Monday, 27 February 2012

Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory

The case of the West Memphis 3 was something that I've only briefly read about, something that I knew of through reading up on Pearl Jam, and friends occasionally talking about it. The film, like the two before it apparently, makes the compelling case that the 3 were innocent - with lawyers, forensic experts, and even the stepfather of one of the victims there to help. It would be hard to walk away and not think that it was anything other than a gross miscarriage of justice. Of course, the police who investigated it, the state of Arkansas, and the stepfather of another of the murdered children see it otherwise.

That's the interesting thing looking at this case in documentary form. We, as the viewer, are hearing a selected part of the story, and how accurate that is can only really be gotten by looking into it further. For one thing, I admire the courage of the original filmmakers. These were three people accused of killing children - possibly the worst crime to be accused of - and yet there were people willing to stand up and fight for these three people in the face of an incredibly emotional and hostile situation. I can only imagine what the parents must have felt about a bunch of outsiders trying to free who they saw as evildoers.

What really shocked me, though, was the court testimony of an expert on the occult. A man who had a mail order Ph.D and had done no real study, yet the judge let him stand as an expert witness? I burst out laughing at that point, which again is easy looking back after the whole satanic cult scare had been an evangelical fantasy. But here was a man with no qualification other than the belief that he has found a pattern, and the judge thought it okay to include him as an expert witness because he'd been finding that pattern for years?

And that, to me, is the whole problem with the situation. The children would have never even been considered if it weren't for the satanic cult sacrifice element. Now not only have three people spent half their lives in prison because of that false pattern, they are forever tarnished with the question of whether or not they actually did it. The moral panic around satanic cults, that false positive identification of a pattern, and now three people have lost nearly 20 years of their lives because of it.

With the story about the injustice surrounding the West Memphis three, it's easy to forget that why they are imprisoned was because of another injustice - that three young boys being murdered. The documentary ends with the stepfather of one of the children outraged at Arkansas doing a plea bargain with the accused that would make the whole thing go away because the real killer(s) was still out there and the state had no interest in pursuing the case further - unless new evidence were to come to light.

As far as I can tell, an attempt to rectify one grave injustice, one fuelled by moral panic, has led to another. When I see people tip into "bleeding heart liberals" who just want to "identify with the criminals" (or some variant thereof), this is why I think they've missed the point. Establishing guilt, establishing intent - these are flawed endeavours even in the best of all possible circumstances. None of us "dirty liberals" wants child killers walking around, nor are we looking to diminish the tragedy of what the victims went through. But it's as much an injustice to take that injustice and go on a witch-hunt. For what justice can there be found in failing to get it right?

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