Tuesday, October 13, 2009

A town finally starts to question "who(really)dunnit"?

Shaila Dewan's story in yesterday's New York Times was particularly interesting to me for two reasons. One was that it depicted an interesting example--and perhaps a typical one--of what might be viewed as an essentially nonmetropolitan response to a sensational crime. The other is that I was living in Arkansas when the crime occurred, and I followed the day-to-day coverage from a somewhat local perspective.

The crime in question was the murder of three eight-year-old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas, in May, 1993. The boys were found "hog-tied" and naked. One reportedly died from loss of blood, the other two from drowning. Three teenagers were subsequently convicted of the murders. Known as the West Memphis Three, they have increasingly become a cause celebre, as evidence of their innocence has accumulated.

The current population of West Memphis is 28,092, and that for Crittenden County is about 50,000. But West Memphis is part of the Memphis, TN-AR-MS metropolitan area, which doesn't sound very rural. Nevertheless, Dewan calls it a "town small enough for only a degree or two of separation." More interesting from a law and order perspective--as well as a jurisprudential one--Dewan observes: "Questioning the results of the trial, some residents said, is tantamount to questioning the local police, prosecutors and judges, and can feel like disloyalty to the victims." Now those are some serious consequences to the lack of anonymity and informal order that tend to characterize nonmetropolitan places.

Dewan observes a "strong urge to move on" among locals, offering this quote from city councilwoman Ramona Taylor in support of that observation:

People felt comfortable that the problem was resolved, and this was an anomaly. It was not representative of our community or of our youth.

But Dewan also quotes another resident who says "she becomes angry every time she reads about the West Memphis Three — who, she points out, were not even from West Memphis, but the next town." Yet another resident says she "believes that the convictions were wrong" but is "wary of speaking her mind" given the “polarizing” nature of the issue.

Dewan also puts all of this in socio-economic and racial context: "residents have other preoccupations, including poverty and tensions between black residents and the West Memphis Police Department." Indeed, Crittenden County is a rare entity in two senses. One is that it is almost exactly half Black and half White. It is also rare in that it is a persistent poverty county that is metropolitan. All three victims and all three teens convicted were white.

The final paragraph of Dewan's story quotes a local resident as saying, "I bet if you polled three-fourths of West Memphis ... they would say those boys [the West Memphis Three] had nothing to do with it.”

So is there something rural or quasi-rural in how West Memphis responded--and continues to respond--to the murders of these children? Or would we expect the same response from any other American locale to such a horrific crime?

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