I've never been shy on this page about writing about how fabulous a place I think Memphis, Tennessee, is. And now I think it even more so. In what other place would the West Memphis 3, or at least two of them, upon finally getting released from their 18-year prison ordeal, have a rooftop party atop a swanky hotel with Eddie Vedder from Pearl Jam and Natalie Maines from the Dixie Chicks? Whether they are guilty or not, and I am in the camp that believes they are innocent, you have to admit that is really cool. I'm happy they weren't so mentally nonfunctional from being in prison that they were able to party it up and have a blast.
I've also never been shy about writing about the doubts I have regarding the jury system in general. And this is just another case in point that should make everyone question the system, if for no other reason than to see what can be done to make it better. Take the jury that convicted Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, and Jason Baldwin in 1994 of murdering three small children in West Memphis: On what evidence did they base their verdict? There wasn't any. There was Misskelley's confession, but it wasn't even allowed in Echols' and Baldwin's trials because it was deemed no good. With all due respect to my good friends who live in West Memphis, I'm just not sure I would trust any gathering of 12 people from that city to make such an important decision.
I got some flak once a long time ago for writing in this paper that people in West Memphis had to use wheelbarrows to learn to walk on just two legs and have since tempered my smart-ass tone about masses of people — like a city's entire population. And I do have some really good friends who call West Memphis home. But part of the reason I wonder if these guys could ever have gotten a fair trial there is based on some of the comments West Memphians have made in the news since the WM3's release. In The Commercial Appeal's coverage of their release and the events surrounding it, 34-year-old West Memphis landscaper Jeff Edwards said, "These men is just trash through and through. And that's all they'll be. And they knows it." And when it was pointed out to him that there was a remark about Jesus and forgiveness on the marquee of the D'Bo's Wings 'n' Things across the street, he looked up at some darkening clouds and said to the reporter, "Well, hell. You gonna look at that and tell me God's happy today?"
There is just so much so wrong about that that it's difficult to know where to start. First of all, having a message about Jesus on a chicken-wing restaurant is a little scary. And the fact that Edwards said "And they knows it" is slightly unsettling. But the fact that this guy thinks rain clouds are caused by God's wrath makes me wonder what would have been going through his mind if he had been chosen as a juror.
In fact, it makes me wonder what went through all of the jurors' minds when deciding the fate of these young men who happened to wear black and weren't members of a Southern fundamentalist religion. Oddly, if they had been Pentecostal snake handlers they might have had a better chance. And of course, there were plenty of people who determined in their minds that Echols was evil because of the first name and facial features with which he was born. If that is true, then what about Dick Cheney, who looks like he is ready to kill at any time but has never, to our knowledge, actually committed a murder or shot anyone on purpose?
This religious stuff sometimes makes me nuts. There are a lot of wonderful people of faith out there, but why is it that so many who claim to love and fear God are the very ones who are the quickest to judge and slowest to forgive. Let me tell you something, Mr. Edwards: Storm clouds are caused by moisture in the atmosphere. And they happen every day, not just the days on which people are released from prison.
One thing that has surprised and pleased me about this case is the fact that most of the online reader comments about the WM3's release have been more level-headed than not and most people seem to understand that it was a witch hunt. I was all set to see the usual gaggle of idiots sounding off with fake names to protect their identities, but such really hasn't been the case. It's encouraging. It gives me hope that the West Memphis 3 will be safe and have the chance to have lives again. Maybe Eddie Vedder and Natalie Maines will come back and have a rooftop party with the guys every year.