On May 3, 1993, three boys went missing in West Memphis, Arkansas. Steve Branch, Christopher Byers, and Michael Moore went to school that day, came home, went out to play and were never seen again. A search party went out that night and the next morning to find the boys. At approx 10am the next day, their bodies were found in the woods in shallow water, naked and lifeless. Steve Branch and Michael Moore’s ultimate cause of death was drowning. They were also beaten, had head wounds and cuts and scrapes all over their bodies. Christopher Byers did not die due to drowning. He was dead prior to being dumped in the woods. He also had serious damage to his body and had been castrated. All three were hog tied.
Of course, this caused an epic scandal in the local, state and national media. Three almost nine year old boys had been brutally murdered. The public wanted answers. The site of the crime was totally free of blood. There were no weapons found at the scene. No one had seen or heard anything. In short, they had no leads.
A young teenager named Damien Echols caught the investigators’ attention. He frequently wore all black, listened to Metallica, had long hair, read Stephen King novels and was Wiccan. The police officers looked at everyone in town and tried to decide who seemed most likely to commit a crime. Damien Echols was their main suspect.
The police went to his house and questioned him and his friend Jason Baldwin. Both teenagers knew of the crime because of talk around town. The police involved in the initial finding of the bodies had talked. The people of West Memphis and then, therefore the media, had more information on the deaths than is usually released to the public. Naturally, this event was the talk of the town and rumors spread fast. By the time that police questioned Damien Echols, he knew more than he should have and parroted it back to the police who took that to mean he must have committed the crime considering he knew more than he thought he ought to have. BUT they could not place him at the scene of the crime and the crime scene was too clean of evidence.
So the police started offering monetary rewards for tips regarding this crime. In a poor town like West Memphis, that was really all of the incentive any of the townspeople needed to start “coming forward” with information. All of the information has since been debunked and several of tipsters (even those who testified against Damien Echols) have since come forward to admit that they lied.
One woman, desperate for money, turned to her child’s babysitter, Jessie Misskelley. Jessie knew Echols from around town. They were around the same age and though they did not hang out, they were acquaintences. The mother asked Jessie to invite Damien over to his house and try to get him to talk. Nothing came of this.
This is how Jessie Misskelley got involved in talking to the police. Jessie Misskelley, it should be noted, has an IQ of 72 and at the time had the speech, thoughts and demeanor of that of an 8 year old child even though he was 17 at the time. The police interrogated Jessie trying to get a statement out of Jessie that he had seen Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin commit these murders. After twelve hours of grilling Jessie, with no lawyer or parents present, the police officers turned on the video tape and recorded the only 45 minutes of video tape that exist from this interrogation. These 45 minutes are a taped confession of Jessie Misskelley not only admitting to seeing Damien and Jason committing the crime but to actually confessing to have a hand in it. It turns out that he was offered $30,000 in reward money if he would “just give them what they wanted and he could go home”.
Long story short, Jessie Misskelley went on trial and was found guilty of all three murders and sentenced to Life in Prison plus 40 years. During his trial he plead Not Guilty and recanted his earlier confession. This didn’t make a difference.
Jason Baldwin and Damien Echols were tried together but separately from Jessie Misskelley. Jessie Misskelley was given the option to testify against Jason and Damien for a shortened sentence but refused on the basis that the confession was coerced.
During the trial, the prosecution focused on Damien’s hobbies, interests, appearance and clothes. They questioned him about Wicca. They questioned him about bands he liked, books he read, art he’d made, his penchant for wearing black clothes, etc. In short, they questioned him about things that did not have anything to do with the murders so they could paint the crime as a “Satanic Sacrifice Killing”. Jason Baldwin opted not to speak in his own defense and therefore was not ridiculed this way. Damien, being a confused and cocky 19 year old came across as arrogant and weird. The court of public opinion considered them guilty as charged.
The jurors were instructed not to consider Jessie Misskelley’s confession as part of the evidence against Jason and Damien. It has come to light since that at least two jurors used that confession as a deciding factor in their conviction. It has also come to light that the juror foreman, repeatedly contacted non-jurors to discuss the case, although it was expressly forbidden to do so. He is basically quoted as saying that he was unhappy with the case against Damien and Jason that the prosecution was leveling and that if they didn’t come up with more hard evidence, it would be up to him to convince the rest of the jury to convict them of the crimes. This is currently being argued in court.
The result was that in 1994 (16 years ago) both Jason and Damien were convicted on all three accounts. Jason Baldwin, 16, at the time, was sentenced to Life without Parole. Damien Echols, 19, at the time, was sentenced to Death by Lethal Injection.
Two documentary movies were made on the the case, “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills” (released in 1996 on HBO) and “Paradise Lost 2: Revelations” (released in 2003 on HBO). The first movie attempted to look at the case from a balanced perspective, allowing the viewer to decide whether or not the three were guilty of the crime, just laying out what went down basically. By the time the second movie had come out, more evidence had come out due to technological advances and fresh eyes looking at the case again that basically prove that the wrong three people are in prison.
It takes a good look at John Mark Byers (the castrated boy’s Step-father), his odd behavior and criminal past. It also shows the growing movement in support of these three people. Since that movie was released, DNA evidence has come to light that totally exhonerates Jessie, Jason AND Damien but puts Terry Hobbs (Steve Branch’s step-father) and his friend at the scene of the crime. Terry Hobbs’ hair is tied up in one of ligatures used to hog tie Michael Moore and Terry Hobbs’ friend’s hair was also found at the scene. Both men were walking the woods that night together “looking for the boys”.
The point of my writing this is to lay it out as it is. I may have gotten small details wrong but this is a synopsis of what happened. I just wanted to lay it out for you to read so that you understand my next blog and the following information that can be found here:
Also, so you know, these three boys (now men) all still sit in prison doing all that they can to try to keep Damien from being wrongly executed and to prevent Jason and Jessie from being held in prison for the rest of their lives for crimes they did not commit.