West Memphis Three and H. Rap Brown: A Tale of Two Trials


H. Rap Brown, or Al-Amin. I think he probably did it.

When I was in college, a subject of sore debate between myself and an acquaintance on campus – Jack Jersawitz, who is the figure of some local notoriety in Atlanta – was the case of H. Rap Brown, a.k.a., Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin, a powerful force from the 1960s who resurfaced in the news in 2000 – my freshman year – for (“allegedly”) murdering a Fulton County sheriff’s deputy who sought to serve Al-Amin with a warrant.

Al-Amin was a former chairman of the Student Nonviolence Coordination Committee and a one-time justice minister for the Black Panther Party. In 2000, he was cited for speeding and impersonating a police officer, and apparently didn’t pay his ticket or go to court. Whether or not he was treated harshly by the justice system at the time of his minor offense is debatable – I could see where the authorizes would have been less gentle given his rather radical history, but then, I could also see where it’d been long enough to let bygones be bygones. Either way, he missed his court date and a couple of deputies were dispatched to his home with an arrest warrant because, well, you gotta’ show up for court.

Things went south. The deputies – the one who survived, anyway – reported that Al-Amin was driving a black Mercedes. They followed him to his home, parked their cruiser nose-to-nose with his car and approached. The occupant of the car opened fire, killing Deputy Ricky Kinchen and injuring Deputy Aldranon English. The weapons were a 9 mm pistol and a .223-caliber rifle. The deputies returned fire, hitting the black Mercedes several times.

An intense four-day manhunt ensued. Finally Al-Amin was apprehended in White Hall, Ala. He was wearing body armor. Nearby, officers found a 9 mm handgun and .223-caliber rifle. They also found Al-Amin’s black, bullet-riddled Mercedes. Ballistics testing matched the guns officers recovered to the guns used to kill Kinchen. During the course of the trial, Al-Amin offered no alibi for his location at the time of the shootout, nor why it was that he suddenly left the state immediately after the shooting.

Conspiracy theorists – including Jersawitz – claimed all the evidence was fabricated. When you’re in the midst of studying philosophy and learning to be a skeptic, you have to admit that there was the possibility that, yes, Al-Amin was set up. But then, you follow that train of thought far enough and you can’t believe anything; you end up like Descartes, doubting everything except your own existence, and even that might be a fevered dream of some wicked god.

After several encounters and rallies on and around campus, the argument seemed to swing from Al-Amin’s innocence to whether or not the deputy had it coming as even his most ardent supporters began to find difficulty in disputing the facts of the case. That’s when I finally made up my mind about it, that Al-Amin was guilty as sin.

The revelation in 2009 that Al-Amin was leading an Islamist sect called Ummah from within the confines of the federal Supermax facility in Colorado seems to have made the 2000 case even stronger. If you’re wondering why over-zealous conservative politicians are so concerned about outlawing Sharia law, Al-Amin is the reason you’re looking for. Ummah advocates for establishing a separate Islamic state inside the United States that would be governed by Sharia law. The revelation of Al-Amin’s new activities came to light after an imam of a mosque in Detroit was killed when he pulled a gun on federal agents who attempted to arrest him on weapons charges.

(Of course, the whole “let’s-outlaw-Sharia-law” thing is just a political rouse; there’s nothing in the Constitution that would permit any court in the land to take into account Sharia law when considering a case. Rather, the First Amendment rather explicitly prohibits it. Politicians who seek to ban Sharia law are simply stirring anti-Islamic sentiment among their constituency and take you for a ride, so don’t buy it. But also be mindful of any religious sect that thinks it wise to somehow secede from the nation; that also has historically ended poorly.)

Since then, my first inclination has been to give the authorities and the courts the benefit of the doubt. (Also, now that I’ve written and published this thought, I’ve officially made myself practically ineligible for jury duty. So, go me.)

A case I’d not been that familiar about until recently was that of the West Memphis Three. I began researching their case online after finding myself for several days in a row behind a car on the way to Carrollton with “Free the West Memphis Three” bumper stickers.

Gotta’ tell ya’, unlike convicted cop killer Al-Amin, this one smells as fishy as a pile of crappie left in the August sun.

West Memphis Three

The West Memphis Three. I'm not so sure they did it.

In 1993, the bodies of three 8-year-old boys – Cub Scouts – were found nude, mutilated, hog-tied and left in a drainage ditch in the Robin Hood Hill section of West Memphis, Ark. The nature of the crime, police said, suggested cult activity, probably something satanic. So, they focused their investigation on a local Wiccan boy, 19-year-old Damien Echols. Echols was described in the New York Times as a “troubled but gifted” teen, who practiced a religion that was hardly understood by the locals in West Memphis.

Did I mention this was in Arkansas?

The investigation into Echols led authorities to Jessie Misskelley Jr., who the New York Times described as “borderline retarded.” They interrogated Misskelley for about 12 hours – long enough to wring a confession out of him. Misskelley implicated Echols and another man, Jason Baldwin, in the murder – although Misskelley’s description of the murders veered wildly from the facts of the case as known by authorities.

Misskelley was convicted largely on the supposed merit of his confession, which itself was so sketchy that it was omitted from the trial that convicted Echols and Baldwin, who prosecutors portrayed as being members of a – say it with me – satanic cult.

Except, we know now, that the confession really wasn’t omitted from Echols’ and Baldwin’s trial. We now know that the jury foreman told his attorney that he wanted a conviction for Echols and Baldwin, and that that the jury foreman and told other jurors about Misskelley’s confession during deliberations to sway undecided jurors.

We also know that the DNA evidence gathered from the crime, which has since been examined using modern forensics techniques that were not available in 1993 when Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley were convicted, doesn’t hold up either. None of the samples match any of the three convicted of the crime. Last year, a court ordered that the evidence be reconsidered.

Echols was, until today, on death row. Baldwin and Misskelley were serving life plus 40 years. In violation of a judge’s gag order, a parent of one of the murdered boys told the media that it was his understanding that a plea deal was in the works – one that could release two (or all) of the West Memphis Three.

He was right.

Today, a judge in Arkansas released the West Memphis Three in a deal allows the convicted murders to acknowledge that the prosecution does have evidence against them while still maintaining their innocence as they have since being charged and convicted. Keeping the plight of the West Memphis Three in our attention have been the advocacy of celebrities and musicians that have made exonerating the convicts a cause célèbre.

The shame in this, aside from the apparent miscarriage of justice in the case of these three men who have now spend almost 20 years in prison, is that this case isn’t on its own unique. For every individual case of an individual or group convicted of a heinous crime – be it Al-Amin, who probably did it, or the West Memphis Three who I believe most likely did not – there are countless others that receive no attention, no celebrity and no second glance. Indeed, our courts rely on plea deals to streamline justice, making it cheaper and easier to cop to a crime you didn’t commit than to maintain your innocence and face a trial with a public defender system that is itself deeply, deeply flawed.

Al-Amin has Jack Jersawitz on his side. The West Memphis Three have Johnny Depp and that guy in front of me on Highway 61 with the bumper sticker. But thousands of others have no one at all.


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