Gullible Journalists

America’s most beloved mass murderer published his second memoir, and it made the New York Times bestseller chart in its first week. The chart blurb states that the author was “released last year after serving 17 years on a wrongful conviction” — no cautious words like “alleged” or “controversial”, just a flatout assertion that the conviction was wrongful.

This case has been a low point in American journalism. Again and again and again, journalists just regurgitate the mythical tale of the West Memphis Three presented in the Paradise Lost films, without the slightest bit of skepticism or fact-checking. There’s no excuse for this laziness, since the West Memphis child massacre is the most accessibly documented criminal case ever (with the possible exception of the JFK assassination) thanks to the Callahan archive.

Some recent examples:

Janet Maslin, New York Times: “It was Mr. Echols’s teenage taste for the occult, heavy metal and black clothing — a look inspired by Mr. Depp in Edward Scissorhands, he says — that initially made him a target for the vindictive and provincial police in West Memphis, Ark.”

That’s the myth. In the real world, West Memphis police initially suspected Echols because of his history of violent assaults and threats; well-documented psychosis, psychopathy and homicidal fantasies; and three psychiatric institutionalizations after violent incidents in the year before the murders. Their suspicions were heightened when eyewitnesses reported seeing him walking near the crime scene covered in mud hours after the victims went missing. That’s not vindictive and provincial, that’s just ordinary police work.

Eliot Spitzer, Slate: “Damien Echols of the West Memphis Three told of the horrors of spending 18 years on death row, wrongly convicted because of a town’s anger and need for vengeance. … As the Echols case makes so clear, coerced interrogations continue to be the bane of fair trials. Here too, technology has an answer. As one who was a prosecutor for many years, I can tell you that having a tape recording of interrogations would help everybody.”

I agree with Spitzer on the value of recording interrogations. The WMPD should have started taping Jessie Misskelley’s interrogation at 12:40 pm on June 3, 1993. They also should have taped the interrogation of Damien Echols on May 10, 1993. That said, there’s no evidence that either interrogation was “coerced”. Many of the claims made by pro-WM3 activists, like the alleged 12-hour interrogation of Misskelley, are obvious lies that can be easily checked. The Arkansas Supreme Court reviewed questions of coercion vs voluntariness on appeal and rejected the defense’s claims. Anyone who still insists Misskelley was “coerced” should read that decision and explain where the ASC got it wrong. But lazy journalists prefer to keep repeating the movie version of events rather than do even minimal research.

And there’s no guarantee that recorded confessions will make any difference for someone like Spitzer who prefers myth over facts. We now have transcripts of tape-recorded confessions made by Jessie Misskelley in private meetings with his defense lawyer on August 19, 1993 (PDF) (eleven weeks after his arrest) and February 8, 1994 (after his conviction). The tape-recording of Misskelley’s February 17, 1994 confession has long been available for anyone to listen to. Did Spitzer read/listen to them before doing a TV segment and writing a column about the case?

American journalists don’t routinely parrot the pro-defense line when covering high-profile murder cases. The conventional wisdom holds O.J. Simpson, Casey Anthony, Scott Peterson and Drew Peterson guilty, even though the evidence against them is much weaker than the evidence against Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley. So what is it about this case?