Three men in their mid-30s have been released from prison after serving more than 17 years behind bars for the 1993 murders of three 8-year-old Cub Scouts in West Memphis, Arkansas—a crime that new DNA evidence suggests they did not commit. We asked Jack Levin, the Brudnick Distinguished Professor of Sociology and Criminology at Northeastern University, who specializes in the study of violence and hate, to examine the unusual nature of the case.
The case of the West Memphis Three has been the subject of a series of HBO documentaries and has received support from a number of celebrities, including actor Johnny Depp, filmmaker Peter Jackson and musician Eddie Vedder. What role did a public call to justice have on the outcome of this case?
Public attention can have an important impact on a homicide case, helping to determine the quality of the investigation, the inmate’s length of sentence and the decision of a parole board.
On the other hand, the support of well-known Hollywood types kept the case in the spotlight for almost two decades, until DNA analysis could be effectively employed to determine whether or not the West Memphis Three were connected to the crime scene. The absence of their DNA led to the decision to release them from custody. Lacking in continuing public pressure, it is likely that one of the defendants would have been executed and the others would have served their life sentences.
One member of the West Memphis Three married a woman who dedicated the last 10 years of her life to proving his innocence. Why do some inmates generate such a passionate following?
Women who date or marry notorious inmates — so-called killer groupies — feel that they benefit a good deal from their relationship. First, they are given a mission or purpose — to show the world that their man was a victim of injustice. Second, such inmates as the West Memphis Three become celebrities. Their groupies would love to date a rock star or a rap idol, but any correspondence or phone calls would probably return no more than an autographed photo. Third, a woman who dates an infamous man is made to feel important: The world says that her guy is an evil monster, but he shares his gentle and decent side only with her, so she must be pretty special.
How does an innocent person convicted of murder and then released from prison several years later go about living a normal life?
There are often family members and good friends who treat the former inmate with dignity and respect — but the public is usually not so kind. What if the judge had erred in releasing the inmates? How do we know that an absence of reasonable doubt equates with innocence? In the case of the West Memphis Three, the convicted men were never exonerated. In fact, they were made to proclaim their guilt in order to be released. The stigma of being convicted of murder usually remains, even when an inmate is determined by the court to be entirely innocent of all charges.
- by Jason Kornwitz