How a man in Denmark, troubled by the case of the WM3, created an invaluable online archive of it

Christian Hansen, a laborer in Denmark, loves Clint Eastwood.  He admires the actor’s work so much that an online friend nicknamed him “Callahan” after Eastwood’s character in the “Dirty Harry” movies.

Christian Hansen

He never imagined that the little website he formed as a repository for documents about the case of the West Memphis Three would become the largest archive of a criminal case in the world. If he had, he says, he would have named it something other than “Callahan.”

But there you have it. A modest Danish guy who likes to work with his hands creates a site named after a fictional San Francisco cop and, over time, the site morphs into a massive online reference library for the nonfiction process that ensnared—and still holds—three kids from Arkansas. Callahan has become the go-to site for anyone wanting to search police, court or media records from the case.

[private]Hansen was a senior in high school, living in a town just outside of Aarhus, the second-largest city in Denmark, when he saw “Paradise Lost” on Danish TV. That experience, in December 1998, was his first exposure to the case. He knew no one else who cared about it. A few weeks after seeing the film, when Hanson got on the Internet, his first search was for the documentary’s title.

Hanson is close in age to Damien Echols. But unlike Echols, he’d gotten a Commodore 64 computer at 13 and by now has played video games for years. He’s also had access to the Internet, which is where he perfected the English he learned in school and from TV.

For about six months after seeing “Paradise Lost,” Hansen couldn’t get the case out of his mind. He’d read a lot of true-crime books, but this case touched a deeper chord. For one thing, he didn’t know—and couldn’t figure out—whether the three were innocent or guilty.

In 1999, he read “Blood of Innocents,” the first book about the case. “There wasn’t a lot of information available on the Internet back then,” he told me via email. “But after reading it all, and particularly after learning that Jessie Misskelley had made a post-trial confession, I came to believe they were guilty.”

Over the next few years, Hansen saw the first message board about the case go online, followed by documents from the West Memphis Police Department, my book, Devil’s Knot, and audio recordings of the trials. Hanson read, watched and listened to everything he could get his hands on.

Hansen has been part of the WM3 online community since 1999, but has rarely participated in online discussions. What perplexed him about what he saw in those discussions was that so many people involved in the case believed that someone would actually confess—not once, but multiple times—to something he didn’t do.

Hansen’s interest in information was stronger than his need to defend his belief that the WM3 were guilty. In October, 2001, his curiosity led him to create the site now simply and widely known as Callahan.  It not only served his own research needs, but grew into a site where organization and neutrality offer others what he calls “a place to read facts without  getting an opinion shoved down their throats.”

When he created Callahan, Hansen never imagined that the site would still be around in 2011. He figured that “either the WM3 would be free or Damien would have been executed within the next decade.”
As sometimes happens, however, Hansen’s pursuit of information led to a change in his views. He came to see Misskelley as “a borderline mentally handicapped boy who was easily manipulated and wanted to please authority figures,”—a boy who “probably never even realized that what he says on June 3, [1993] would land him in a cell, rather than to the police letting him go home.”

Yet Misskelley’s post-conviction statements still bothered him. The more case documents he read, however, the more he felt he understood about Misskelley’s motivation. He now regards Misskelley’s statement to the officers who were taking him to prison as “a desperate attempt to escape the lifetime in prison he had just been sentenced to.”

Hansen writes: “I can see why he went against the advice of his own attorneys on February 17, [shortly after his conviction in 1994]. “He was led to believe they weren’t acting in his interest and, after all, going along with them in the first place had gotten him a life sentence, so it’s easy to see why he would give yet another statement to the prosecutors that day.”

Hansen is aware that many who believe in the guilt of the West Memphis Three also cite a confession Misskelley allegedly made to a teenaged girl, which was reported only in a Memphis newspaper; they also refer to repeated statements of guilt Misskelley is said to have made to his attorney prior to his trial. But Hansen no longer finds these admissions persuasive.

After “several years” of believing that Misskelley, Echols and Baldwin were guilty, Hansen’s quiet pursuit of case documents, led him to believe “otherwise.”  He reached “the realization that what Jessie described in his confessions was a ludicrous scenario that simply didn’t stand up under scrutiny.” Now, Hansen says, “there’s no longer any doubt in my mind that they’re innocent.”

The case has taught him “that people can confess, even multiple times, to something they didn’t do, without having a gun pointed to their head,” he says, “and that the police aren’t always the good guys.” What came to offend him most was the hard but unavoidable fact that sometimes, “a police force will pin a crime on innocent people.”

For Hansen, a change of view about the West Memphis case led to other changes. Where he had once been “in full support” of the death penalty, he isn’t anymore. Now he hopes that the West Memphis case, like “all other cases of injustice in the world, will teach people that the justice system is fallible, and that just because a jury says you’re guilty, that doesn’t necessarily make it so.”

None of those personal views—from when he believed the men guilty or now that he thinks they’re innocent—appear on Callahan.  The site has been—and he wants to keep it—“the ‘Switzerland’ in the WM3 cyberland.”

But maintaining that piece of cyberland has not been easy. There came a time, in late 2004, when Hansen “totally lost energy.”  He posted online that he was no longer interested in supporting Callahan. An Arkansas computer programmer who’d grown up near West Memphis offered to take over. When I contacted him, the programmer asked to be known only as “Greg” because, he writes, “It’s not about me.”  

For Greg, the work was about information and innocence. “I didn’t think they received a fair trial,” he writes. “And I didn’t believe that they were guilty. It was my old neighborhood.”

He began paying the site’s rent and adding new files as supporters found them. But the arrangement didn’t last long. Hansen “regained some motivation,” as he put it, and came back, to take over most of the work. Greg writes that since then, he and Hansen have shared the rental duty on the site, with some help from other supporters.

Monte Walker

In the spring of 2007, Monte Walker, a resident of Tennessee, who’d grown up in Mississippi, wrote to Hansen to tell him how much he appreciated the site and to volunteer his help if needed. At the time, Walker says, he was under the impression that all of the evidence files were on the website.

In the correspondence that followed, Walker learned that Callahan had only about half the case file. He responded by pulling together a team of volunteers to go to the West Memphis Police Department and copy every piece of evidence from the case for Callahan.

Walker estimates that over the course of about a year, he and his group copied 15,000 documents, 100 audio and 20 video tapes—all of which he and Hansen uploaded to the site. The entire process took about two years.

In the fall of 2009, Walker and Greg together spent several days at the Arkansas Supreme Court library in Little Rock, copying transcripts from Misskelley’s trial that were missing from the site. Walker and other volunteers have also transcribed images of records into word documents so that the site’s search engine can access them.

“Callahan is the only unbiased source of WM3 case information on the web,” Walker says, “and it is also the largest collection of information. For people interested in learning about the case, I think Callahan lends credibility to the online experience.”

Hansen “absolutely” wants for Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley to be freed and “the real killer(s)” to be  found. Yet he has never contacted the men. “I’ve thought of doing so in recent years,” he writes, “but I don’t know what to say to them.”[/private]

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