Half their lives ago, Damien Echols, Jessie Miskelly and Jason Baldwin were sent to prison for a crime they didn’t commit. They were released today.
In 1993, three teenagers from West Memphis, Arkansas — Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Miskelly, were convicted of murdering three young boys. Almost from the beginning, many have maintained that the teens were innocent of the crimes. Today, after spending half their young lives behind bars, they are free.
These boys — Echols and Baldwin particularly — prove what can happen in a society that mistrusts teen boys, particularly teen boys who wear black clothing, listen to heavy metal music, and practice Wicca. In some parts of the South, “Wicca” is indistinguishable from “Satanism,” and “Satanism” is indistinguishable from “child sacrifice.” Wear black and practice Wicca and you might as well go straight to the gas chamber.
It is, in many ways, a relief that they’re free men. They can go home to their families and try to put nearly two decades of wrongful confinement behind them. However, because of the plea deal which freed them, they won’t be allowed to pursue a wrongful conviction case against the State of Arkansas — a case which otherwise deserves to go forward. And because these men were robbed of their early adulthoods, it may take some time before they can settle into the world — a world very different from the one they left in 1993.
The mistrust that put these boys in jail has not gone away. There are still people out there that would have us fear teenagers, since we don’t understand what makes a handful of them violent enough to kill. There are those who want us to fear teens who play too many violent video games. There are those who want us to fear teens who listen to too much heavy metal. And there are certainly those who want us to fear teens who explore pagan faiths. There’s no reason to believe that this couldn’t happen again. There’s no reason to believe that it hasn’t happened to other teens currently in prison. The West Memphis Three are free, but this fight isn’t over.