is doing to cover their ass!"
Something close to silence fell over the crowd once 10 a.m. rolled around, as if people were straining to listen for what was going on upstairs. The police and fire marshal came out and pushed the crowd back to clear the sidewalk. Just after noon, the word came down: The West Memphis Three were free. A cheer rose up. Grown men literally wept, and didn't give a damn who saw them.
I broke from the crowd and went down to the press conference in the basement. First, the prosecutors came in and tried to explain the pleas; to explain that, even though they thought the WM3 would likely win their freedom if retried, prosecutors still believed them to be the sole killers of the three children.
After the prosecutors were gone, Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley came in with their attorneys and supporters, looking like men just woken from long sleep. Monday morning, they had all lived with the idea that they might die in prison. They probably hadn't had a good cheeseburger or a pizza or a milkshake in almost two decades. How long since any of them stood with his feet in running water? How long since any of them had felt the rain? How long since any of them ran as long and as far as he wanted? Now here they were, soon to ride out of Jonesboro; soon to be free to do whatever and eat whatever and love whoever they damn well pleased.
Jessie Misskelley has a jailhouse tattoo on the top of his head: a clock face with no hands; a symbol of his status as a lifer, with nothing but time. It's the tattoo a man would get if he thought he would spend the rest of his life in jail. As the WM3 settled into their chairs before the assembled press, Bruce Sinofsky from "Paradise Lost" — 18 years older than he was when he and his friend Joe first decided to make a documentary about three Satan worshippers who killed three boys — spoke up. I'll remember what came next for the rest of my life:
"Hey Jessie," Sinofsky shouted. "What time does your clock say?"
Jessie Misskelley smiled. "I dunno," he said. "What time is it now?"
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