Welcome To Britain, Mr President - Now, Please Free The West Memphis Three

Awesome as it’ll be to have Obama over here, perhaps we should use his visit to help overturn the worst miscarriage of justice this side of the Birmingham Six?
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So who isn't excited to have Barack Obama visiting the UK? For this writer, the day this proud son of Kenya (hi, birthers) took his oath of office, I started counting the days until he'd head over to our green and pleasant land. And while he's already paid one flying visit for the 2009 G20 summit, this forthcoming affair is the nearest I'll come to understanding what those fainting girls went through when the Fab Four took the stage.

Thrilled as I'll be to see this charismatic visionary on this side of the Atlantic, it's my belief that while we should extend a warm welcome to the man, we should also take this rare opportunity to bring to his attention an appalling miscarriage of justice. That the crime in question occurred in the US might lead some to believe we have no business in entreating the president to attend to the matter. Think how much the Clinton White House did to bring peace to Ireland and you might agree that, as we have plenty to thank America for (surf 'n' turf, those movies where cops have dogs as partners, I could go on), being a good friend sometimes means pointing out when your ally has gone awry.

In May 1993, the bodies of three children were found in a dry river bed in Robin Hood Hills, a district of the Arkansas town of West Memphis. The murder of the boys, Christopher Byers, Michael Moore and Stevie Branch, was so horrific that while photos of the crime scene are widely available on the net, we've chosen not to replicate them on our site. It should be enough to say that each of the boys had been tied up and tortured, and one of them, the eight-year old Christopher Byers, had been emasculated.

Even in late twentieth century America, it was possible to whip up feeling similar to those addressed in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.

Determined to catch the guilty party(s) as quickly as possible, the local police arrested teenagers Jessie Misskelley, Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin. Although it might sound like a drastic oversimplification, the truth of the matter is that these boys were taken into custody because they liked to dress in black, they were fans of Metallica (a crime perhaps, but surely not one punishable by jail time) and one of them, Echols, owned a couple of books about witchcraft.

The trials that followed, the hysteria whipped up by the media and the local community's desire to avenge the murders were captured in the documentaries Paradise Lose: The Child Murders At Robin Hood Hills and Paradise Lost II: Revelations. Directed by Joel Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, the men responsible for the peerless Metallica: Some Kind Of Monster, the films reveal that, even in late twentieth century America, it was possible to whip up feeling similar to those addressed in Arthur Miller's The Crucible. The trailer alone provides a telling snapshot of the mania that engulfed West Memphis in the wake of the Robin Hood Hills atrocities.

Over the course of the trial, virtually no evidence emerged to tie Misskelley, Echols and Baldwin to the murders. What did emerge was that Misskelley - whose confession was the prosecution's trump card - had an IQ in the low seventies. As an imbecile, Misskelley should have been privy to exemplary treatment following his arrest. Instead, he was denied legal representation and access to his family and subjected to hours of questioning, the upshot of which was a confession so full of holes, John Torode could use it as a colander.

I’ve lots more to say about the West Memphis Three but a lot of it's been said already by people whose legal knowledge far surpasses my own. Those who are willing to research the matter further might be surprised how quickly they conclude that the convictions of Misskelley, Echols and Baldwin are, at best, unsafe. Look a little further and you'll surely wonder why it is that these three men - aged 17, 19 and 16 at the time they were convicted - have spent the last 18 years in prison. Echols, who was sentenced to death, spends 23 hours a day in his cell. He has rarely seen the son who was born just prior to his being sent down.

Of course, the wrongful conviction of three teenagers can't rival the murder of three eight-year-olds in terms of tragedy. Britain, however, has first hand experience of what it is to find the wrong people guilty, and how such measures, instead of providing 'closure' (hate that word but it seems apropos in this instance) simply prolong the agony. Meanwhile, the case of Stefan Kiszko leaves us well qualified to point up the idiocy of leaning on an idiot when they're in custody.

So welcome to Britain, Mr President. Enjoy the wonderful weather and the adoring crowds. We really couldn't be happier to have you here. But please put pardoning the West Memphis Three on your to-do list when you arrive home.

For more on the Free The West Memphis Three campaign visit wm3.org

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