Sunday, August 21, 2011

Righting a Profound Wrong: It's Just the Beginning . . .

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.

29 comments:

The Girlie Blog said...

Interesting story.

starnes family said...

I now think of you each time I come across stories of this nature.

I'm giong to assume that you have seen Conviction with Hillary Swank. If not, drop everything and watch it. Fantastic story.

Krysten @ After 'I Do' said...

Holy cow, what a story.

Have you seen the movie The Life of David Gale? We watched it in my ethics class and it honestly gives me chills. Makes you really think about people that are given the death penalty or are sentenced for life and then found not guilty later on.

meg fee said...

wow. i'm so glad you posted about this--i didn't know anything about it. this thing of pleading guilty to get innocence... seems so very salem witch trial.

but yes, freedom is a huge step. off to read the ny times article now.

Megan said...

Throughout how law degree we had it drilled into us that it is better for ten guilty men to walk free than for one innocent man to be convicted. this story gives me hope but there is still a long way to go and they will never get those 18 years back.

kimbirdy said...

yes! it's a mixed bag of emotions in how they had to go about attaining freedom, but they're free and i'd say that's a massive victory. i thought about you this week actually when i read the news, remembering how involved you've been in this cause. the "justice" system {if you can really call it that} is a constant struggle for me being in the mental healthy field. our country likes to promote it as an accurate way of protecting the innocent and only convicting those who are "proven" guilty. in reality, it's all about who can manipulate 12 random people, period.

Chic 'n Cheap Living said...

What a tragic story and one that has yet to reach a satisfactory conclusion, even with their release. One can only hope that education, time and opportunity will be beneficial to everyone.

xoxo,
Chic 'n Cheap Living

heather said...

oh! you are just one of the awesomest women i have ever known! your students and even strangers are so lucky to have you in their lives. I was so happy to read this and hear that they are getting released a couple days ago... bless.

Jo said...

I am embarrassed to say that I don't know a lot about this case. I will definitely rent the DVDs you mentioned, and will click on the links in your post. Injustice can be horrifying, and in this case, especially so! Wow!

bananas. said...

OMG claire...i just got goosebumps. i had no idea they were released. i am beyond ecstatic! i had been following this story since i first heard about it on either 20/20 or dateline. that was a couple years ago.

Anđela Vitorović said...

Beautiful!

UNDERNEATH THE STARS

Gracie said...

This sounds utterly fascinating. I hadn't heard of this story (or maybe I have?) but I want to check out this documentary now. I just think you are amazing for everything you do. x

~Haley~ said...

I've been following the story for a bit, but never knew there were documentaries! I will definitely need to check them out! I am glad they were released but wish they didn't have to do the Alford Plea...
XoXo

Ren- Lady Of The Arts said...

I've been following this case over the last few days but I don't remember reading about it until their release- Never heard of the Alford plea either-

Dancing Branflake said...

Wow! And you have a personal connection with them. Such a tragic story.

Micaela said...

i heard the news from marianne who saw it on your facebook and i could just imagine your heart at that very moment. my brother's girlfriend was reading the book when we were all together for my little sister's wedding and was going to give it to me to read, but then my auntie maudi started before i could and left with it.

18 years.... wow.

we need more of you in this world. xoxo

Faiza said...

i agree with micaela, we need many more of you!

cannot wait to hear what damien, jessie and jason have to say...18 years...

Leeann @ Join the Gossip said...

I saw this on Dateline, I think, maybe a year back. I am not up on the story like you are, but I thought that the two other guys admitted to it but Damien never did. Couldn't remember if he was the only non-guilty party. Were the all innocent (clearly they were released so they must all be lol). I need to get more educated on this story!

AMY said...

I find this very interesting and definitely want to read up on it. I watch a report about a year or two ago about it.
Wow thats crazy being in prison for 18 years and then being freed.
I'm a new follower.
Amy's Life @
www.amyclairejacob.blogspot.com

drollgirl said...

i think i need to see these movies. i believe i saw one, but i cannot remember it. i have not kept up with this story, and the release you wrote about here is the first that i had heard of it. i am so behind on so many things. but thank you for the update.

i could go on and on about this topic, but i won't. i just cannot imagine the horror of being wrongfully imprisoned. just awful. truly awful.

Meri said...

This is an interesting story- a modern day Hurricane. If only someone famous would sing a song this time?

~KS said...

I need to do some reading. I have heard so much about this but really only through the media. I want to learn about it for myself...

And look at you. Seriously. You make this world a better place. I love your passion. I am sooo proud to know you... even if it is just through a blog ;)

Marz said...

You will never cease to amaze me! I feel that your passion and your efforts contributed in some small way to the release of the WM3. If you hadn't been for people like you, who know's what the outcome could have been. This case could have been closed and forgotten. They could have easily spent the rest of their lives serving time for what they didn't do. I cannot tell you how happy I was for you when I read the news via your facebook :) I can only imagine how much of a victory this must have felt for you. I honestly did not know about this case until I first read about it on your blog. Like one of your students, your passion touched me to learn more about them! I can't wait to check out these documentaries. I just can't stress enough how amazing you are Claire! xo

The PvdH Journal said...

Oh wow it is so inspiring to 'meet' someone like you. I am downloading the first film now and will check it out.


PvdH

www.ThePvdHJournal.com

Kristin W said...

Claire! This is so moving! Honestly, I am most impacted by how you weaved this into curriculum with your students. That is absolutely amazing. I wish I could have been in a class that brought awareness and critical thinking to social injustices.

I definitely want to check out the movie too! Thanks for making me aware :)

daniela said...

I remember when you first wrote about this..i couldn't help but be captured by the story! I'm glad it's turned out this way, and I hope to watch those documentaries soon!

Crazy Shenanigans-JMO said...

I think I saw someone else mention it but if you haven't seen it, I really think you'd like it, The Life of David Gale.

H. Gillham said...

Yep. You're amazing.

But I knew that.

I will go on record to say that I had not heard of the case either until recently. Of course, I keep my head in the sand.

*winks*

Julie said...

Oh I'm SO HAPPY to know that they've finally been released! Thank you for sharing the good news! I watched the documentaries this year and thought about writing to Damien too... Now I won't get to do it but at least it's because he's FREE, yay!