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.
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