JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Jason Baldwin in detention awaiting trial along with Echols. Misskelly is tried separately.

Damien Echols holds his son for the first time, near the end of his first trial. The child is born after his arrest. No physical evidence links Echols to the crime, but he must stay in jail before the trial.

Echols is convicted and receives a death sentence. Here he is shown leaving the courthouse after sentencing.

Revelations:
Paradise Lost II
(2001)

Chris Worthington sells tee shirts outside the courthouse. He is a member of a support group raising money for appeals trial legal expenses for Baldwin and Echols.

The cameras in these images remind us of the ever-present culture industries. The media circulates images of the trials which inspire action, such as that of the WM3 group, which then affects the media, especially through the group’s website, www.wm3.org.

The tee shirts later show up on Dawson’s Creek. Contemporary television, the news, and political discourse circulate many of the same images within and between reality and fiction.

The first WM3 group was formed as a spontaneous audience reaction to the first Paradise Lost film. It is not supported by HBO or the documentary filmmakers. Here is a group meeting during the appeals trial. All these people traveled to West Memphis AK on their own to witness the appeals process.

Mara Levitt, journalist and author, interviews members of the WM3 group. She seeks to understand this activist audience reaction to these murder cases.

Bill Prichason, WM3 supporter.

Brent Turvey, Criminal Profiler hired by the defense, offers testimony that reveals the tangible difference that money and expertise makes to a criminal defense. From the original crime scene photos, he identifies bite marks, neglected in the first trial but a central controversy in appeals.

Dan Stidham, original Public Defender, serves as pro bono defense lawyer during appeals, steadfastly supporting the defendants for years.

Ironically, the same judge presides over both initial and appeals trials. This one man, Judge Burnett, can decisively shape a capital conviction in spite of his personal investment in making the appeals trial consistent with the first trial outcome.

Jessee Misskelly five years after his first conviction.

Jason Baldwin in prison during the first appeals trial.

Damien Echols on death row during appeals trial.

Active audience and the
West Memphis Three

The Paradise Lost films present textbook examples of what cultural theorists have dubbed the “active” audience. Hall (1980) articulated a communication model where the audience audience “decoding” process is central to the meaning of the text. This active work on the part of the audience in the meaning making process is said to be influenced in part by an audience member’s social position and attitudes. In this case, some audience members of the first Paradise Lost film responded with time, energy and money, rallying in support of what they perceived to be a miscarriage of justice.

The most visible sign of this audience response is the website www.wm3.org, a site developed to bring attention to the cases of Jessie Misskelly, Jason Baldwin and Damien Echols, since dubbed, “The West Memphis Three” (WM3). This website contains an extensive archive of documents related to the case and continues to serve as a clearinghouse for new information about the ongoing appeals process. In addition, the site allows visitors to donate money to a legal fund through email money transfer services such as PayPal. An early result of this active audience reaction to the first film was the ability to hire experts to reexamine the evidence in the case. This process, and the involvement of the West Memphis 3 support group, became a significant element of the second film, Paradise Lost II: Revelations(2001).The second film then contains a strong reflexive element, as the very presence of a support group at the appeal trials indicates the influence of the first film and an ongoing interaction between subjects, filmmakers and audience.

In the second film, we get to see members of the support group who developed the website, raised money and traveled to West Memphis for Damien’s appeal trial. These people speak about their visceral reaction to seeing teens charged, arrested and convicted solely on the basis that they “wore black” and explored occult literature. In a focus group session with Mara Leveritt, (the reporter who authored the book Devils Knot: The True Story of the West Memphis Three), Anna Macek from Houston, Texas, describes the reaction of her co-workers to the news that “they had caught those freaks that did that to those kids.” When Anna asked why they thought the boys were guilty, they responded, “Look at them, look at the way they dress, of course they did it.” Bill Pritchason from New Jersey attempts to explain why people traveled across the country to witness an obscure trial in a small town:

“I watched Paradise Lost, I also wore black t-shits, I was an alienated teenager, and I think that might be the initial attraction that brings people in. But I think that what’s really important and that brings people together to the point where people travel cross country to come to Jonesboro, Arkansas on your week of vacation are the more important issues such as justice, such as a corrupt, incompetent police force and justice system working in a vacuum here in Arkansas, when nobody’s watching, that’s why I’m here. I don’t I don’t want them to think they can operate in the dark, kinda like a mushroom, and grow” (Berlinger and Sinofsky 2001).

Given the prevalence of alienated youth, black clothing and heavy metal music fans in modern day United States, concerns about a trial based largely on how three teenagers looked provoked a strong response from these audience members. They acted on their concerns, developed a website and raised a significant amount of money that has been used to attract high quality legal representation for the appeals trials.

