‘Guideposts’ and a ‘razor thin’ case—Part 1

Lawyers for the WM3 outline expectations for the evidentiary hearing; the state mainly resists.

[private]Attorneys for the West Memphis Three described the case against their clients as “razor thin” in 60-plus pages of briefs that were submitted to Arkansas Circuit Judge David N. Laser’s court yesterday. The filings outlined what one called an “entire new mix of evidence” in the case, any part of which, the attorneys said, should suffice to warrant new trials for Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, Jr.

The Arkansas attorney general’s office filed six pages of what it called “guideposts” on how Laser should conduct the evidentiary hearing ordered last September by the Arkansas Supreme Court. The only point on which attorneys for all sides agreed was that the hearing for the three men should be held jointly. At a scheduling conference in January, Laser said this was his preference as well.

Attorney General Dustin McDaniel’s office recommended a joint hearing for “judicial economy and convenience to the parties.” It noted that, “given the scope of possible evidence to be considered, hearing dates may need to be scheduled starting this fall and will not conclude before well into the next calendar year.”

The brief by Echols bore a sharper sense of urgency. It sought one continuous hearing that they estimated could last three weeks. They said they would be ready in October—one of the months Laser said he had open. If necessary, they wrote, the issue of juror misconduct could be separated from the others “for initial handling.”

Lawyers for Baldwin and Misskelley, who filed a combined brief, said they hoped to be ready to proceed “with some hearings” by October. They estimated that the hearing’s length “could range from a few weeks” to “much longer” and that “components of the case … could take lengthy periods of time,” depending on how the judge conducts it.

While lawyers for the men in prison said they were preparing to present their case in person, McDaniel’s staff suggested that Laser allow the sides to argue three key points through rounds of written motions and responses “prior to the onset of the hearing dates.” Specifically, state attorneys asked the judge to order “adversarial briefings” with “cut-off dates” on:

  1. whether the court should permit additional DNA testing,
  2. what evidence the court should consider “relevant” to the hearing,
  3. and how it should “receive” evidence in the hearing—whether orally, through transcripts of previous proceedings, or in other ways.

In its brief yesterday, state attorneys were adamant about only the first of those three. On the issue of possible new DNA evidence, they wrote that “additional testing should not be permitted to any petitioner.” They stressed that the requests for such testing made by all three “should be denied.”

It is clear from the briefs that a battle over forensic evidence lays ahead. It is also clear that Arkansas officials have been blocking the prisoners’ efforts to obtain state information since long before the evidentiary hearing was ordered.

One exhibit submitted with Echols’ brief is a letter dated April 21, 2010, from Echols’ attorney Stephen L. Braga to Dr. Charles Kokes, Arkansas’s chief medical examiner, seeking “copies of all autopsy reports, photographs, toxicology reports, written notes (including bench notes, field investigator reports, police reports, phone logs and/or communication sheets in the Medical Examiner’s Office file(s) from May 1993 to date relating to the ME’s Office’s work on the autopsies of the victims in this case.”

A second letter from Braga to Kokes is dated Jan. 5. 2011. Noting that, “To date, I have not received any response from you,” it asks whether the medical examiner will provide access to the requested materials “voluntarily or not.”

Braga writes in the brief for Echols that, “It cannot be argued that the requested records are somehow ‘confidential and privileged’” because Arkansas law specifically states with regard to crime lab records that: “The laboratory shall disclose to a defendant or his or her attorney all evidence in the defendant’s case.”

Braga told the court that a Freedom of Information request filed on behalf of Echols’ wife, Lorri Davis, was also refused. Davis asked for “records identifying the number and dates of autopsies performed by Dr. Frank Peretti for the Arkansas State Medical Examiner’s Office” during the years 1992, 1993, and 1994. Peretti performed the autopsies of the victims in the West Memphis case. Braga asked the court to order Kokes to provide prompt access to the requested records.

Braga claims that another letter—this to Assistant Attorney General David R. Raupp—has been similarly ignored. This letter, dated Jan. 20, 2011, requested a conference call to discuss testing of additional evidence. In particular, Braga sought Raupp’s “cooperative immediate agreement” to allow testing of two ounces of “green vegetable-like material” that was found “partially digested” in the body of Stevie Branch.

Lawyers for Echols want tests “to determine exactly what the … material is.” However, Braga wrote, Raupp “has not responded” to that request. 

Next: ‘Certain forensic evidence’[/private]

Michale Graves to bring ‘angels’ and ‘the blackness’ to Little Rock

If you’re anywhere near Little Rock, come join me at Juanita’s at 8:30 on Friday, March 18 to hear—and thank—punk rocker Michale Graves. As many of you know, Graves is a longtime supporter of the WM3. He recently put together a short film entitled “The Blackness and the Forest” that told the story of his “Almost Home Campaign” to raise awareness about the case. He has collaborated with Damien Echols on several songs and will perform them at this concert.

Surviving by magick—Part 2

Damien Echols recalls his ‘horrific’ introduction to prison as having been ‘almost a blessing’

[private]Late on a Saturday afternoon, in March 1994, Damien Echols stood in a courtroom and heard himself sentenced to death. Within hours, he was delivered, cuffed and shackled, to an Arkansas prison, there to be held in “safe-keeping” until his appeals were over and his execution could be carried out. He was given a white prison uniform and the number SK—(for safe-keeping)—931.

He was 19 years old. And he was reviled—the convicted murderer, and presumed torturer, of three eight-year-old boys.

Today, Echols can still vividly describe his introduction to prison. But “safe” is not a word he uses. He recalls being in the infirmary, where all new prisoners are sent, and where an exam revealed that he was more than just frightened. His heart was skipping beats. He recalls “five or six guards standing around,” smirking and asking each other, “Did you welcome him already?”

