Satanic Panic – a phenomenon characterized by widespread fear about the presence of satanic ritual abuse in one’s community, state or country.
Bullshit – trivial, insincere, untruthful talk, writing, or nonsense made by people more concerned with the response of the audience than in truth and accuracy.
During the 1980s and early 90s, God-fearing Americans were in the grip of a moral panic brought about by charlatans peddling the unfounded dangers of subliminal messages in rock and roll and satanic ritual abuse. Across the country, millions of records and stereo systems were destroyed in an attempt to play “Stairway to Heaven” backwards to hear Robert Plant’s message of evil and seemingly normal citizens embraced the myth that Devil-worshipers had set up shop in day-care centers, schools, and quiet communities raping and sodomizing children, practicing ritual sacrifice, conducting orgies, and drinking blood, all under the noses of unsuspecting parents and incompetent authorities. The apex of this complete loss of collective sanity was the McMartin pre-school trial in California that began in 1984. This trial, which remains the longest and most expensive trial in U.S. history, attempted to convince multiple juries that Virginia McMartin and her grandson, Ray Buckey, sexually abused over 360 children in a series of bizarre satanic rituals involving carwash orgies, secret underground lairs, levitation, hot air balloons, Chuck Norris, and animal sacrifice. These allegations were based solely on the statements of an alcoholic schizophrenic mother with a history of institutionalization, the perjured testimony of a repeat jailhouse felon, the highly suggestive interviewing and therapy techniques of the now defunct and widely discredited Children’s Institute International, and a growing national fear in Reagan’s America that if the Soviets did not get us, then Satan would. This seven-year, $15 million trial ended in 1993 with no convictions, no evidence of satanic influence, and no evidence of Chuck Norris’ involvement.
In 1993, in West Memphis, Arkansas, three eight-year-old boys—Stevie Branch, Michael Moore, and Christopher Byers—were found dead, naked, mutilated, and hogtied in a muddy ditch. In a move that pre-dated Giorgio Tsoukalos’ conclusion that it must be aliens, police officials decided that the crime had “occult” overtones and immediately suspected the black clothes wearing, heavy metal loving, obviously evil named Damien Echols of committing the crime. Their suspicions were further confirmed after the interrogation of Jessie Misskelley, a minor with an IQ of 72, who was brought in by the police to discuss his knowledge of occult activities in the area. After a twelve hour interrogation, of which only forty-one minutes were ever recorded, Misskelley “confessed” (and quickly recanted) that he, Damien, and another friend, Jason Baldwin, committed the murders. Armed with the confession of a barely intellectual functioning minor that contained multiple factual inconsistencies and the zealousness of a televangelist, police arrested and charged all three teenagers with the crime. In the ensuing trials, all three were hastily convicted on the basis of a questionable confession, mishandled and untested evidence, and the testimony of a self-proclaimed occult expert with a mail-order Ph.D. Misskelley and Baldwin were given life sentences while Echols was sentenced to death.
Documentary filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky brought their cameras to Arkansas to document the trial in 1994 for HBO, and their resulting film, “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills,” became a cause celeb and created a national movement that called into question the guilt of the three teenagers and accused the Bible Belt community of West Memphis, including its police and assorted white trash citizens, of rushing to judgment. The film aptly described the level of community panic and frustration within the days of the murder. A rumored history of Devil worship, occult graffiti along the railroad tracks, and whispers of trailer park Satanic rituals coupled with the shocking nature of the crime, no immediate arrests, a Mayberry-esque police force, and extensive press coverage all led to the inevitable conclusion that it must have been teenagers under the influence of heavy metal and the Devil. Authorities quickly zeroed in on Damien Echols. Why Damien? Well, besides his name, he looked weird, had a history of run ins with the law, had Latin sayings written on notebooks along with drawings of snakes, and was rumored (according to his classmates and a youth minister) to have killed and eaten animals and to have sold his soul to Lucifer himself. Baldwin, due to his close friendship with Damien was assumed guilty by association, while Misskelley tightened the noose around his own neck through his own lack of mental agility.
