Sixty-five people stood hand-in-hand on Saturday in front of the Crittenden County Courthouse in a show of unity with the West Memphis Three. The event in Marion, Arkansas, a few miles north of West Memphis, was one of several organized for World Awareness Day.
It was a beautiful, Arkansas afternoon. Big trees shaded the courthouse lawn and breezes freshened the air as supporters arrived from across Arkanas and from 13 other states.
About half the participants were from Arkansas, including one from West Memphis. Jessie Misskelley, Sr., of Marion, also attended with a friend.
Other states represented were Tennessee, Mississippi, Delaware, Arizona, Louisiana, Illinois, Florida, Pennsylvania, Colorado, North Carolina, New Jersey, and California.
(That’s me above with Jessie Misskelley, Sr., his friend Kathy Barton from Marion, and supporters from Nashville, TN.)
The rally began with brief remarks, first by me and then by Rebekah Kennedy, a civil rights lawyer from Fort Smith, Arkansas, who is also a Green Party candidate for the U.S. Senate.
All of us then joined hands to stand for 14 minutes in silence—each minute representing a year of the time that Damien, Jason and Jessie have now been imprisoned. Their presence was symbolized by people holding onto three sets of handcuffs.
After the silence, two other Arkansans—Kelly Duda, a documentary film maker from Little Rock, and Lanette Grate, a professor at the University of Central Arkansas—spoke about the case’s importance. The mic was then available to everyone who wished to symbolically address the court.
Several who rose to do so noted how easy it had been to reflect, while standing there silent, on how much freedom they had enjoyed—and how much Damien, Jason and Jessie had missed.
Others pointed to the inscription on the courthouse, “Obedience to the Law is Liberty,” and said it seemed a mockery.
I think all of us were heartened to see so many dedicated supporters, from near and far, at that important site on this important day. It was great “reunion” for many of us who have met just briefly in the past, or only met on-line.
As we left the courthouse, no one said, “See ya next year.” We hope that there will be no “next year.” But if the WM3 are still in prison this time next year, we will be there.
For anyone who’s interested, I’ve posted my remarks below.
Hello, Everyone. Thank you for coming. I’m Mara Leveritt.
To all of you who have come from other states, welcome to Arkansas. I wish it were for another purpose. But since we’re all because of three murders–and the troubling convictions that followed them–I thank you out-of-staters for representing the concern about this case that has spread across America.
To my fellow Arkansans–glad you’re here. We all know that at least one prominent state official–our former governor, to be exact–expressed the belief that the only people who cared about this case were people from outside of Arkansas, who didn’t know what they were talking about. Well, we’re proving that wrong, aren’t we! We are Arkies. And we do know what happened in this case. And we are standing with other Americans–and others from around the world on this World Awareness Day–to say it was not right.
I see members of the media here. To all of you, thanks very much for coming. If we can help you in any way, let us know.
This is a somber event. We remember the children–Christopher Byers, Stevie Branch, and Michael Moore–who were murdered, not far from here, 14 years ago last month. Had they lived, they would be young adults by now. We remember them and we demand justice, however belated, on their behalf.
The children are not all we remember today. We stand in front of the courthouse where Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, Jr., were arraigned for their murders–fourteen years ago this week. Of course, scheduling this for a Saturday, when working people would be able to attend, we knew that the courthouse would be closed. Still, its locked doors and looming silence adequately represent the response that protests about this case have received from the Arkansas judicial system. Our state Supreme Court affirmed sentences of life and even a sentence of death based on trials that I believe will be viewed by history as travesties. In their lack of actual evidence and reliance, instead, on testimony about the “occult,” they harken disturbingly close to the witch trials held in Salem.
The most important symbol today, however, is you. You–and I–have come together as citizens–in the finest tradition of democracy–to oppose what happened here–the charade that began in this courthouse and that is trying to pass for justice. In standing before this court, we stand in union with people all over the world who have been appalled enough by what happened here to take time out of their own lives to oppose it. Together, we have written thousands of letters, we have sent hard-earned money for the defense, we have made posters and many long journeys. And in 14 years, we have not weakened and given up the fight. Our ranks have only grown.
We stand here today, in Arkansas, in union with the three young men who were brought before this court so many years ago–and have been imprisoned ever since. Our message to the court’s officials is that we wanted justice when the children were murdered, not scapegoats. To the extent that the West Memphis Three have been wronged, we have all been wronged. We want justice, and you have not delivered it. Mistakes, as they say, have been made.
I know about mistakes. As a reporter, I have worked hard to be accurate. But I have made mistakes. I can tell you off the bat about three I made in Devil’s Knot, my book about this case. All of them have been pointed out to me by readers–and though I cringed at each of them, I appreciate the corrections.
For example: A reader in Memphis, who I believe is here today, pointed out that I’d gotten the name and the location of the jewelry store where Melissa Byers worked wrong. That affected some other calculations I’d noted, so that that whole footnote was off. Not good.
The first error I learned of came almost immediately after publication. A reader wrote to say that a poem I’d printed at the start of a chapter and attributed to Damien Echols had actually been written by the well-known author Dean Koontz. Believe me, that’s not the kind of news anyone wants to get. My publisher contacted Mr. Koontz and we explained that the poem had been found among Damien’s writings, copied in his own hand, and that I, like the police and attorneys, had believed that it was his original work. Still, not good.
And here’s one closer to home. I made not one, but three mistakes in describing the background of Circuit Judge John Fogelman, who at the time, was a prosecutor in this case. I said he had once served as a juvenile judge. He had not. I said his father had served on the Marion school board. It was his grandfather. I said his father had been president of the Arkansas Bar Association. That had been his uncle. I learned of these errors a couple of years ago, and when I did, I wrote to Judge Fogelman and apologized.
I don’t like standing here before you admitting such mistakes. But I accept that I am human, and that I did make some errors in a book of many facts. Those errors do not discredit the entirety of the book. In fact, I think that the book’s integrity is strengthened by my acknowledging them.
That is all we ask today of this state’s justice officials–from this courthouse and judicial district to the offices of the state supreme court. Accept responsibility and review what was done in this case.
I consider a book an important thing. But it is nothing compared to the legal proceedings that led to the sentences here. The accuracy of what I write matters a lot to me, but it pales next to the processes of this court–process that deal in life and death.
We know that attorneys for the convicted men are meeting with court officials, seeking a re-examination of this case. We stand outside the court, demanding the same thing. The stakes–for this community, this state, and our nation–could not be higher.
And so we say to this court: Do the right thing. Revisit this case. Re-examine what passed for evidence. Reverse this wrong.
And then, perhaps, we can together begin to seek real justice for the children who were murdered here.