The West Memphis Three — three young men convicted of murdering and mutilating three boys in West Memphis, Arkansas, in 1993 — were released today after they struck a deal with a judge that allowed them to maintain their innocence. The case came on the national radar after a couple of documentaries questioned their guilt — the case was almost entirely based on the interrogation and confession of a borderline mentally retarded teenager. Evidence tested much later, in 2007, failed to link the convicted men to the crime and indicated that at least one person who was not one of them was on the scene. The investigation also revealed that some of the mutilation was done by animals. The men were likely set for a new trial because of the new evidence; a hearing was scheduled for five months from now.
You’ll see a lot of posts like this, urging the need for criminal justice reform, and a lot of comparisons to Cameron Todd Willingham, the Texas man convicted of murdering his young daughters after some folklore-like arson investigation led police to believe the deadly house fire that killed the girls was set on purpose. That faulty conviction was impossible to undo, too; it does seem true that it takes national attention, a documentary or two, and a high-profile piece in the New Yorker before people begin to question your guilt. There’s another problem that ties both cases together, and that’s the bigger one. In the Willingham case, a taste in Led Zeppelin marked him as a killer. In the West Memphis case, the conviction that Satan worship was involved in the murder led to an angsty teenager who studied Wicca, Damien Echols. In fairness, we have to admit that we don’t know, and probably never will, whether any of these men — or for that matter, anyone exonerated by new evidence after a conviction — is totally innocent. But we should question what’s going on any time someone is found guilty for being weird. It might be especially true in small Southern towns, but it’s true everywhere, that being a little odd is enough to raise the suspicions of our peers. We should hope we can design a system that counteracts that tendency rather than feed into it.