The story of the West Memphis Three is one of the most troubling cases to pass through the American Justice system in recent times.
The term West Memphis Three actually refers to two groups of individuals: Three eight year-old boys named Steven Branch, Michael Moore, and Christopher Byers; whose naked, mutilated and drowned bodies were found in a section of woods behind a truck stop in West Memphis, Arkansas in 1993; and the three teenagers subsequently arrested and convicted of the murders - Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelly Jr, and Jason Baldwin.
Through media exposure, mainly provided by a pair of HBO documentaries, Paradise Lost I and II, various facts about the case came to light that shed a great deal of doubt on the guilt of the three convicted youths, and the circumstances under which they were tried for the crimes.
The documentarians, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky1, were granted access to almost every aspect of the case as it unfolded; including interviews with the families of both the victims and the accused, the police officers and officials involved, and the three accused young men themselves. What they uncovered brought to light evidence that, at the very least, these three young men were arrested and convicted of a crime based on almost no credible evidence of any kind whatsoever, multiple accounts of hearsay and speculation, and an unmistakable prejudice in the small, rural community in which they resided.
What is known for certain is that, sometime during the afternoon of 5 May, 1993, Steven Branch, Michael Moore, and Christopher Byers were seen riding their bikes around the West Memphis neighbourhood of Robin Hood Hills in which they all lived. Soon afterwards, the children's parents began to worry when night began to fall and the children had not been heard from.
Melissa and John Mark Byers, mother and stepfather of Christopher Byers, claim that they went looking for their son sometime in the early evening, driving around the neighbourhood in their car. John Mark Byers continued the search for a while, enlisting the help of his other stepson, before alerting the police to Christopher's disappearance. Byers' chronology of his own actions on the night the children went missing has varied many times, depending on who he tells the story to.
Throughout the night, people searched the neighbourhood and the surrounding woods for the three boys, but it was to no avail. It was after one o'clock the next afternoon before a grisly discovery was made. The three young, lifeless bodies lay facedown in a drainage ditch a few dozen yards from a busy highway.
The city went into an immediate uproar. This small, predominately fundamentalist community had been plagued, and influenced, for years by hysterical reports of rampant Satanic cult activity amongst teenagers and other 'social deviants'. The so-called 'Satanic Panic' of the 1980s had largely begun to subside in the rest of the country2; but in rural, conservative Arkansas the Devil was still a perfectly viable murder suspect, and no one personified the citizens' of West Memphis' idea of the Devil perhaps more than 18 year-old Damien Echols.
Echols was, by most accounts, a bright though introverted teenager who would never even have been noticed in a larger suburban or metropolitan area. In West Memphis, however, he stood out like a sore thumb. He liked to wear black clothing; sometimes emblazoned with the logos of heavy-metal bands such as Metallica; he dyed his hair jet-black; he liked to read about Wicca and other alternative religions and belief systems. He was, in short, your typical, one-in-a-hundred, alienated goth teenager. In West Memphis, however, that was enough to make you a murder suspect.
Damien was not a troublemaker, but he was conspicuous by nature of his appearance and had found himself often harassed by police in the past when minor crimes had occurred around the neighbourhood, although nothing was ever found to connect him to any such activities. When the bodies of the three boys were found, it didn't take long for someone to interpret it as a satanic crime, and from there, it was a short step to Damien Echols becoming a suspect.
Damien, along with his friend, 17 year-old Jason Baldwin, was questioned by the police repeatedly, even though he had alibis for the time period in question, had no connection to the three boys, and showed no signs nor physical evidence of having been involved recently in any type of physical struggle. Unable to pin anything on Damien right away, the police spread their investigation net further, offering up a reward for anyone coming forth with information that may lead to the arrest of the killer(s).
Many opportunistic residents attempted to take advantage of this reward, even to the point of fabricating outlandish stories in attempts to implicate the two 'freaks', as Damien and Jason were known. One woman went so far as to claim to have attended a black mass in a nearby town with Damien, who drove the pair there in his Ford Fiesta. Damien did not own, nor have access to a Fiesta and, when pressed for details, the woman could not remember the name of the town, any of the people at the ceremony, or what day it was. She later admitted to lying in order to get the reward money, yet part of her testimony was still used against Damien. One young man, who was initially lured into talking to the police under promise of a reward, was a 17 year-old boy with an IQ of 72 named Jesse Misskelly.
Misskelly, by all accounts, knew Damien and Jason in passing at best, and had never been seen to socialise with them. Nevertheless, Jesse, under circumstances which are to this day unclear (since only a small portion of the 12-hour interview, which took place without Jesse's understanding of, or waiving of, his Miranda rights3, and without a lawyer present, was recorded), proceeded to tell police inspector Gary Gitchell a story stating that, on the morning of 5th May he came upon Damien Echols and his friend Jason Baldwin playing in the creek behind the truck stop. At that point, Misskelly claimed that three young boys rode up on their bikes and that Echols beckoned the boys over to him, at which point he began to beat and rape the boys one at a time while Misskelly and Baldwin restrained the other two4.
Misskelly claimed that, initially, he was just an observer; running away several times before the boys called him back to restrain a fleeing Michael Moore. As the police pressed for more details, however, Jesse kept adding more information; much of which was contradictory to both the facts of the case and to stories he had told just moments earlier. Jesse's so-called 'confession' was in fact so riddled with inconsistencies as to be borderline fiction.