In the second film, the supporters of the accused are themselves accused of being a group of serial-killer fans. In one scene outside the courthouse, Mark Byers, stepfather of one of the victims, accuses the supporters of being like the fans of serial killers such as Ted Bundy or Jeffrey Dahmer. The irony here is that fans of serial killers are attracted to them because of what they did, what Halberstam has called an attraction to “fear and desire” (Halberstam 1995). In this case, members of the West Memphis Three support group appear to be motivated by what the accused did not do. They are motivated out of a fear of a corrupt and unaccountable judicial system that would allow for the conviction of three people without any physical evidence linking them to the crimes.

In another example of the weaving of fiction and non-fiction narratives with gothic images crossing back and forth between imagination and reality, the West Memphis Three support group has spawned a wide range of cultural attention and visibility. The TV series Dawson’s Creek made two visible references to the West Memphis Three. First, in the closing final episode of the 2001 season, Joshua Jackson said, “Peace. Out. Free the West Memphis Three” during a “pivotal scene”; and in the 2002 season, a “new series regular” wore a “Free the West Memphis Three” tank top during an episode (Bakken, Pashley et al. 2003). Other instances of Hollywood support for the cause include Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam wearing a WM3 t-shirt during a Touring Band 2000, a VH1 program, and public comments by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, co-creators of South Park. After receiving the Best Musical Performance award at the MTV Movie Awards in 2001, Parker closed his acceptance speech with, “Free the West Memphis Three” (Bakken, Pashley et al. 2003). In addition, a benefit CD was produced (by Danny Bland and Scott Parker of Aces & Eights Records) including tracks from Joe Strummer of The Clash, Tom Waits and Steve Earle.

This range of media attention is in no small part a result of the work of Berlinger and Sinofsky and the efforts of an active, engaged audience. Though the films have played a major role in garnering popular attention to the cases, fan response has since eclipsed any visible ongoing efforts of the filmmakers to support the West Memphis Three. Though many scholars have explored the ways that gothic narratives move from the imaginary to the concrete, here we see examples of the completed cultural circuit, where gothic and satanic fears resulted in a trial based on appearances, that in turn inspired entertainers and fiction writers to weave the concrete back into the imaginary. The lived cultures of this gothic narrative, informed and deformed by the gothic imaginary, were appropriated by the culture industries and reinserted into a narrative context.   

Refracting monsters              

Over the course of the two Paradise Lost films, Berlinger and Sinofsky take the audience back and forth between guilt and sympathy, accusation and allegation. The extensive, intimate interviews with a broad range of people involved in this crime offer a human face to the often monstrous associations. From the three boys on trial to Mark Byers, the camera hungry step-father who “dost protest too much,” to the community members who are quick to judge based on stereotypes, to the (over)zealous supporters of the accused, to the filmmakers themselves who are accused of exploiting vulnerable people for entertainment values—monsters abound in these films and the filmmakers offer no easy answers for the crime or the social response to a modern day witch hunt. Although these films avoid a conclusive judgment, the monster that becomes most visible in the end is not a person dressed in black committing murder but rather the monster of our judicial system.

One of the first “monstrous” actions of the judicial process took place when the three boys were detained for questioning. Jessie Misskelly, who was said to have an IQ of 67 and was described as “slow” and “mildly retarded” was questioned for almost twelve hours without his parents or a lawyer present. The vast majority of this questioning was not tape recorded and no notes exist as to what went on, though Mara Leveritt (2002) details some of the process, pieced together from interviews with Misskelly and the police investigators present. This questioning culminated in a signed (printed, as Misskelly never learned cursive [Leveritt 2002]) confession that became the post on which hang all the other circumstantial evidence on. Despite the horrific legal procedure that led to the signed confession, Judge Burnett allowed the confession to be included in the trial. A tape was made of the final hour leading up to the confession and the transcript becomesbecame a point of contention in Misskelly’s trial.

In Paradise Lost, the filmmakers use courtroom footage of Misskelly’s lawyer questioning Gary Gitchell about the Misskelly confession. We hear a recording of the confession where Misskelly initially says the murders happened in the morning, is corrected by Gitchell a number of times until the murders are finally said to take place in the evening, the suspected time determined by the coroner.

This leading line of questioning calls into question Misskelly’s confession but more significantly reveals a monstrous judicial process where a minor is coerced into agreeing to a predetermined set of facts, without the benefit of a parent or lawyer present. Gitchell claimed Misskelly waived his rights to an attorney; however, given Misskelly’s age and education level, it is unlikely Misskelly understood the implications of such a decision. The legal dispute over this confession raises another monstrous aspect of this trial: class.

