The West Memphis Three are three men who – while teenagers – were tried and convicted, in 1994, of the 1993 murders of three boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. Damien Echols was sentenced to death, Jessie Misskelley, Jr. was sentenced to life imprisonment plus two 20-year sentences, and Jason Baldwin was sentenced to life imprisonment. During the trial, the prosecution asserted that the children were killed as part of a Satanic ritual.
Three eight-year-old boys—Steve Branch, Michael Moore, and Christopher Byers—were reported missing on May 5, 1993. The first report to the police was made by Byers’ adoptive father, John Mark Byers, around 7:00 pm. The boys were allegedly last seen together by three neighbors, who in affidavits told of seeing them playing together around 6:30 pm the evening they disappeared, and seeing Terry Hobbs, Steve Branch’s stepfather, calling them to come home. Initial police searches made that night were limited. Friends and neighbors also conducted a search that night, which included a cursory visit to the location where the bodies were later found.
A more thorough police search for the children began around 8:00 am on May 6, led by the Crittenden County Search and Rescue personnel. Searchers canvassed all of West Memphis but focused primarily on Robin Hood Hills, where the boys were reported last seen. Despite a shoulder-to-shoulder search of Robin Hood Hills by a human chain, searchers found no sign of the missing boys.
Around 1:45 pm, juvenile Parole Officer Steve Jones spotted a boy’s black shoe floating in a muddy creek that led to a major drainage canal in Robin Hood Hills. A subsequent search of the ditch revealed the bodies of three boys. They had been stripped naked and were hogtied with their own shoelaces: their right ankles tied to their right wrists behind their backs, the same with their left arms and legs. Their clothing was found in the creek, some of it twisted around sticks that had been thrust into the muddy ditch bed. The clothing was mostly turned inside-out; two pairs of the boys’ underwear were never recovered. Christopher Byers had lacerations to various parts of his body, and mutilation of his scrotum and penis.
The autopsies, by the forensic pathologist Frank J. Peretti, indicated that Byers died of “multiple injuries”, while Moore and Branch died of “multiple injuries with drowning”.
Police initially suspected the boys had been raped; however, later expert testimony disputed this finding despite trace amounts of sperm DNA found on a pair of pants recovered from the scene. Prosecution experts claim Byers’ wounds were the results of a knife attack and that he had been purposely castrated by the murderer; defense experts claim the injuries were more probably the result of post-mortem animal predation. Police believed the boys were assaulted and killed at the location where they were found; critics argued that the assault, at least, was unlikely to have occurred at the creek.
Byers was the only victim with drugs in his system; he was prescribed Ritalin (methylphenidate) in January 1993, as part of an attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder treatment. The initial autopsy report describes the drug as Carbamazepine, and that dosage was found to be at sub-therapeutic level. John Mark Byers said that Christopher Byers may not have taken his prescription on May 5, 1993.
At the time of their arrests, Jessie Misskelley, Jr. was 17 years old, Jason Baldwin was 16 years old, and Damien Echols was 18 years old. Baldwin and Echols had been previously arrested for vandalism and shoplifting, respectively, and Misskelley had a reputation for his temper and for engaging in fistfights with other teenagers at school. Misskelley and Echols had dropped out of high school; however, Baldwin earned high grades and demonstrated a talent for drawing and sketching, and was encouraged by one of his teachers to study graphic design in college. Echols and Baldwin were close friends, and bonded over their similar tastes in music and fiction, and over their shared distaste for the prevailing cultural climate of West Memphis, situated in the Bible Belt. Baldwin and Echols were acquainted with Misskelley from school, but were not close friends with him.
Echols’ family was poor and received frequent visits from social workers, and he rarely attended school. He and a girlfriend had run off and later broken into a trailer during a rain storm; they were arrested, though only Echols was charged with burglary.
Echols spent several months in a mental institution in Arkansas and afterward received “full disability” status from the Social Security Administration. During Echols’ trial, Dr. George W. Woods testified (for the defense) that Echols suffered from:
serious mental illness characterized by grandiose and persecutory delusions, auditory and visual hallucinations, disordered thought processes, substantial lack of insight, and chronic, incapacitating mood swings.
At his death penalty sentencing hearing, Echols’ psychologist reported that months before the murders, Echols had claimed that he obtains super powers by drinking human blood. At the time of his arrest, Echols was working part-time with a roofing company and expecting a child with his girlfriend, Domini Teer. I don’t think he truly thought he’d be convicted of this crime so he kept his goth kid crazy act up not thinking it’d come back to bite him in the ass.
