For the past several weeks, we’ve discussed thin-slicing as it pertains to academic life; my colleague Professor Whittingham has also discussed the Amadou Diallou case, when thin-slicing and race collided to result in tragedy. Today I want to discuss a case that has been going on for the past 18 years, a case where thin-slicing had similar tragic consequences based on nothing more than the way three teenagers dressed and the music they liked.
In 1993, three eight year old boys were murdered in West Memphis, Arkansas. Within days, the police had arrested three teenagers for the crime – Jesse Misskelley, Jason Baldwin, and Damien Echols. When the police were asked to rate, on a scale of 1-10, how confident they were that these three had committed the crimes, they responded, “Eleven!” The whole town cheered.
It came out during the trial that these three young men were picked up by police because they were “odd.” Damien Echols had a funny first name, a name he chose because, police claimed, he wanted to be Damian from the Omen horror movies. (He actually chose the name to honor Father Damien, the Catholic priest who worked in Hawaii with the lepers – Father Damien was later sainted by the Catholic church.)
Damien and Jesse and Jason also liked heavy metal music – Metallica, to be exact. They wore black clothes. Damien was Goth before Goth was popular. He had long hair. He acted “funny.”
These three were peculiar. They were scary. They were different. In West Memphis, Arkansas, with no physical evidence to tie these three to the crimes, that was enough to arrest them for murder.
All three were convicted. Jason and Jessie got life sentences; Damien Echols was sentenced to death row.
Today, eighteen years, two HBO documentaries, and one investigative book later, Damien, Jesse, and Jason were set free. They walked out of jail today as free men. Here’s what Damien looks like now:
He looks pretty “normal,” doesn’t he? Today he just might fit right in with the rest of the citizens of West Memphis, Arkansas. What a difference 18 years makes.
I believe that thin slicing put them in jail. It helped an entire community make a rash decision and justify their actions in convicting three teens of murder. Once the town was able to identify the bogeyman, they could rest easy again.
But it all went horribly wrong. The real murderers were never found. These young men went into prison at 18 years old. Today, they walked out at 36 years old.
Being different – being unique – is a right we’re supposed to enjoy in this country. But what we can’t control is how people view us.
So what do we do about that? Is there anything we can do about it?