The following is what I observed on Friday, August 19 - the day that the three criminal defendants more commonly known as the West Memphis 3 entered a plea agreement and were released from prison. I will not make any statements as to whether I think they are guilty or innocent. This is simply what I saw that day.
Because of the attention the media have given the West Memphis 3 case and the large following the accused have online, I assumed the Craighead County courthouse would be absolute madness the morning of August 19th - the morning that the WM3 would enter a plea agreement that would set them free from prison. I strolled by the courthouse about 9 A.M., and it was pretty lifeless outside. There was a parking lot full of media trucks, and police officers were walking all about the courthouse campus, but there was nothing lively or spirited going on. By that point, though, there was already a line inside the courthouse to get into the courtroom, so the most interested parties were no longer milling around outside.
About an hour later, the closed-to-public hearing was either happening or had already happened, and the activity outside had stirred up. The cameras, microphones, and crowd were gathered around one man. The father of one of the victims had opinions he wanted to share, and angry, ranting Arkansans rarely meet a camera that they don't like. John Mark Byers was appalled by the plea agreement; he thought the WM3 should not have to claim any guilt in the matter.
My interest, though, was not in the anger being spewed from the front of the courthouse. My interest was in two black, massive Mercedes vans parked outside the back of the old jail, right next to the courthouse. The area surrounding the vans was marked off by police tape. Two men in white shirts and black vests who appeared to be drivers were walking around inside the taped-off area, and some police officers were milling around as well. I assumed that these were the vehicles that would be whisking the defendants away from their prison lives, so I waited patiently while most of the action was still going on out front.
While I was waiting, I figured out what had happened inside the courtroom by checking twitter on my phone. The defendants had entered Alford pleas, and their sentence term would be the time served plus a suspended sentence. They would be walking out of the courtroom as free men.
As the news of the deal broke, the crowd that had been at the front of the courthouse was moving to where I was standing - they too were watching the Mercedes vans, waiting to see what would happen. A short man with a hoarse voice and a brand new Razorback shirt stood beside me and leaned against the wall. He told me he had to lean against the wall because his back was hurting so badly.
More and more police officers gathered around the vans. Seems every law enforcement officer in the county was there - even an officer with a D.A.R.E. shirt was standing around. A thin-looking young man with skinny jeans and a green blazer pushed his way up to the front of the tape next to me. He did not appear to be from this neck of the woods. He was talking on his cell phone. "Willy! Hey Willy! Turn around, I'm right here!" One of the drivers turned around, smiled and waved, and this young man and his entourage ducked under the police tape and made their way to the Mercedes vans. I hear the man will be playing Damien Echols, the man who was on death row, in a movie.
There was a lot of waiting after that. At one point, one of the drivers had to pop the hood of one of the vans, but whatever was malfunctioning apparently got fixed. The crowd started getting anxious and restless. The police officers told the crowd that they knew about as much as we did at that point; they were waiting, just like us.
Two of the police officers approached the man in the Razorback shirt who was leaning against the wall. "They've been looking for you," a sheriff's deputy told the man. "They want you out front." The man left. I still don't know who he was.
And then out came the celebrity supporters.
Eddie Vedder is a small man. He probably is as tall as me, doesn't weigh any more than me. He has an air about him, though - a confidence if you will. Perhaps the confidence that day was the result of millions of record sales and millions of dollars in the bank (and I wouldn't blame him for that). He came across, though, as man who'd taken care of business that day; he had a plan, he executed the plan, and he got the result he wanted.
Natalie Maines does not look like a country singer these days; she is tattooed and has hair about a half-inch long. She was smiling, but she came across bashful. "Thank you, Natalie!" a few supporters yelled to her, and she shyly but happily smiled and waved.
I looked for Johnny Depp. He was not there. I am still upset about that.
After the odd red-carpet-esque moment, there was more waiting. We watched as the police officers threw large bags into an SUV sandwiched between the two vans. An officer carrying a rifle joined the other officers and stood between the vans and the crowd.
And then crowd started roaring with cheers. Two of the WM3 were making their way to the vans. I did not see the third one; he apparently went out another door and left with his father.
I watched as the defendants walked out. Jason Baldwin looked relieved. And very, very happy. And exhausted. There was no emotion on Damien Echols's face, though. Echols lifted his hand and acknowledged the crowd. But there was no apparent happiness.
Everyone piled into the vans as the supporters in the crowd shouted "Freedom!" A police car escorted each vehicle away from the courthouse as the crowed waved and cheered.
I was silent, though, as the vans rolled away. All I could do was wonder - wonder what would be next for these men who had been behind bars for so long. I have no idea what awaits them, but I can only pray that they surround themselves with love and find peace.