Chris Morgan and Brian Holland
Early in the investigation, the WMPD briefly regarded two West Memphis teenagers as suspects. Chris Morgan and Brian Holland, both with drug offense histories, had abruptly departed for Oceanside, California, four days after the bodies were discovered. Morgan was presumed to be at least casually familiar with all three murdered boys, having previously driven an ice cream truck route in their neighborhood.
Arrested in Oceanside on May 17, 1993, Morgan and Holland both took polygraph exams administered by California police. Examiners reported that both men’s charts indicated deception when they denied involvement in the murders. During subsequent questioning, Morgan claimed a long history of drug and alcohol use, along with blackouts and memory lapses. He claimed that he “might have” killed the victims but quickly recanted this part of his statement. California police sent blood and urine samples from Morgan and Holland to the WMPD, but there is no indication WMPD investigated Morgan or Holland as suspects following their arrest in California. The relevance of Morgan’s recanted statement would later be debated in trial, but it was eventually barred from admission as evidence.
The citing of a black male as a possible alternate suspect was implied during the beginning of the Misskelley trial. According to local West Memphis police officers, on the evening of May 5, 1993, at 8:42 pm, workers in the Bojangles’ restaurant located about a mile from the crime scene in Robin Hood Hills reported seeing a black male who seemed “mentally disoriented” inside the restaurant’s ladies’ room. The man was bleeding and had brushed against the restroom walls. Officer Regina Meeks responded to the call, taking the restaurant manager’s report through the eatery’s drive-through window. By then, the man had left, and police did not enter the restroom on that date.
The day after the victims’ bodies were found, Bojangles’ manager Marty King, thinking there was a possible connection to the bloody man found in the bathroom, reported the incident to police officers who then inspected the ladies’ room. King gave the officers a pair of sunglasses he thought the man had left behind, and the detectives took some blood samples from the walls and tiles of the restroom. Police detective Bryn Ridge testified that he later lost those blood scrapings. A hair identified as belonging to a black male was later recovered from a sheet wrapped around one of the victims.
Vicki Hutcheson, a new resident of West Memphis, would play an important role in the investigation, though she would later recant her testimony, claiming her statements were fabricated due in part to coercion from police.
On May 6, 1993 (before the victims were found later the same day), Hutcheson took a polygraph exam by Detective Don Bray at the Marion Police Department, to determine whether or not she had stolen money from her West Memphis employer. Hutcheson’s young son, Aaron, was also present, and proved such a distraction that Bray was unable to administer the polygraph. Aaron, a playmate of the murdered boys’, mentioned to Bray that the boys had been killed at “the playhouse.” When the bodies proved to have been discovered near where Aaron indicated, Bray asked Aaron for further details, and Aaron claimed that he had witnessed the murders committed by Satanists who spoke Spanish. Aaron’s further statements were wildly inconsistent, and he was unable to identify Baldwin, Echols, or Misskelley from photo line-ups, and there was no “playhouse” at the location Aaron indicated. A police officer leaked portions of Aaron’s statements to the press contributing to the growing belief that the murders were part of a Satanic rite.
On or about June 1, 1993, Hutcheson agreed to police suggestions to place hidden microphones in her home during an encounter with Echols. Misskelley agreed to introduce Hutcheson to Echols. During their conversation, Hutcheson reported that Echols made no incriminating statements. Police said the recording was “inaudible”, but Hutcheson claimed the recording was audible. On June 2, 1993, Hutcheson told police that about two weeks after the murders were committed, she, Echols, and Misskelley attended a Wiccan meeting in Turrell, Arkansas. Hutcheson claimed that, at the Wiccan meeting, a drunken Echols openly bragged about killing the three boys. Misskelley was first questioned on June 3, 1993, a day after Hutcheson’s purported confession. Hutcheson was unable to recall the Wiccan meeting location and did not name any other participants in the purported meeting. Hutcheson was never charged with theft. She claimed she had implicated Echols and Misskelley to avoid facing criminal charges, and to obtain a reward for the discovery of the murderers.
Misskelley was tried separately, and Echols and Baldwin were tried together in 1994. Under the “Bruton rule“, Misskelley’s confession could not be admitted against his co-defendants; thus he was tried separately. All three defendants pleaded not guilty.
During Misskelley’s trial, Dr. Richard Ofshe, an expert on false confessions and police coercion, and Professor of Sociology at UC Berkeley, testified that the brief recording of Misskelley’s interrogation was a “classic example” of police coercion. Critics have also stated that Misskelley’s various “confessions” were in many respects inconsistent with each other, as well as with the particulars of the crime scene and murder victims, including (for example) an “admission” that Misskelley watched Damien rape one of the boys. Police had initially suspected that the victims had been raped because their anuses were dilated. However, there was no forensic evidence indicating that the murdered boys had been raped. Dilation of the anus is a normal post-mortem condition.
