Hollywood celebrities frequently lend their prominence and notoriety to causes that are dubious or even harmful; Jenny McCarthy’s passionate promotion of now-discredited links between vaccines and autism are a recent and disturbing example. At other times, celebrities assert expertise on complex topics far beyond their competence or comprehension; this was a theme in Michael Crichton’s attack on global warming hysteria, State of Fear. Johnny Depp, however, has got it right. As his highly anticipated film “Alice in Wonderland” is about to be released and he has the media following his every move, Depp is using his fame and following to focus attention on what may be an egregious miscarriage of justice.
It is the case of the West Memphis Three. In 1993, police discovered the bodies of three 8-year-olds, and there was immediate speculation that their killings had been part of a satanic ritual. Satanic cults were big in 1993, and long-haired Damien Echols became a suspect as much for his demeanor and reputation as for anything substantive. Indeed, there was no evidence tying him to the crime until a cognitively impaired boy named Jessie Misskelly Jr. told police that he helped Echols and Jason Baldwin kill the boys.
There was no physical evidence linking any of them to the killings, yet all three were convicted. Misskelly and Baldwin are serving life sentences and Echols is on Death Row.
Other celebrities of lesser wattage have embraced their cause, but Depp’s interest helped spur a “48 Hours” segment about the case on CBS that has attracted more media and public attention than ever before. You can read an excellent account of the facts behind the West Memphis Three case here.
None of this proves that the three convicted men are innocent, but there are sufficient questions about their guilt to warrant further inquiry. If they are ultimately vindicated, they and the justice system will owe a lot to Johnny Depp, one movie star who knows how to put his celebrity to good use.