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The Devil on trial 

Some concluding thoughts on the state's most notorious murder case.

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.

The Misskelley trial lasted a little over two weeks, ended Feb. 4 with the jury quickly pronouncing him twice guilty of second-degree murder and once (for Michael Moore) of murder in the first-degree. Two 20-year terms for the former; life without parole for the latter.

The second trial started in Jonesboro just two weeks after the conclusion of the first--in the Craighead courthouse that's like a Reconstruction mausoleum smack in that sizeable city's busy business district. The same circuit judge, the Hon. David Burnett of Osceola, presiding. The courtroom crawling with armed policemen--3 state troopers, 5 sheriff's deputies on a normal day--surveilling us spectators as if 75 per cent convinced of an imminent attempt at a lynch. One of jurors looking like the actor and bookjacket pinup-boy Fabio. The judge with cornsilk-colored hair striking an occasional John Barrymore profile for the HBO cameras recording all this for posterity.

Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin are tried together here, much to the disadvantage of young Baldwin, since much of the focus of the prosecution is on Echols, the "ringleader," as one of the prosecutors called him, trying to portray him as a Devil-driven monster who was capable of the crime and therefore must have done it. He's sardonic and remorseless, but what he conveys isn't cold-hearted menace; it's a disturbed boy lost in a theatrical posture that he's tried to fashion into an identity. More pitiful than scary. Baldwin throughout the trial has the slightly drained look of a kid who's been called to the principal's office and isn't quite sure how serious his situation is. I tried without success to imagine him sucking the blood of dying Chris Byers, as a scruffy cellmate testified that he'd bragged of doing. No dice.

This second trial lasted about a month, was a travesty, I thought; was, as Echols told reporters one day "pretty boring most of the time"; ended March 18 with the second jury wasting little time pronouncing both boys guilty of capital murder, prescribing death for Echols, life without parole for his peach-fuzz compadre. Appeals now in the works all around.

The relatives of the victims seemed grimly satisfied with the outcome, but I thought the trials finally were a huge disappointment. I'm not sure what I had expected from them, or hoped from them. Some sort of revelation or resolution, maybe. Something instructive or expiatory. The crime was such a horrible one that it demanded more from the justice system, I thought, than just the routine serving up of a culprit for lifetime long-line duty or introduction to Ole Sparky. The crime raised some pretty terrific questions about how such a thing could happen in a community of the allegedly civilized, and how it did happen, exactly. But the trials shed no light on those larger questions, and very little on the smaller ones. They illuminated none of the characters--victims and defendants alike becoming just a small crowd of lumpen trailer-park youth glimpsed quickly and indistinctly, as if by someone passing by.

No clear picture of the crime being committed. The victims never more than a composite. The defendants, despite their physical presence, ciphers at beginning and end; difficult associating them one with the other. Were they amigos, run together, hang together, schoolboy clique of misfit nerds: was Echols really unbalanced or was his warlock preening mostly just dweeb put-on; was Baldwin really Weenie Boy or a little snot attracted to cruelty as other boys his age are attracted to Skoal; was Misskelley the Ratso Rizzo of this piece, the Igor or Eye-Gore, or a more sinister somebody, the ominous "Deliverance" boy-ghoul? Questions that came and went, faded away. And on judgment day of the second trial, all the slowly-built characterizations were wrenched around, voided, when a woman showed up in the courtroom toting (irony to beat all) Damien Echols' baby boy.

A pervasive vagueness that fogged away any collective meaning the trials might have had. Just couldn't get through it or past it; simply impenetrable.

About the only thing anyone ever asked me about the trials was whether I thought the defendants were really the murderers. I vacillated on this. Some days I thought yes, sure as the world they did it. But then the doubts would return--the suspicion that these boys were being tried because somebody had to be, and theirs was the misfortune of having been convenient when the plausible leads came to nothing: the serial-killer transient, the psycho trucker, the bloody black guy, the brutal stepdaddy of one of the victims. I never got the sense that the trials were an earnest exploration of the question of whodunit. They were, bottom line, show trials--by people under pressure to "do something"--something tidy and legal-- about a right-here-in-River-City atrocity. By two sides each looking to win the case by showing up the opposition as just a little more incompetent and ineffective than itself. Show trials of the "It's coming...It's coming...It's gone" variety in Huckleberry Finn. It's only too fitting that HBO filmed the entire trashy production, for a TV movie.

Toward the end of the second trial, the Jonesboro trial, another question arose more pressing than whodunit. It was, Had these boys been proved guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in this court of law? This one easier to answer, the answer being no. They hadn't been proved guilty. They hadn't been proved anything. When the prosecution rested the state's case, about all it had proved was (1) that the murders had indeed occurred, and (2) how the victims died. It had proved the deed and the how, but not the who, the why, the where, or even the when. Its who, why where, and when were supposition, guesswork, rumor, and bad courtroom Vaudeville. No motive, opportunity not clearly established, time of death disputed, and not a single shred of tangible evidence linking any of the defendants to the crime. What case?

Lacking testimony from Jessie Misskelley, which it tried but failed to get by way of a swap for the promise of a reduced sentence, the prosecution had no case against Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin, and in the end it didn't even try to prove them guilty. It was content to trust that the jury would assume that they were guilty--guilty until proved innocent--and that the defense lawyers, collectively a mighty feeble act, wouldn't be able to prove them innocent.

