Monday, June 11, 2012

Broadway and the West Memphis Three - William's

Since I was working in West Memphis, AR, on Monday my original lunch plan was to make a return visit to Willie Mae's Rib Haus to see if the pulled pork was better than than the ribs I had there on my first visit. When it ended up being closed I decided to go further down Broadway in search of another barbecue joint I remembered spotting on a prior trip through what was once the city's bustling commercial center.

The aging former main strip still has a welcoming, unified design that makes it easy to daydream about how good it could look in a revitalized state.

Most Memphians just think of West Memphis as a giant sea of truck stops over on the other side of the river. As the little Arkansas city's retail business has largely shifted over to the Interstate access road where the Super Wal-Mart is located the smaller stores that line the city's old core have struggled with blight and a dwindling customer base in a scenario that has played out in countless small towns throughout the country over the last couple decades.

I remembered that the other barbecue place I'd noticed was just south of Broadway so I did a little zigzagging through the numbered streets that line the former main road until I found William's Bar-B-Q on 14th Street. William's doesn't serve ribs or a barbecue plate. The menu is limited to barbecue sandwiches and a few other basic items like cheeseburgers.

Walking up to the front door I noticed a CD insert from a rap album taped to it. Looking at the back of the door, it looked like it was an attempt to repair a bullet hole. But everyone inside the place, employees and customers alike, was extremely pleasant. 

The sandwich ended up being similar in overwhelming size and sloppiness to the ones served at Payne's and Morris Grocery. Luckily it came on a plate with a fork, since after a few bites it fell apart to an extent that I just tossed the top half of the bun and ate it open-faced. I ordered mine spicy and I think it actually had a better sauce than the ones I tried at Payne's and Morris Grocery. The chopped pork included a great mix of tender inner meat and crispy outer bark while the slaw was pretty average. There is absolutely nothing fancy about the restaurant but for less than $6.00 the monstrous sandwich is a great deal.

While looking for William's I was surprised by the number of little blues clubs I saw in the area. Between them and the area's barbecue joints a tour of the main section of Broadway would actually present a more accurate portrayal of Memphis, Tennessee's heritage than a trip to Beale Street for overpriced barbecue and tourist-oriented nightclubs. 

It appears that William's Bar-B-Q has never thrown away a broken television set in the decades it has been around. There was a sign warning people not to touch them.

Most of my customers in West Memphis are located either on or right off of Broadway, but since I do wholesale sales to other businesses I normally don't see much of the residential areas that surround the street. The last time I explored some of the surrounding neighborhoods was a couple years ago after I read the book Devil's Knot by journalist Mara Leveritt. The book is an account of the botched investigation and trial that resulted in the recently-released West Memphis Three being convicted for the 1993 murders of three young boys from the neighborhood just north of Broadway.

Although the crime fit perfectly with the profile for a crime of passion committed by a family member the West Memphis Police were convinced to focus their investigation on a local teenager named Damien Echols by a local juvenile probation officer named Jerry Driver who'd had an unhealthy obsession with Echols for years. There were rumors flying that the murders had been part of a satanic ritual thanks to sensationalist reporting by local TV news stations and newspapers like The Commercial Appeal* in Memphis.

A month into the investigation frustrated police, who had made no progress in the case, ended up questioning a local teenager with an IQ of 72 named Jessie Misskelley Jr. to see if he had any firsthand knowledge of the crime. Despite a polygraph test indicating that he was telling the truth when he said he didn't, police ended up interrogating him for 12 hours straight, mostly unrecorded and with no lawyer present, before finally coercing him into a confession that claimed he, Echols and another local teen named James Baldwin had killed the three boys. The rambling "confession" got so many basic facts about the murders wrong that police officers had to write a new one for him that fit with the facts of the case and convince him to sign it. 

After reading the book's account of the investigation and trials, which took place in West Memphis in front of heavily biased juries, I ended up going to visit several of the key locations mentioned in it. Driving through the neighborhoods around Broadway and looking at the small, frequently dilapidated houses makes it tempting to judge the entire community for the modern-day witch hunt, which was driven by ignorance, superstition, prejudice and a stunningly incompetent criminal justice system.

As much as I love the South, I'm very familiar with the negative side of small town communities. My parents are originally from a very small town in the Missouri Bootheel called Canalou that is so hopelessly backwards that the last time someone really tried to help the place out the the resulting fiasco was the subject of a This American Life broadcast. But even outside of small towns most humans have an amazing ability to accept or dismiss information based entirely on how it fits into their existing worldview. Local people naturally recoiled from the thought of a family member of one of the victims committing such a terrible crime. And as the ultimate boogeyman in their imaginations, Satan seemed like a reasonable explanation for the murders to a largely uneducated community steeped in modern American Christian mythology.

Even today in Memphis there are still plenty of people who refuse to even consider the idea that the wrong people were convicted of the murders. A lot of this denial is driven by the horrible truth that if someone acknowledges that the wrong people were probably convicted they also have to acknowledge that the real killer or killers got away with committing such a terrible crime.

This is even more true in the minds off officials like David Burnett, the arrogant and incompetent judge who presided over the trials, denied later appeals, and is now unfortunately an Arkansas state senator. During the trial Burnett repeatedly allowed "evidence" to be admitted like the testimony of an "occult expert" with a mail-order degree or a knife that was found in a lake near one of the defendants homes and presented as a murder weapon despite there being nothing linking it to the murder scene or any of the defendants. Meanwhile he repeatedly ruled inadmissible any evidence that suggested the three were innocent, like the results of the original lie detector test that indicated Misskelley was telling the truth when he said he had no knowledge of the crime beyond what he had heard around town.

Was Burnett a genuine monster who knowingly allowed a real murderer to get away while ruining the lives of three teenagers just to advance his political career? Or was he merely a bigoted, misguided fool who thought he was doing his community a favor by denying due process to people he assumed were guilty? Like the majority of people who run for political office he displayed traits of Narcissistic personality disorder, which could have kept him from ever questioning his initial assumptions about the case. People say that ignorance is bliss. Are men like Burnett and Gary Gitchell, the chief inspector for the police department in '93 who later became head of security for Shelby County Schools, able to look at themselves in the mirror with no hint of self-loathing thanks to their own ignorance? Or if they literally believe in ancient tales of Satan and Hell is there a part of them that is terrified at the prospect of eternal judgment? 

* I remember reading about the case in The Commercial Appeal during junior high school. While the paper has recently done a good job of covering the efforts that led to the release of the West Memphis Three it has never acknowledged how large of a role it played in spreading the hearsay and misinformation that contributed so heavily to the convictions from the heavily biased juries. 

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1 comment:

  1. Great article! Always enjoy reading your well formulated blog. Definitely check my BBQ restaurants here before I eat!!