In their response to the confession evidence, the defense brought in an “expert on false confessions,” Dr. Richard J. Ofshe. We see Ofshe point out “eight revisitings of the question of the time that the killings occurred” (Berlinger and Sinofsky 1996) and that the correct answer of “at night” was suggested to Misskelly. Once that suggestion was made, Misskelly adopted this as his story after seven previous contradictory statements. Ofshe argues that this is a classic example of getting someone to accept something out of pressure and suggestion and that this occurs numerous times during the small part of the twelve-hour interrogation that was taped.

The prosecution’s response to this was to attack Dr. Ofshe’s fees. Despite the fact that this was a capital murder case, the jury was is not informed that the defense is allotted a maximum of $1000 to pay for expert witnesses and the state did not allot any more money to support a proper defense of the indigent accused. In the film, we see the prosecutor question Ofshe about his $300/hr fee, and Ofshe is heard correcting this, stating that he charges $150/hr. for consultation and $300/hr for time spent in court. The prosecution then asserts that if Ofshe does not give the results the client wants, he will does not get the $300/hr. courtroom fee. The Prosecution also noted his “California” residence, locating him outside the American heartland where this satanic panic is taking place.

This example of attention to money and expertise in a small town courtroom demonstrates the gaps in a balkanized judicial system where access to quality legal representation is not only a matter of wealth, but also connected to place. In this case, the location offered a jury pool that appeared suspicious of “experts” hired from “California.” Though his logic was sound and his credentials impressive, Ofshe failed to convince twelve people in Arkansas that a marginally literate teenage was manipulated by a team of skilled police officers.

The mirror image of the previous example adds more detail to the monstrous judicial process represented in these films. In this second example, Dr. Dale W. Griffis, an “occult expert,” is brought in by the prosecution during Jason and Damien’s trial. Given the lack of a confession or any physical evidence linking Damien to the murders, the prosecution built the case on the resonance of the gothic narrative, tapping a “satanic panic” that occurred from the mid-1980s through the mid-1990s (Greek 2003) and continues to drive public fears and anxieties today, as evidenced by the cult and satanic theories surrounding the high profile murder trial of Lacy Peterson. The proliferation of these satanic fears has been attributed to “talk show hosts” and “conspiracy theorists” who attempt to link heavy metal music and teen culture with a discourse of cultural decay and an extremist Christian vision of the “end of days” where the arrival of Satan was said to be imminent (Greek 2003). Griffis testified that he has observed “occult” people “wearing black fingernails, having their hair painted black and wearing black t-shirts.”

This “expert” testimony is then revealed by the defense team to be the opinions of a man who earned his Ph.D. from a mail order catalogue and never attended any classes to earn this degree. Thus we see a prosecution team hiring an unqualified expert in their attempt to cast this as an occult crime. This is not a mere oversight but a patently cynical attempt to convince a jury that anyone who “looks occult” is capable of heinous crimes and should be judged guilty until proven innocent. This small-town, self-made expert, is another marker of class and place, where even the state resources to hire experts are limited and the cultural location of the expert supercedes credentials, resulting in a colloquial figure who legitimates the translation of the gothic narrative from the everyday imaginations of the jury to the real lives of the accused.

Foreshadowing a 2002 U.S. government “total information awareness campaign,” Griffis goes on to analyze a book library that Damien had in his bedroom, noting chapters on “the devil” and “witchcraft.” Damien becomes guilty of reading the wrong material, discovered not through a database of books he checked out but through good old fashioned possession, as the book was found in his bedroom. This possession moved from being 9/10ths of the law to being all that is needed to prove satanic intent. By simulating the role of an “expert,” Griffis, the prosecution, and the filmmakers collapse the real and the virtual into a postmodern moment dissolving the “supposed distance between images and diffuse physicality” (Hogle 2001), for Griffis was not an occult expert, he merely embodied the image of one in a courtroom.           

The judicial process becomes the most significant monster in these films, marked by class and place. The support group that formed in response to the first film raised money and hired experts to challenge the limitations of the first trials, and their presence and intentions were located by their otherness, as outsiders from the big city, there to meddle in local affairs. Like the resented white civil rights workers of the 50s and 60s who went South to help with voter registration, the WM3 supporters were viewed as part of a long tradition of meddling outsiders, interfering where they did not belong. The appeals trials documented in the second film were overseen by the same judge as the first trials, again revealing a provincialism and class-driven justice system where those who cannot afford highly skilled lawyers are forced to appear and reappear before a small circle of decision makers. This in effect is the “darkness” Bill Pritchason spoke of, the tangible limits of public defenders and a justice system divided along class lines.

Continued: Indigent defense in the United States


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