The prosecutors could do that, could take that approach, could abdicate their role, with some confidence if not with much conscience because of a unique and enormous advantage they'd gained from the unusual scheduling of these trials. The Jonesboro trial followed hard after the Corning trial, and the Jonesboro jurors knew as their trial started that Misskelley had just been convicted in essentially the same case, and they knew why. They knew about Misskelley's confession, and knew it implicated Echols and Baldwin. (One of the West Memphis police investigators testifying against Echols and Baldwin "slipped up" and mentioned it, just in case; and the judge magnanimously pardoned the reference--and even emphasized it, saying: "I suggest, gentlemen, there isn't a soul up on that jury or in this courtroom that doesn't know Mr. Misskelley gave a statement." So let us proceed.) They knew that Misskelley, who hadn't killed anyone, was going to prison for the rest of his life. So would they free the "real" killers while he rotted away--free them for no better reason than that the state had failed to work up much of a case against them? Of course they wouldn't.

So the prosecution shifted to the Jonesboro jury the burden of seeing to it that there was an adequate denouement to this long painful drama. Seeing to it that the crime could be pronounced "solved." Seeing to it that somebody was condemned for it. So the survivors, the community, the society might then be able to put the matter behind them with some sense that justice had been done.

The burden on the Jonesboro jury was, further, knowing there'd be no more defendants in the West Memphis murders; no additional trials. Either these boys would be pinned with those murders or nobody would, ever. And if no one was, it wouldn't be the prosecution that would be said to have failed; it would be the jury. It would be the jury who'd have to look those mothers and daddies in their strained and tearless and hollowed faces and tell them, "Sorry about your babies, but the demands of the law, the presumption of innocence, reasonable doubt, etc. etc."

You might've got up a California jury that would've and could've done that. Not here.

When you look back at the infamous crimes of this state's past, this one doesn't resemble any of them. There's something distinctively modern about it. It's a crime of this era, but I don't know what quality or aspect it has that makes it so. The wantonness? The pointlessness? The challenge it represents to the scantest pretense of decency? Don't know what the quality is, but think it might have to do with the question of motive. The absence of motive. Or the trivializing of motive.

Why did Gene Simmons kill all of those folks in Pope County a few years ago? Because he was deranged, it's easy enough to say, but that's no answer, and there is no answer--none that ever got outside that spooky man's spooky head. Why did those Manson zombies, maybe the original modern criminals of this species, kill all those people that night? If you've seen the recent interviews with some of them, you saw that even today, with half a lifetime to think about it, they can't say why, and don't know why. John Wilkes Booth was confused and deluded, but he had his reasons. What reasons have any of these latter-day assassins had? The absence of motive may be why it's hard for us even to accept that some of them committed their crimes. Easier to accept the conspiracy theories; conspirators may be shadowy characters but they always have a strong, clear motive.

The prosecutors in the West Memphis murders didn't establish a motive, and didn't try to very hard or very long. They looked foolish, and actually jeopardized their case (risked letting it slip over into absurdity) when they did try. Sporadically they portrayed Damien Echols as a novice dabbler in the occult, suggesting he choreographed the murders of those little boys as a kind of ritual blood sacrifice. Satanism would endow the case with a motive. But the prosecutors never produced any evidence to show that Echols had anything beyond a jerkoff Metallica-level interest in witchery and hobgoblins, and they could only conjecture (or hint around about it, in slightly embarrassed fashion) that his "beliefs" in regard to these matters might have inspired or driven him to contemplate murder, much less actually commit it. The one "cult expert" they put on the stand was a sad old retired cop from up North somewhere who got his expertise via correspondence courses from some California academy that's undoubtedly a post-office box, and he couldn't rightly say--though he was willing to guess--whether the murders might have been "cult-related" since there was no evidence pointing in that direction, or in any direction. The prosecutors convicted Echols of checking certain suspicious books out of the public library, and copying off dark passages ("full of sound and fury, signifying nothing") from the likes of William Shakespeare. God help him if he'd ever discovered Poe. And yet this vague proposition of the murders as an expression of an ignorant boy's conception of the demands of demonology was the state's entire case. That's all we had. And an obliging jury--and a judge as dedicated to bringing forth convictions as he was to looking good--called it enough.

At the very end of the Jonesboro trial, Echols's lawyers made an incredibly stupid blunder by introducing into evidence some of his medical records from clinics where he'd been tested and treated at various times during his adolescence. Like most teenage boys, he'd had some morbid thoughts, and had told the doctors about them. His lawyers had hoped to win some sympathy for Echols, but once those records were in evidence, the prosecutors were free to explore them, pick out the morbider thoughts, and have them read to the jury. It was, one of the prosecutors said, their best break in the whole case. And it proved exactly nothing--except that Damien Echols was being tried, for lack of anything better, for thought crime. With Jason Baldwin being dragged along as an afterthought.

None of that spoke to motive, despite the prosecution's resolute pretense, and I found myself casting about, as the jury must have, for some other suggestion of motive, some different interpretation, to help me keep my bearings in this case. And always I'd come back to a small segment of Jessie Misskelley's "confession." Here's the Memphis Commercial Appeal's report on that passage:

In his statement Misskelley says he witnessed one killing but did not participate beyond subduing one victim. He said that after witnessing Baldwin's mutilation of one unconscious youngster, he ran off into the woods and threw up.

Baldwin later [telephoned] him at home and asked why he had left the woods early, Misskelley recalled. Echols was "hollering in the background, saying, "We done it, we done it..."

The only words I still hear in the aftermath of this essay in crime and punishment. We done it! We done it! They ought to make the blood run cold but they don't. Just a brief lurch of the gorge. A rising and then settling of the quease. And wondering about our prospects.

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