The big disconnect: official versus public perceptions of the West Memphis case

 

The case of the West Memphis Three is a landmine for Arkansas’s judiciary. When people anywhere learn what has happened to the three Arkansas men, their confidence in the courts—at least in Arkansas—tends to explode. The damage already has been vast, and it’s likely to spread.

Not that any member of the judiciary has ever publicly acknowledged that. Arkansas elects its judges, its prosecutors and its attorney general. Everyone’s wary of shrapnel.

But jurists throughout the United States recognize that public perception of America’s courts is already suffering. In a 1999 national survey, 23 percent of those surveyed reported that they had a “great deal” of trust in their states’ courts, while 7 percent said they had “hardly any trust.”

In Arkansas, the figures are skewed more dramatically. A 2010 survey in Little Rock in 2010 reported that, while 38 percent of those surveyed said they had a “great deal” of trust in the judicial system, a stunning 54 percent said they held “hardly any.”

In a speech last summer to the Arkansas Bar Association, Supreme Court Chief Justice Jim Hannah noted what he called those “troubling” figures. “In every speech I have given since becoming chief justice,” he said, “I have made the statement that the success and viability of our court system is totally dependent upon the trust and confidence of the public.”

Hannah told his audience: “We must take seriously the public’s perception and do all that we can to create and sustain a system which both is fair and impartial in fact and in appearance.” (The stresses are his.)

Unfortunately, as thousands are by now aware, the fact and the appearance of injustice permeate the West Memphis case. The totality of injustice extends from the police who investigated the crime and came up with no evidence; to the prosecutors who nonetheless tried to send three teenagers to death for it; to the judge who mocked his own court by qualifying an uncredentialed witness as an  “expert” in the occult; to the Arkansas Supreme Court, which found not a single flaw in either of the men’s two trials; to the state’s attorney general who insists that it’s his job to support the 18-year-long farce and press for an execution.

In the past few months, I have conducted my own informal survey regarding this case. I contacted several people who have worked for years to see the men’s sentences reversed and asked what, if anything, about the case they found “intellectually offensive.”

Here are some of their emailed responses:

Mark Cowart

“I found the West Memphis Police Department’s tactics, the prosecution’s tactics, the public reaction, Judge [David] Burnett’s actions, and the juries’ verdicts offensive.” –Mark Cowart, DDS., Chattanooga, TN

“[The case] was based on hearsay. If there had been a jury composed of critical-thinking individuals instead of a jury swayed by mass hysteria, the outcome would have been much different.” –Dr. Lanette Grate, Conway, AR

[private]“The so-called defense effort for Jason was intellectually offensive. I’m sorry, but it was. Not a single witness was placed on the stand to help that man and that was morally, ethically, and legally wrong. There were certainly people who could have testified to his alibi and to his character. … No one is ever going to convince me that it was fair, just or acceptable that he received counsel that felt a fly-under-the-radar strategy was reasonable. He was a teenager being tried for the murders of three small children. His life was on the line.” —Anonymous

“It was offensive intellectually in every possible way, from the presumption of guilt (which I’m ashamed to say I initially shared) to the shoddy investigation to the coerced ‘confession’ to the inane testimony of ‘Dr.’ Dale Griffis to the argument that reading horror novels and wearing black are evidence of a lack of a soul to the juror misconduct to the idiotic law that requires that appeals be heard by the very judge who presided over the original trial to—well, you name it. If there was anything that wasn’t offensive about the case, I don’t know what it was.” —Dr. David Jauss, Little Rock, AR

“After viewing the documentary (“Paradise Lost”), I remember having a  discussion with family and friends about how scary the prosecution seemed. It seemed like a witch hut. The crowds outside of the courtroom seemed as though they wanted to lynch the teenagers. They appeared to be in a frenzy of hate. I thought the prosecution and detectives and judge seemed to be a bunch of good old boys attempting to convince the jury of the guilt of the three teenagers because they were easy targets. It reminded me of the Salem village witch trials sent in modern-day Arkansas.” —Capi Peck, Little Rock, AR

“I was with some friends in Hawaii who wanted to visit Arkansas until we watched the film together. Then they changed their minds and never came. The salient intellectual objection at the time, for me and those Hawaii residents, was the prosecutor’s closing arguments.” —Brent Peterson, Little Rock, AR

“The state’s use of Dale Griffis as an expert witness. I find it hard to believe that [Deputy Prosecuting Attorney John] Fogleman and [Prosecutor Brent] Davis weren’t smart enough to realize how ridiculous Griffis was, but they called him anyway to testify about the occult because, in my opinion, they knew they didn’t have enough without playing some “occult” card to the jury. I think Fogleman’s comment in closing about looking into Damien [Echols’]eyes and not seeing a soul is a disgusting parlor trick/game, as well.” –Diana Paulson, Chesapeake, VA

“I thought the satanic panic was most unfortunate because no one cared to delve more deeply into it.” –Marie South, Jonesboro, AR

“I never, for a second, believed those three little boys were killed at the ditch-bank scene where their bodies were recovered. The mere sight of their bodies on the ditch-bank at the beginning of ‘Paradise Lost’ has haunted me ever since. I simply could not, even after repeated viewings, reconcile the way they were discovered—hog-tied and naked—with the idea that this was a satanic killing, with a completely clean ‘crime scene.’” –Bob Tankersley, Atlantic Beach, FL

“I lived in Memphis when this happened, and I was offended at the bungling by police. My own son was a police officer in Kentucky at the time, so I found it offensive to see how West Memphis police were handling the case, losing evidence, doing anything to convict—in the easiest way the could—persons who couldn’t defend themselves.” –Pat White, Fairfield, IL

Though I am glad that it ordered a review of this case, however belatedly, my own prize for “most offensive” would go to the Arkansas Supreme Court. It sets the standard for how law is conducted in Arkansas. It permitted this case’s atrocities, not only to occur, but to drag on for 18 years. As the court’s own rules for professional conduct observe:

“The legal profession is largely self-governing. Although other professions also have been granted powers of self-government, the legal profession is unique in this respect because of the close relationship between the profession and the processes of government and law enforcement. This connection is manifested in the fact that ultimate authority over the legal profession is vested largely in the courts.”

Public confidence in Arkansas’s courts is low and getting lower—and the public’s mistrust extends well beyond the West Memphis case. Whatever happens with that in December, confidence in Arkansas’s courts has suffered. Responsibility for the injury—and the “ultimate authority” to heal it—rests with the supreme court.[/private]

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