“They literally planned on killing me,” Echols says. After he was moved to Death Row, he recalls getting beatings that left him with “nerve damage” and “pissing blood for a few days.” He recalls a guard holding a knife to his throat, and he recalls being thrown into “the hole”—an isolation cell—where he says he was “starved” and might have died had not a few inmate porters secretly slipped him food. This went on for a week, Echols says. “Then, before they let me out, I had to sign an affidavit saying they hadn’t hurt me or denied me medical care.”

Another time, a guard approached him with “a rolled-up, cut-up Coke can,” Echols says. “He asked me, ‘What do you think will happen if I cut myself with this?’ I said, ‘I don’t know. I guess you’ll bleed.” And he said, ‘Yeah. But I didn’t do it. You did.’” Echols took the exchange to mean that even lethal retaliation for such an “attack” would have been deemed justified.

Now, almost 17 years later, Echols sees that initial ordeal, during which he almost lost his teeth, as part of the foundation for the man he’s become in prison. “It was horrific,” he says, “but in a way, it was almost a blessing. I had to seek out ways to help me deal with what was happening to me. I needed ways to help me heal from the trauma, the stress and the abuse I’ve been through.”

Alone and injured, Echols turned to what he knew: the kindling bits of energy work that he’d discovered before his sudden infamy, the introduction to “magick” he’d gleaned from a book called “The Golden Dawn.” Echols says he found the book by Israel Regardie when he was about 12 and that he still cherishes it as the book that first exposed him to “alchemy,” “the God work,” “the principle of raising vibration”—the way of living that some adherents call “the Path of Light.”

The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn was established in the late 1880s to explore the evolution of human consciousness through a structured experience of magic. This interest in “occultism” or “the occult sciences,” as it was called, attracted many prominent thinkers and artists of the time. The poet W.B. Yeats was among them. So, as Echols dryly notes, was “the infamous Aleister Crowley.”

Almost a century later, Crowley, an Englishman, would figure in the 1994 trials of Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, Jr., when prosecutors in West Memphis, Arkansas charged that the teenagers had murdered the children as part of an “occult ritual.” At one point, when Echols was on the stand, Prosecuting Attorney Brent Davis showed Echols a sheet of paper on which Echols had written several names, including that of Crowley.

When Davis asked who Crowley was, Echols said that he was a well-known writer on witchcraft. When Davis asked if Crowley was not also “a noted author in the field of satanic worship” and a writer who “believes in human sacrifice,” Echols did not disagree. Instead, he volunteered that he had never read any of Crowley’s books, and added: “I would have read them if I had saw them.”

Regardie’s book “The Golden Dawn” appeared in 1937, after the secret Order of the Golden Dawn had been largely disbanded. Today it is regarded as “an encyclopedia of practical occultism.” Regardie believed the secret order’s symbols, ceremonies and teaching served to complement the work of academic psychology, and particularly that of Carl Jung.

An introduction to the current fifth edition offers this observation: “Thinking through and fully understanding the usage of such terms as ‘occult’ or ‘magic’ apart from their historically negative or even lurid connotations is fundamental. The association of these words with ‘black’ magic or Satanism has uniformly been the result of hysteria, narcissistic theatrics, capitalization by the media, or psychosis.

“To truly explore the ‘dark arts’ (or in other words, apprehend the archetype of the shadow) through systematic ritual work demands not only extraordinary knowledge, discipline and training, but a great deal of plain hard work toward which would-be dabblers never seem inclined. For any of us to integrate our ‘darker’ side is a lifelong and necessary process, but a process which yields toward a more fullness of Self.” (Italics are from the text.)

Echols believes that, lacking any physical evidence connecting him to the murders, prosecutors used his spiritual interests—which were not the region’s norm—to win his conviction and death sentence. Ironically, he now says that without those interests and their corresponding practices, he might already be dead, and he certainly would have lost his teeth. “Everything had been taken away from me,” he says. “The only way I could survive and learn to heal myself was by traveling inside—journeying inside—and I absolutely love it.”

As a prisoner, Echols has had abundant opportunity to explore society’s “darker” or “shadow” side. He has used systematic ritual work based on the writing of Regardie—and by now, many others—to heal, to cope and to learn. For example, he says, “My son is almost the same age now as I was when I was locked up. If I thought about that all the time, I’d have gone stark raving mad.” Instead, the monkish life of solitary confinement to which he was condemned has allowed him, “in a way, time to focus on this energy work.”

Echols expects to be released, and when he is, he says, the magick he began to study long before being sent to prison will remain at the center of his life. “For the most part,” he says, “the more this case moves to the forefront for a lot of other people, the more it moves to the background for me.

“It’s so powerful. I get so excited. It’s one of those things that makes you want to do a flip, because you’re so glad you’ve got another day.”

Next—Turning lead into gold[/private]

MLK: ‘I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.’

If you have not read (or recently re-read) Dr. Martin Luther King’s 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” this holiday in his honor might be a good time to do it. King later wrote that he composed his famous letter “under somewhat constricting circumstances,” after his arrest during a civil rights demonstration.

The letter was in response to a letter from a group of local clergymen, who asked King to be patient in his efforts to end racial injustice. They also complained that he was an “outsider” causing trouble in Birmingham. To that he replied:

“… I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”

I think of this in light of what so many of you have done to help end an injustice in Arkansas.  We are, as King wrote, “caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” As you have helped us here, you have also helped “all indirectly,” for we know that injustice such as that faced by the “brothers and sisters” for whom King fought and that experienced by the WM3 is also felt by many, many others—black, white and poor.

Here’s Dr. King’s great letter.