Berlinger’s and Sinofsky’s 2000 follow-up HBO film, “Paradise Lost 2: Revelations,” further probed inconsistencies behind the prosecution’s case and offered up an additional suspect in the form of one Mark David Byers, father of one of the victims. Byers proves to be the most interesting character that we meet along this journey. He’s a scripture spewing hillbilly with a penchant for prescription drugs, arson, and Old Testament style vengeance – in sum, the ideal West Memphis resident. It is also discovered that a knife he gave to a member of the film crew during the first film contains traces of blood that matches that of his son and is similar to the type of blade that was allegedly used in the crime. Additional evidence of what appears to be bite marks (according to the defense attorneys but those of a belt buckle according to the prosecution) on the face of one of the victims turns out to not match any of the defendants. However, we also learn that Byers had all of his teeth extracted in 1997, making any additional comparisons impossible and further cementing his status as the model Arkansas citizen. He may have also murdered his wife according to a rather ill-timed Freudian slip during a one-on-one interview with the filmmakers. The second film ends with Byers passing a polygraph while under the influence of multiple mood altering drugs.
The 2012 “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory,” summarizes the first two films and picks up the case in late 2009 during a series of last ditch appeals. New evidence uncovered and presented by the appellate defense teams include:
• DNA evidence – items tested at lab chosen by prosecution showed no presence of DNA from the defendants on any of the victims
• The wounds on the victims which the prosecution claimed to be that of a serrated knife were actually post-mortem animal bites, which also explains the presence of animal hairs found at the crime scene
• A human hair found on the ligatures used to tie up one of the boys was from Terry Hobbs, one of the victim’s stepfather’s (more on him in a moment)
• Juror misconduct on the part of the original Echols and Baldwin jury foreman, who contacted an attorney during the trial asking for ways to convince other jurors to convict and violated the court’s instructions by discussing the Misskelley confession that was excluded from Echols and Baldwin’s trial
In this third installment, we become reacquainted with Mark David Byers, who has transformed from a frothing at the mouth, walking southern stereotype into a calmer, walking southern stereotype. Byers, who once led the charge of Satanic ritual accusations now believes that Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley are innocent and turns his accusatory lazy eye toward Terry Hobbs. In what has to be the film’s most awkwardly painful moment, Byers pulls a homemade placard outlining what he believes establishes Hobbs’ guilt from the back of his truck and gives the audience a riveting legal argument. Hobbs, who was never considered as a suspect (nor were any of the victims’ parents), had made the near fatal mistake of suing the Dixie Chicks for defamation based on comments made by Natalie Maines regarding the hair discovered on the ligatures. During the taped depositions, Hobbs is questioned about the crime, the mounting inconsistencies in his own alibi for the night of the murders, and his violent, wife-beating, brother-in-law shooting past. However, this is but a temporary detour into further reasonable doubt about the original convictions.
Flush with the new evidence, defense attorneys argue for a new hearing in front of the same judge who presided in the first trials and subsequent appeals. Not surprisingly, the judge refuses their request to present new evidence and the case is appealed to the Arkansas Supreme Court. In what has to be one of the most illogical legal arguments ever presented in a court of law, the state attorney general’s office tries to convince the court that the word, “all,” in a recently passed DNA rehearing statute only applies to evidence of guilt, not innocence, citing that the intent of the statute is not to provide relief for defendants but to ensure the integrity of a flawed criminal justice system. If I had more space, I could devote another 10 pages to just how moronic and unconstitutional this argument truly is. The Arkansas Supreme Court overrules the lower court decision and remands the case for an evidentiary hearing. But before the case can be heard, the prosecution and the defense agree to a plea. In exchange for the defendants conceding that there is enough evidence to convict and entering what is known as an Alford plea (pleading guilty but allowed to maintain their innocence) they are sentenced to time served and released from prison, walking free in 2011 after spending seventeen years behind bars.
However, the larger question of who killed the three boys is never answered. Was it Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley? Was it Mark David Byers? Was it Terry Hobbs? Or was it the mysterious black man who was seen in a Mr. Bojangles restaurant bathroom the night of the murders covered in blood and mud? The answer may never be known, but what is apparent is that the evidence linking Echols, Baldwin, Misskelley, Byers, and Hobbs to the crime is shoddy enough, circumstantial enough, and lacking enough to rise to the level of reasonable doubt. Are they innocent? Possibly…possibly not, but that’s the beauty, bane, and burden of our system or any system that relies on and can be taken down by human error, zealousness, and hubris. Taken together, the only true insights these three films provides us with are the terrible toll that murder and grief can take on a family and community, the dangerous influence that fanaticism and superstition can have on the fearful and the weak-minded, and the reminder that if one seeks justice, go to a whorehouse; if one seeks to get fucked, go to court.