Friday, August 19, 2011

On the West Memphis Three and being an "outsider in a small town"

I was living in Little Rock, Arkansas, in the spring of 1993 when three 8-year-old boys were found murdered and "hogtied" in West Memphis, Arkansas. The pursuit of their killers dominated the state newspaper that summer, and so the names Damien Echols, Jessie Miskelley, and Jason Baldwin were familiar to me--as were the reported details of the assault on the boys--when I learned this afternoon from an NPR report that the so-called West Memphis Three had been released.

I had become vaguely aware that, over years since the murders and the teenagers' convictions, the three defendants--now men in their mid-thirties--had become a cause celebre supported by the likes of the Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks. I wrote an earlier blog post here about developments in the case.
As I illustrated in that earlier post, media coverage of these events tends to play on certain assumptions about small towns, even though I don't think of West Memphis, with a population of more than 27,000, across the river from Memphis, Tennessee, as very small. In the New York Times coverage of the men's release from prison, for example, Campbell Robertson writes:
While many were convinced of the guilt of Mr. Echols, the alleged ringleader, others were immediately skeptical, believing he was singled out for being an outsider in a small town.
On the one hand, it echoes a phenomenon I have argued is often legally relevant in rural places: lack of anonymity, specifically its relation to those who are different, outside the mainstream. Mr. Echols was such an outsider, apparently, by being "Goth." As indicated in my earlier post, though, I am skeptical about the extent to which all of the phenomena that journalists have associated with "small towns" in this case are distinct to that milieu (or, indeed, applicable to a city the size of West Memphis) or that they can fairly be blamed for the miscarriage of justice against the West Memphis Three.


Anonymous said...

I was living in Memphis at the time; what I most remember is the prurient coverage of the trailer park and trailers in which Echols lived. In other words, Echols and his two co-suspects were portrayed as "white trash," a term easily conflated with rustic, small town poverty, whatever West Memphis' actual demographic status might be.

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Anonymous said...

I was also in Memphis at the time, and this false narrative about kids being railroaded for wearing black in the midst of a hysterical hick-town satan panic has been BIZARRE to behold.

It was MEMPHIS. It was 1994! Good Grief! For perspective, Columbine was only 5 years later! Much like Columbine, I remember things quickly zeroing in on a single angry, delusional psychopath. Not a misfit who wore black... an angry, delusional psychopath. Both Echols and Eric Harris even managed to capture the devoted love of a sensitive, depressed loner (Baldwin and Klebold, respectively), basking in the psychopaths' narcissistic glow. (I guess Harris and Klebold never got around to collecting a pet retard, though)

If the guilty must be set free for insufficient evidence, so be it. Good. But the hypocritical irony displayed by nation-wide observers is driving me crazy! ONLY somebody who believes 1994 Memphis was a cartoonish inbred hicktown incapable of justice... would cast righteous scorn in their belief that the WM3 trial was about punishing outcasts for being different.