On February 5, 1994, Misskelley was convicted by a jury of one count of first-degree murder and two counts of second-degree murder. The court sentenced him to life plus 40 years in prison. His conviction was appealed, but the Arkansas Supreme Court affirmed the conviction. Echols’ and Baldwin’s trial Three weeks later, Echols and Baldwin went on trial. The prosecution accused the three young men of committing a Satanic murder. The prosecution called Dale W. Griffis, a graduate of the unaccredited Columbia Pacific University, as an expert in the occult to testify the murders were a Satanic ritual.On March 19, 1994 Echols and Baldwin were found guilty on three counts of murder. The court sentenced Echols to death and Baldwin to life in prison.
Echols’ and Baldwin’s trial
At trial, the defense team argued that news articles from the time could have been the source for Echols’ knowledge about the genital mutilation, and Echols said his knowledge was limited to what was “on TV”.
The prosecution claimed that Echols’ knowledge was nonetheless too close to the facts, since there was no public reporting of drowning or that one victim had been mutilated more than the others. Echols testified that Detective Ridge’s description of their earlier conversation (which was not recorded) regarding those particular details was inaccurate (and indeed that some other claims by Ridge were “lies”). Mara Leveritt, an investigative journalist and the author of Devil’s Knot, argues that Echols’ information may have come from police leaks, such as Detective Gitchell’s comments to Mark Byers, that circulated amongst the local public. The defense team objected when the prosecution attempted to question Echols about his past violent behaviors, but the defense objections were overruled.
There has been widespread criticism of how the police handled the crime scene. Misskelley’s former attorney Dan Stidham cites multiple substantial police errors at the crime scene, characterizing it as “literally trampled, especially the creek bed.” The bodies, he said, had been removed from the water before the coroner arrived to examine the scene and determine the state of rigor mortis, allowing the bodies to decay on the creek bank and to be exposed to sunlight and insects. The police did not telephone the coroner until almost two hours after the discovery of the floating shoe, resulting in a late appearance by the coroner. Officials failed to drain the creek in a timely manner and secure possible evidence in the water.
Moreover, Stidham calls the coroner’s investigation “extremely substandard.” There was a small amount of blood found at the scene that was never tested. According to HBO’s documentaries Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996) and Paradise Lost 2: Revelations (2000), no blood was found at the crime scene, indicating that the location where the bodies were found was not necessarily the location where the murders actually happened. After the initial investigation, the police failed to control disclosure of information and speculation about the crime scene.
A number of documentaries have explored the case. Celebrities and musicians have held fundraisers in the belief that the three young men convicted of the crime are innocent.
In July 2007, new forensic evidence was presented in the case. A status report jointly issued by the state and the defense team stated: “Although most of the genetic material recovered from the scene was attributable to the victims of the offenses, some of it cannot be attributed to either the victims or the defendants.” On October 29, 2007, the defense filed a Second Amended Writ of Habeas Corpus, outlining the new evidence.
Following a 2010 decision by the Arkansas Supreme Court regarding newly produced DNA evidence and potential juror misconduct, the West Memphis Three negotiated a plea bargain with prosecutors. On August 19, 2011, they entered Alford pleas, which allowed them to assert their innocence while acknowledging that prosecutors have enough evidence to convict them. Judge David Laser accepted the pleas and sentenced the three to time served. They were released with 10-year suspended sentences, having served 18 years and 78 days in prison.
In other words, these cops had no idea wtf they were doing. They had never been involved in such an awful crime and these kids were good targets to blame. Unfortunately their smart mouths and goth kid ways didn’t help the situation they’d been put in. “Satanic Panic” was a serious thing especially in the 90’s if you wore black/band t-shirts = Satanist. Even if you just thought it was cool, look what happened to these kids just because of what they liked and wore. All you goth kids reading this shit be grateful, these 3 men are why we can wear our black clothes and chokers and not get arrested. I really feel like they took one for the team! Were they stupid for speaking to the cops at all? yes but kids do dumb shit. They just so happened to incriminate themselves more by talking. The cops, judge, and everyone involved didn’t handle this properly, and almost killed a man for it. Sadly all the years these man spent behind bars was for absolutely nothing, the 3 dead boys have no justice. At least someone cared enough to say something instead of letting them rot in prison.
If you listen to podcast I advise you listen to “Last Podcast On The Left” they have a 3 part story for this one.. yes there is that much to say. Great show and very informative.
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