On August 19th the West Memphis 3 (Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jesse Misskelley Jr.) were freed from prison in a plea agreement after 18 years of incarceration. The West Memphis 3 case is perhaps the most high-profile trial known in which the 1980s Satanic moral panic played a significant role, using Damien Echols interest in the occult and Wicca as proof of his murderous interests. Now free, the three men attended the New York premiere of Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, the latest, and most likely last, installment in a series of documentaries that helped change public opinion on their murder convictions. Peg Aloi, a Pagan media critic, and longtime observer and commentator on the West Memphis 3, was on hand for the screening and was able to ask Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin about their religious beliefs.
I felt lucky that I was called on to ask a question of my own. First I said thank you to Damien, Jason and Jessie, along the lines of “Thank you for surviving what must have been an unimaginable eighteen years, that most of here can barely imagine, and for being here so that we can all celebrate your freedom and your courage.” That got some applause, then I said, “You were convicted in part because of your beliefs, Damien: your beliefs as a Wiccan and a pagan. Then you became a Buddhist. I’d like to ask both Jason and Damien, what part has your spirituality played in your ability to survive the last eighteen years?”
Jason answered first. He spoke to the difficulty of accepting the fact that he could be found guilty when he was innocent, and looked to his faith (he is a Christian) to help make him strong enough to face his despair. Damien then said, “Two things helped keep me alive while I was in prison: my wife, and my spiritual practice.” He then said it was not only his practice that helped him mentally or emotionally, but physically as well. He said that he suffered physical torture of all kinds to his body, and that adequate medical and dental care were very hard to obtain in prison. He then added that one had to look out for oneself, and that his practices of reiki and energy work helped him keep his body healthy.
You can read more about Aloi’s thoughts on the screening, and the futures of the West Memphis 3, here. Another interview noted that Jason Baldwin said he wanted to go back to school so he could help “prevent similar situations from occurring.” Here’s hoping he succeeds in his scholastic pursuits, and that he need never encounter the gross miscarriages of justice that happened during the “Satanic Panic” years ever again.
For more on the West Memphis 3 from Peg Aloi, click here. You may also want to read John Morehead’s follow-up interview with attorney Dan Stidham (original interview, here), who represented Jessie Misskelley of the West Memphis 3 until 2008 (at which point he became a judge). Stidham says that “Satanic Panic convicted the WM3 and the hard work of many people from all around the world refused to let this injustice stand.” I would suggest reading the whole thing, as there’s a lot of great information to be found there. You can read all of the Wild Hunt’s WM3 coverage, here.