23 August, 2011

On the Release of the West Memphis Three

"Are you sure?" I insisted. My neighbor Zach had just rushed to my cell door to relay what he'd seen on CNN. The West Memphis Three, jailed for eighteen years on dubious murder convictions, took an Alford plea and were being released. I abandoned the essay I was writing and hurriedly turned on my TV. Sure enough, there they were — Damien, Jessie, and Jason, dressed like human beings for the first time this century — giving a press conference.

"The one on the left looks a little like you," Zach said. I shushed him, not wanting to miss an instant. Though the networks would replay the clip for days, it never stopped appearing to me as surreal as a fever dream.

Zach had seen photos of me taken before prison. He knew about the media's fixation on my black clothes and eyeliner. He knew, also, that my friends and I used to talk about the West Memphis Three in the reverent tones typically used by the devout when speaking of martyrs. Onetime misfits in a small-minded trailer culture, the trio's persecution was as mythic as it was terrifying. If we teens who lived in an urban, allegedly enlightened environment (in the Midwest, I grant you) were yelled at and threatened on the street for dressing unusally, there was no doubt in our minds that black-clad youth in the American South had it many times worse. Of course we believed Damien, Jason, and Jessie were innocent. Arrest, trial, and conviction were simply legal extensions of the sort of bigotry my darkly dressed friends and I encountered all the time. It would have been difficult not to feel solidarity with those three strangers down in Arkansas, but I didn't hold much hope in their chances for release. Even as a naive teenager, my faith in the United States judicial system, and in people, was virtually nonexistent.

Then my two best friends died. Anastasia was murdered; Justin, her boyfriend, killed himself. Authorities suspected it was a murder-suicide. I knew the homicide investigation was going south when, in an interview, the lead investigator launched into the first of many inquiries into the couple's musical tastes, religious beliefs, and choice in clothing. One mutual friend suggested early on, "This case is going to turn into a witch hunt before it's closed."

And in a way, it did. I partly blame my wrongful murder conviction on the smear campaign that ensued. After my scorned ex took her lies to the authorities, years later, the jury was kept from hearing much of the sensational crap prosecutors wanted to introduce, but there was no shortage of effort on that front. Everything from my car's band-related bumper stickers to my offbeat sense of humor was dragged out, pre-trial. I even suggested during a recess that I detected disturbing echoes of the case of the West Memphis Three. My court-appointed attorney blinked at me from behind his thick glasses and asked, "Who?" He later obliged my worry after a great deal of cringe-worthy debate over the use at trial of the term goth, and I was at least granted a trial free of overt post-West Memphis Three, post-Columbine bias.

So there I sat, innocent yet imprisoned, watching footage of those I once pitied for unjustly living the slow death of the incarcerated. Cellphone snapshots of Damien and Jason's luxurious first night of freedom — Kobe burgers and a five-star hotel rooftop celebration — and of Jessie's family reunion swelled my heart as they stabbed it.

"Man," Zach said as we watched, "can you imagine?"

A happy photograph of Damien holding his wife, whom he married years ago, in prison, flashed across the screen. Before that day, they had scarcely before touched. I just stared. What an experience that all must be, scary and awesome and bigger than anything most people will probably ever know.

I finally mustered a reply: "Actually, I imagine it every single day."

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