Jesse, who has a substantial learning disability, later claimed that originally he just wanted to tell the police that he was a witness to the crime, in order to share in the reward. As the interrogation went on, however the police kept pressing him for details that he didn't know but felt obliged to give them, in order to stop them from pressuring him any longer. Before long, Jesse had, perhaps inadvertently, confessed to being present and acting as a participant in the crimes and, without knowing his rights or the benefit of counsel, signed a statement saying that he, Jason Baldwin, and Damien Echols had murdered the three boys during an occult ritual. Jesse said he thought that if he just signed the paper and told them what they want, then they would leave him alone and he could go home. Jesse was arrested for murder on the spot.
On the basis of Jesse's confession, Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin were also arrested, even though they both had alibis for the night in question (as did Jesse). Baldwin, in particular, seemed to be guilty of little more than association with Damien; his scrawny frame hardly suggesting that he could overpower even a feisty child. Nevertheless, the public had the satisfaction of knowing the 'freaks' that did this had been caught, and the trial began immediately in the media and among the public, while it waited to move into the courts.
The Trial of Jesse Misskelly
One would have been hard-pressed to find a more volatile selection of potential jurors from which to try this most sensational of cases. Media leaks and contamination of the case had begun almost from the start, and there was likely not a soul in West Memphis who had not made up their minds about the guilt of the three accused teens well before the courtroom doors opened. Nonetheless, Damien seemed confident in his eventual acquittal; 'I didn't understand at the time how they could prove you did something that you didn't do', he later said.
Due to Jesse's confession implicating Jason and Damien, it was decided that Jesse would be tried separately from the other two. Jesse's lawyer, Dan Stidham, defended his client as best he could, but, despite the (complete) lack of evidence, it was Jesse's own words that betrayed him, in the form of his confession (despite his immediate recanting of it as soon as he left the police station). This happened even though the defence countered with their own expert in false confessions, Pulitzer winner Dr Richard Ofshe, who determined that the statement Jesse had given to the police was indeed coerced. Unfortunately, since the validity of the confession had already been ruled upon, Dr Ofshe was not allowed to make comments specifically rebutting Jesse's confession, and therefore his testimony had little impact. Nor did the fact that Jesse, during the unrecorded interrogation, was threatened, asked leading questions, and his mental deficiencies overlooked.
Jesse was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. He was offered a deal soon afterward that would have reduced his sentence significantly in exchange for testifying against the other two boys. Jesse refused the deal.
The Trial of Jason Baldwin and Damien Echols
After the widespread news of the Misskelly verdict, the second trial was almost a foregone conclusion. Even so, Damien and his defence team still harboured hopes that they could instil reasonable doubt by focusing on the most telling aspect of the case; the lack of evidence. Also, there were a few other cards that the defence had up their sleeves; one in particular that, sadly, was investigated more thoroughly by lawyers after the fact than by police in the beginning, when it could have potentially solved the case.
It seems that on the evening of the murders, an individual, described as a black male, shaking and covered in blood, stumbled into the women's restroom at a Bojangles fast-food restaurant a few miles from the crime scene. A police car was called to the scene to investigate, but the officer never left her car while taking the report. Blood samples were taken from the bathroom stall, but were lost by the forensic investigators before they could be tested. 'Mr Bojangles', as he came to be known, was never found, and even this act of gross police negligence was not enough to instil doubt in the jury.
Nor was the bloody knife belonging to John Mark Byers, the clearly disturbed stepfather of Christopher Byers - the victim who had suffered the most overtly sexual mutilation5.
During the trial, Byers had inexplicably presented the HBO film crew with a hunting knife as a gift. When the crew noticed what looked like blood on the knife, they turned it over to the police, who determined upon testing that the knife contained DNA that could have come from either Byers or from Christopher, yet Byers had claimed originally that the knife had never been used6.
Byers became an interesting figure in the case, given to explosive outbursts laced with 'fire and brimstone' Old Testament rhetoric one moment, and violent descriptions of the torture and pain he wished to constantly inflict on the three teens he blamed for his stepson's murder the next. He has also subsequently aroused suspicion by virtue of his constant violent run-ins with the law (many involving children), his many contradictory statements regarding his whereabouts and actions during the time of the murders, and later for the mysterious death of his wife in 1996, who supposedly died while in bed next to him and whose death remains officially unsolved to this day7.
Despite obvious viable suspects and leads that were not thoroughly investigated, and the aforementioned complete lack of physical evidence, the jury accepted the prosecutions' claims that the three teens brutally murdered the youths as part of a ghastly satanic ritual. It did not help matters that the defence lawyers decided to put Damien himself on the stand; his rebellious appearance and palpable dramatic teen angst did little to sway the jury in his favor; after the trial, even Echols himself would admit that he 'wasn't really taking the whole thing seriously'. When the jury returned its verdict, Jason Baldwin was sentenced to life in prison, while Damien Echols, the alleged ringleader and satanic 'high priest' of the cult of West Memphis, Arkansas, was sentenced to die by lethal injection. All three remain behind bars today.
Since the airing of Paradise Lost on HBO in 1997 and the various media coverage it received, the case of the West Memphis Three has become something of a national rallying point for exposing the horrible miscarriages of justice that can occur within the American legal system. Various celebrities have taken up the cause and participate and organize fundraisers regularly to raise awareness of the case.
An online support resource, Free The West Memphis Three has been perhaps more instrumental than any other group in disseminating information about the case and offering a meeting place for activists. They have also raised money for independent investigation into the case and to raise college funds for Jason, Jesse, and Damien. The goal of the Free The West Memphis Three movement is not necessarily to prove that these three young men are definitively innocent, but to bring to light the fact that they almost certainly did not receive a fair trial, and were convicted without sufficient evidence against them.
Legal appeals and hearings are ongoing at the time of this writing, and as support continues to swell, perhaps there is hope that the case will some day be reopened and that the truth, whatever it may be, will come out. Until then, the case of the West Memphis Three remains a chilling reminder that sometimes, just being different is a crime punishable by death.