Almost everyone in America has heard of this notorious criminal case, but not everyone knows all the gory details. This documentary explores the intricacies of this bizarre, inflammatory, head-scratching true story, and nowhere do we see more clearly displayed the fallibility of imperfect humanity.
Back in the early ’90s, three teenage boys from a small town in Arkansas, who are considered “oddballs” and “outsiders” by their peers, are arrested for the gruesome murders of three eight-year-old boys whose bodies are found in a nearby creek, naked and hogtied. There were cuts on the boys’ corpses, and the West Memphis Police began to publicly speculate about satanic ritual, which the media, of course, were happy to report, and a great hue and cry went up all over the region about how awful it was that these three sick, deranged teenagers were in their midst. So they were summarily dispatched. On the basis of one of their confessions, they were all sentenced to life in prison, and the 18-year-old to the death penalty for three counts of capital murder.
Years pass, while the capital-punishment case is automatically appealed and grinds slowly through the appeals courts. The teenage boys become grown men while incarcerated in the Arkansas correctional system. One of them develops a correspondence relationship with a young woman who becomes interested in the facts of his case. She then begins to do some inquiring, and the more she finds out, the more disturbed she becomes about a miscarriage of justice here. She also seems to have the rare talent of mobilizing others around her singular cause, and eventually, enough celebrities and members of the general populace protest to make this a “cause célèbre” that also involves, yes, the excitable media.
The local police, apparently, willingly made available their evidence because it was a closed case; they got their conviction. But careful scrutiny of the interrogation reveals a kind of coercion by strenuous suggestion, to which one of the more simple-minded teenagers was particularly susceptible. The knife that was found in a nearby pond, trumpeted at the trial as the grisly murder weapon, was later proven to be lost more than a year earlier. And besides that, a more careful scrutiny of the cuts on the boys’ corpses indicated that they were post-mortem, and most likely done by the big snapping turtles living in that creek. These creatures of the wild apparently bite off whatever part is dangling, or hanging loose, like lips or ears or …. genitalia. So much for the gruesome implications of sexual assault and dismemberment. In the end, there was actually no forensic evidence at all to link the three teenagers to the crime. Nothing but a questionable confession from a scared “developmentally challenged” kid.
So who did kill those little boys? Now some private detectives begin to do the investigative work that obviously the police should have done in the first place. One of the stepdads is discovered to have had a history of domestic violence, with previous family relationships, and another stepdad has served prison time for assault. Of course, when these two are interviewed years later, they’re entirely too clever to admit to anything, especially because it’s now painfully obvious that nobody has any actual eyewitnesses, or any reliable physical evidence.
So what to do with the West Memphis 3, those poor fellows languishing in prison for these 17 years? Well, they get released on a technicality: a particular case precedent that would allow them to plead guilty while still maintaining personal innocence. A legal oxymoron? Sure, but everybody who ever had anything to do with this case looks like a moron, anyway, so somehow it seems fitting.
Yes, the whole thing is an indictment of our imperfect legal system. But it’s also, in the end, an encouraging morality tale about how one caring person can make all the difference, and actually accomplish a redemption and release for others. Sounds like Christian overtones to me.
Ronald P. Salfen is the minister at St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.