In the fall of 2003, I lived near the Western Addition in San Francisco. Right there on Divisidero St. was a small, independently owned video store (remember those?) called The Film Yard. One night, I was browsing through the documentaries, when the video store clerk chimed in with a recommendation for Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills.
I glanced at the case and saw that it was about a strange triple homicide and the teenage boys who were accused and convicted of the crime . . . perhaps wrongfully. Given that the prison system/injustice/wrongful incarceration are right up my alley, I snatched up the film and made my way home.
I watched this documentary at the edge of my couch, and then immediately watched the follow-up film, Paradise Lost 2: Revelations:
And then I became obsessed. These documentaries tell the gripping, haunting, absolutely appalling story of a gross injustice. I started feverishly researching the case, and discovered that one of the accused boys, Damien Echols, was still on death row in Arkansas, and the other two were serving life sentences.
So I began volunteering for Free the West Memphis Three groups, embarked on a big "awareness" project through one of my graduate classes, and wrote a letter to Damien. He wrote back quickly, and we began corresponding about poetry.
You've probably heard of this case, as it's garnered (inter)national attention over the past 20 years, and has quite a celebrity draw: Eddie Vedder, Metallica, the Dixie Chicks, Neil Young, Margaret Cho, among others, have committed themselves to freeing the West Memphis Three.
And you probably know that they were released on Friday. I don't even know how to begin to describe how incredible a feeling this is: I feared that I'd never live in a world in which they were free. Last year, I taught a big unit on the case--my students and I read Damien's memoir, Almost Home, watched the documentaries, and worked on advocacy: they called the Arkansas Supreme Court, wrote letters to each of the WM3, created posters and brochures to inform people about the case, etc. It was an incredible experience, and they were really into it . . . and I gotta say, I am really looking forward to redesigning my curriculum now that they've been released.
The work isn't over: Damien, Jason, and Jessie were released via an Alford plea, in which they had to plead guilty, while still maintaining their innocence. It seems to be a complicated legal maneuver in which the WM3 were essentially forced to publicly concede "guilt" in order to gain their freedom. These men (having served 18 years in prison for a crime they didn't commit) have a long way to go when it comes to clearing their names and earning the formal exoneration they deserve, but freedom is a damn fine first step.
I've talked about the WM3 before here.
Read the New York Times article here.
Find the WM3 website here.