In May 1993 the bodies of three 8-year-old Cub Scouts, Christopher Byers, Michael Moore and Stevie Branch, were found in a drainage ditch near West Memphis, Arkansas. They had been stripped naked, bound and murdered. Three local teenagers, Michael Wayne “Damien” Echols, 18, Charles Jason Baldwin, 16, and Jessie L. Misskelley, Jr., 17, were arrested for the crime. Echols was considered a suspect because he wore black clothing, liked heavy metal music and had an interest in the occult.
Misskelley, who had a low I.Q., allegedly confessed to participating in the murders and implicated Baldwin and Echols. However, his “confession” was obtained during an almost 12-hour-long police interrogation that included leading and coaching by detectives, and contained obvious inconsistencies. He later recanted and refused to testify against his co-defendants.
Prosecutors alleged the murders were part of a Satantic ritual and claimed that Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley were part of a Satanic cult. Despite a dearth of physical evidence, all three were convicted; Misskelley was sentenced to life plus 40 years, Baldwin received life without parole and Echols was sentenced to death.
Their appeals slowly wound through the courts. DNA testing in 2007 failed to link them to the murders, and they raised allegations of juror misconduct and ineffective legal representation at trial. At one point, Echols came within three weeks of being executed. A series of HBO documentaries called Paradise Lost profiled their case, as did a 2002 book titled “Devil’s Knot,” and the West Memphis Three became celebrities among wrongful conviction activists.
“You can have all the evidence in the world that you didn’t do it, but unless there’s outside attention focused on your case, it’ll get swept under the rug,” Echols observed. On November 4, 2010, the Arkansas Supreme Court remanded their case for a lower court to consider the new DNA evidence.
“While there is a significant dispute in this case as to the legal effects of the DNA test results, it is undisputed that the results conclusively excluded Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley as the source of the DNA evidence tested,” the Court wrote. See: Echols v. State, 2010 Ark. 417, 373 S.W.3d 892 (Ark. 2010).
Rather than trusting the judicial system that had kept them behind bars for over 18 years, on August 19, 2011, Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley accepted Alford pleas, which acknowledged that prosecutors had enough evidence to convict them but allowed them to maintain their innocence. They were immediately released but have to serve ten years on probation and are still convicted felons.
“This was not justice,” said Baldwin. “In the beginning we told nothing but the truth – that we were innocent and they sent us to prison for the rest of our lives for it. We had to come here and the only thing the state would do for us is say, ‘Hey we will let you go only if you admit guilt,’ and that is not justice anyway you look [at] it.”
Baldwin had initially resisted accepting the Alford plea, wanting to hold out for an exoneration, but said he relented so that Echols, who remained on death row, would be freed along with Misskelley as part of the package plea deal. The arrangement also ensured that the West Memphis Three could not pursue a wrongful conviction suit following their release.
In the days and weeks after they were freed, the West Memphis Three celebrated, reacquainted themselves with the comforts of the outside world and recounted what it was like to be condemned for nearly two decades for gruesome crimes they did not commit.
“I was up all morning and most of the night trying to figure how to use those iPhone things,” Echols said the day after he was released. The night before, he was celebrating in Memphis, Tennessee with supporters such as Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks and Pearl Jam front man Eddie Vedder, who were among numerous advocates – including Winona Ryder and actor Johnny Depp – who had rallied behind the West Memphis Three over the years.
“I hadn’t seen daylight in almost a decade,” Echols told CNN about his time on death row. “The only thing you can do to maintain your sanity is to not think about the case and not think about what’s happening to you.”
Baldwin said he spent his first few years in prison targeted by other prisoners as a child-killer. He was beaten, suffered a fractured skull and broken collar bone, had teeth knocked out and was left with scars.
Echols said that guards didn’t appreciate the public attention the West Memphis Three received. “They [felt] like I’m bringing attention not to my case but to the prison, and they don’t like that at all, so there was a lot of retaliation and retribution for that,” he stated.
In the year after he was released, Echols has spoken publicly about his ordeal many times, including at the New York Public Library on November 7, 2012, when he described his years on death row as “the most cold, soulless environment you can imagine.”
Echols released a book in September 2012 titled “Life After Death.” Baldwin is currently going to law school, while Misskelley has kept a low profile. “Honestly, we all lived through this horrible time in our own way and got through it differently, so now I guess we all have a different way of healing,” said Baldwin.
On August 30, 2012, a year after the trio was freed in exchange for Alford pleas, their defense attorneys announced that re-testing of clothing fibers used to convict them indicated the fibers failed to connect them to the crime scene.
“The sloppiness of the notes, the lack of data and documentation, the erratic nature of the color analysis data all suggest scientists who were poorly trained to do the casework they were responsible for and were operating at the margin of competency, were derelict in their assigned duties, or were otherwise unable to properly conduct this kind of scientific work,’’ stated Max Houck, a former FBI crime lab analyst who evaluated the fiber evidence along with two other experts.
Another documentary about the West Memphis Three, co-produced by Echols, was released on January 21, 2012 at the Sundance Film Festival. It focused on Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of one of the three victims, and presented circumstantial evidence linking him to the murders – including DNA test results and witness testimony. The film, West of Memphis, is scheduled to be released in select theaters on December 25, 2012, while a movie adaptation of “Devil’s Knot” will be released in 2013.
Meanwhile, Baldwin, Echols and Misskelley still hope to prove their innocence and be exonerated for the crimes they did not commit. A $100,000 reward has been offered for information that leads to the conviction of the real killer who murdered the three Cub Scouts in 1993. Separately, the families of two of the slain children have filed a public records lawsuit to obtain access to police evidence in the case.
“This isn’t over,” Echols stated. “We are not going to allow officials to sweep this under the rug. We will continue to fight this case as long as we have to until the right thing is done. Really that’s what the rest of our lives are gonna be dedicated to until this is finally and completely resolved. This is not gonna go away.”
Sources: Associated Press, www.cnn.com, www.foxnews.com, www.wm3.org, New York Times, Huffington Post, www.copblock.org, www.cinemablend.com, Commercial Appeal, www.reuters.com
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Related legal case
Echols v. State
|Cite||2010 Ark. 417, 373 S.W.3d 892 (Ark. 2010)|
|Level||State Supreme Court|