The West Memphis 3, Hollywood, and American Justice

I am, of course, pleased to see that the West Memphis Three, men who were convicted in 1993 of killing three 8-year-old boys as part of a theoretically Satanic ritual on the confession of one of their number who was later diagnosed as mentally handicapped, a confession which was later clouded by new DNA evidence, are getting out of jail. I’d hesitate to celebrate this as any kind of victory for American justice, however. That it takes three HBO documentaries, a celebrity benefit album organized by Henry Rollins, and the quiet financial support of Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh to free three wrongfully convicted men is an illustration of how difficult, and how expensive it is to exonerate people who are on death row. As long as we have to rely on campaigns like these, we are extraordinarily unlikely to regularly and promptly recognize grievous errors. And as David Grann’s reporting into the evidence that convicted Cameron Todd Willingham and sent him to his death indicates, sometimes even those heroic efforts won’t come fast enough to give people some of their lives back.

It’s much, much easier to build coalitions around specific, and sympathetic, defendants and specific cases than it is for procedural and cultural reform. But we need the latter, and we need it urgently, and those campaigns could use the kind of money and public influence the West Memphis Three’s supporters have on offer. Hopefully, their campaign doesn’t end with this deal.