Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Opinion: West Memphis Three, Outrage in Arkansas

From Outsiders to Satanists

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Mara Leveritt. Also please see out feature story on the case: The West Memphis Three

Of the many elements of this case that have come in for criticism, Griffis' testimony ranks near the top, especially among those who believe that Echols and Baldwin were prosecuted for little more than being different, as Baldwin acknowledged they were.

"Others didn't like us," he said later. "They'd been accusing me of being a Satanist since the sixth grade. It was because I had long hair and wore concert T-shirts, with bands like Metallica and Guns n' Roses, and Ozzy Osbourne and U2. Damien liked straight clean black clothes, with nothing printed on them.

"But the way we dressed was one thing people criticized. Most of the other kids, they either wore sports clothes, like Tommy Hilfiger stuff, or if they were country people, they wore flannel shirts and cowboy boots with giant buckles. So we stood out because, even though Damien and I dressed different from each other, we was also different from everybody else."

John Fogleman
John Fogleman

At their trial, those differences took on life-and-death significance. When Fogleman asked Griffis about how he identified "young people involved in the occult," Griffis responded gravely: "I have personally observed people wearing black fingernails, having their hair painted black, wearing black T-shirts, black dungarees, that type of thing. Sometimes they will tattoo themselves."

The defense, in turn, tried to focus on facts. Questioning Griffis, they got him to concede that police had not found anything at the scene that seemed related to the occult. Police had not found pentagrams carved into trees or traced in dirt, nor altars, nor bits of candle wax, nor any knife or other weapon. What they did discover was a remarkable absence of blood.

But the notion that the murders bore trappings of the occult, combined with testimony that Echols wore black clothing, even in summer, and read books by Stephen King—which a detective had testified that he found strange—formed the crux of the prosecution's case. The effort bore the tone of a witch-hunt, which Fogleman carried into his closing remarks. With the trial nearing its end, he told jurors that if they would look hard at Echols, they would find "there's no soul there."

Throughout the trial, the prosecutors had had little to say about Baldwin, beyond suggesting that he was connected to the "lake knife" because the trailer where his family lived bordered the little lake where it was found. They certainly did not tell the jury that knife had not been discovered until six months after the teenagers' arrest— just three months before the start of the trials—when deputy prosecutor Fogleman, by his own account, got the idea to have divers search the lake.

Based on nothing more than this, Davis and Fogleman asked the jury to sentence both boys to death. Persuaded that Echols had been the trio's ringleader, the jury complied partially, sentencing Echols to death and Baldwin to life in prison.

Lawyers appealed on behalf of all three of the men. In 1996, the Arkansas Supreme Court, ruling that it found nothing seriously wrong with the trials, affirmed all three convictions.

The justices saw no problem with Griffis' bogus Ph.D. To the contrary, they quoted his testimony extensively. They noted his claims "that the date of the killings, near a pagan holiday, was significant;" that "there was a full moon" the night the boys disappeared; that "the victims were all eight years old, and eight is a witches' number;" and that "the absence of blood at the scene could be significant because cult members store blood for future services in which they would drink the blood or bathe in it."

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