Friday, May 21, 2004


it's always nice to realise a belief or opinion you've held about something is totally spot on. it's awful-awful-awful though, when those beliefs and opinions are · that the us justice system is faulty, corrupt, discriminating, ineffective and open for witch hunts and revenge; · that us prisons are hellish; and · that that the death penalty is no verdict any just society would ever inflict unto its citizens.
i thought i was already completely disillusioned about the us legal system, but apparently, i wasn't totally disillusioned. at least not until this morning. i guess i have reached an even deeper level of disillusionment today.

this morning i came across a current post at margaret cho's blog, a post that featured excerpts from a letter by damien echols, describing his life on arkansas death row.

"who's damien echols?", i wondered. margaret offered just a short introductory note, but provided a link. i had seen a banner before, at another blog i frequent, but had never actually checked it out. after reading damiens letter, i did though, and it totally shook me up.

in may 1993, the mutilated bodies of 3 eight year old boys, james moore, steven branch and christopher byers, were found in a drainage creek near west memphis, arkansas.
within a day, local police were questioning local teenager daniel echols. he was the odd one out in west memphis; long-haired, wiccan, with a faible for metal music. a few weeks after the discovery of the bodies, another teenager, jessie misskelley (who hardly knew damien) "confessed" to police that damien had killed the boys with his friend jason baldwin, and also implicated himself.
in february of 1994, jessie was found guilty on three counts of capital murder and sentended to life in prison without parole. 2 months later, damien and jason were found guilty as well. jason received a sentence of life in prison plus 40 years. damien, who was believed to have been the head of a "satanic cult" during whose rituals the boys had been murdered, was sentenced to death by lethal injection.

knowing just these little tidbits, one might think that this is the perfect example of the us legal system working. people who commited a horrible crime being convicted and sentenced accordingly.
the problem however, is that there was no solid evidence at all that damien, jessie and jason were involved in the murder of the three young boys. let me repeat: no. evidence. at. all.

there were however, a town full of people who fell into "satanic panic"; a police department unable to deal with a triple homicide who did not follow essential clues and let people trample down the crime scene; a medical examiner who did extremely sloppy work (with my cursory medical knowledge and a bunch of csi episodes on my back, i could easily spot a whole bunch of weak points in his autopsy report); police officers not informing a suspect about his rights and coercing said teenager (who, by the way, has a below average iq) to make a false confession; a community so shocked by the gruesome murder, that they preferred to quickly blame it on someone who seemed odd, instead of looking for the real killer among themselves; a judge who chose not to include essential defense evidence and let the da present bogus scientific evidence; and a real suspect, the aggressive stepfather of one of the victims with good connections to the police department.

overall, it's a story so unbelievable, that if it were in a book or movie, i wouldn't believe it. i just wouldn't buy that in this present day and age, people who should know better, who should hold themselves to extremely high standards of professional conduct, police men, judges, district attorneys, would act this way. close their eyes to the truth. use music lyrics, religious beliefs and style of clothing as evidence of criminal intent. disregard the absence of any physical evidence. "loose", spoil or just not collect essential evidence. but in the case of damien, jessie and jason, they did all this. and more. a whole lot more.

it's all so fucking OBVIOUS, it's unbelievable that those policemen never doubted that the three teenagers weren't the one's who really committed those murders. the chief investigator claimed on a scale of 1 to 10, he was so sure those three did it. he'd choose an 11. i wonder whether that man can sleep at night.
if those men all never doubted their opionions, a few episodes of csi, a few crime books surely have taught me more than any training west memphis police and their medical examiner have enjoyed in forensic taught them. so much of what happened there is forensic knowledge every tv watching layperson has. excessive stabbings (in rage) and genital mutilations often being signs of an emotional connection between offender and victim for example. or basic how-tos of not spoiling a crime scene, such as not moving the victims and not letting other people get there. or taping confessions in their entierety. or informing suspects of their rights. i could go on, and on, and on.

damien has been on death row for eleven years now. in his letter to margaret cho he describes his day; some "highlights" include being woken up at 4am for breakfast; meals consisting of spoiled meat and vegetables with crickets and other assorted insects; rats in his cell all over him at night; no real human contact apart from a brief phone call in the morning with his wife. i am amazed how reflected, articulate and well-spoken damien is, how hard he tries to keep up a routine, to keep his head together, meditate and not let the situation get total control over him. i can't imagine a situation where you have even less control of your life than on death row, but damien seems to hold up amazingly well.
margaret added that she edited the letter to spare damien trouble, and i can only assume that she's left out things that are so bad i don't even want imagine them.
there have been a few articles in the papers round here lately about that jail warden, you know, that man who's so prominently featured in the abuse pictures from abu ghreib; stories about him abusing inmates in us prisons, long before. i have no doubt at all, that those stories are true. i hence have little doubt, what the situation on arkansas death row must be like; abuse wise, i mean.

i whine about my life; not too often anymore, considering how happy i've been this past year, how much better i feel about myself and life and everything else, but i still do, occasionally. way too often. how can i? this wonderful, free life full of options and choices and possibilities and love and sunshine and blue skies and smelling the flowers and being with the man i love and touching him whenever i want. i have no reason to whine, really, no reason at all. i am healthy and whole and surrounded by goodness; my "problems" are minor and temporary.
damien is on death row in an unjust country for a crime someone else committed (someone who might have committed another murder; someone who is still free), having been robbed of his options, of life with a wife who has never known him in freedom and the kid he fathered as a teenager before this all occured (and that was born while he was already in prison), of fresh air and the nightly sky and decisions about his life and everything, just everything. all just because he was a teenager not much different than i was like. not much different from what many teenagers are like. a bit of an eccentric, an outcast with a strange style in clothes, an interest in religious beliefs and a liking for music with heavy guitars.

fucking unbelievable.

sure, being a priviledged person in western europe, i could compare myself to many million people on this world and regard my life as better, but somehow, even though i am not american, damiens story hits close to home, my home; probably i guess, because what happened to him, the fear and ignorance and injustice he and the other two were confronted with *are* universal.
another lesson, i guess, to value what you have, and to treasure life and the present moment. because all you ever have, thank you once again, eckhart tolle, is the present moment anyway.

i feel strangely compelled to write damien a letter of support now, not that i feel that anything i can say might be insightful. they say on the website that all three appreciate everyday mail, no in-depth discussions of the trial, of wicca or whatever, just regular, nice letters. could i write those without feeling guilty of the goodness in my life? maybe i'll send bookd from their amazon wishlists instead. or a few dollars to the legal defense fund.

how can the us claim to have the right and duty to spread freedom and justice in other countries (with bombs, tanks and soldiers and all), when freedom and justice don't even exist in the us?

once more i am glad to be european.

courttv: "the west memphis three: did satanists murder 3 boys?" synopsis of the case by burk sauls