On August 19, 2016, Damien Echols posted the following status on Facebook:
Echols spent 18 years on Death Row for his alleged role in the murders of three eight-year-old boys — Steve Branch, Michael Moore, and Christopher Byers — in West Memphis, Arkansas, in May 1993. Eighteen years old at the time of his conviction in 1994, Echols was sentenced to die by lethal injection.
His codefendants, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, received life sentences. In 2007, DNA evidence proved that none of the genetic material found at the crime scene matched any of the defendants (in fact, the only nonvictim DNA present at the crime scene belonged to one of the boys’s stepfathers), and their attorneys filed a writ of habeas corpus seeking to overturn the verdicts.
Four long years later, those verdicts were expected to be overturned by a judge, but an apparent unwillingness on the part of Arkansas to admit they had gotten it wrong forced Echols and his codefendants to make a difficult decision — continue to fight for a full exoneration, putting their freedom and Echols’s life back in the hands of the justice system once more, or agree to enter Alford pleas, which would allow them to assert their innocence while accepting that the prosecution had “enough evidence” to convict. The fact that Echols had been on Death Row for 18 years, the majority of it in solitary confinement, was the deciding factor, particularly for Baldwin, who was the last to agree to the terms.
Echols’s eyesight had already suffered considerably from spending so many years in a dim cell, and he had other health problems as well, not to mention the significant toll nearly two decades of solitary confinement takes on a person’s psyche. Concern for his teenage best friend’s health and well-being pushed Baldwin over the edge, and on August 19, 2011, after weeks of negotiation, their convictions were overturned, and the West Memphis Three agreed to enter Alford pleas rather than face new trials. They were released on 10-year suspended sentences that very day.In the eyes of the law, Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley are still responsible for the murders of Steve Branch, Michael Moore, and Christopher Byers, so the police investigation has not been reopened, despite calls for justice from the boys’s families. There was never any physical evidence that directly linked the teens to the murders; in fact, the only source of DNA found at the crime scene that didn’t belong to the victims was a single hair caught in the knotted shoelace use to tie up one of the boys. A forensic expert said it matched the DNA of Terry Hobbs, Steve Branch’s stepfather.
The prosecution’s claim that the boys were killed as part of a Satanic ritual has also been debunked by the independent medical experts, who believe that many of the physical injuries the boys sustained were not the result of knife wounds (the alleged knife was never found by police), but rather animal predation, including the prosecutor-alleged “ritualistic castration” of one of the victims.
Early on in the investigation, police began to suspect that there were “cult” overtones to the killings, and believed Echols could be responsible because he had shown an interest in occultism. This was at the height of the “Satanic Panic,” when parents and law enforcement, particularly in portions of the Bible Belt, became paranoid that rock music and other pop-culture influences were indoctrinating their children into devil worship. The prosecution’s tunnel vision for Echols centered around their belief that he was a Satanist.
Various police sources who provided statements which either fed their suspicions of Echols or directly implicated the three teens have since recanted. That includes Misskelley, whose confession was obtained during a 12-hour, mostly unrecorded interrogation that was, by many expert standards, utterly inappropriate given his age at the time (17) and his IQ of 72 (defined as borderline intellectually disabled).
Miskelley’s confession – which implicated all three teens in the murders – and other statements given to police were inconsistent with the evidence. He also recanted almost immediately, saying that he was scared of the police, and he refused to testify against Echols and Baldwin, even though prosecutors allegedly offered to reduce his sentence to 40 years if he agreed. (There has been much made of an additional “confession” Misskelley made to prosecutors following his own conviction; his attorney at the time, Dan Stidham, filed a brief in advance of Echols and Baldwin’s trial in support of their motion to dismiss on the basis of prosecutorial misconduct, which details how that confession was improperly obtained and in direct violation of Sixth Amendment right to counsel and his Fifth Amendment Right to Remain Silent.)
A woman named Vicki Hutcheson, who played a key role in the police investigation, has also utterly recanted the various statements she gave to police, including her claim that Echols had bragged to her about killing the three boys. She has repeatedly said that she fabricated this story to avoid criminal charges (she was facing serious accusations of stealing from her employer) and claimed that the police had threatened to take her son away if she didn’t help them get Echols.
Even those who were once completely convinced of their guilt became fierce advocates for the West Memphis Three’s release. John Mark Byers, the stepfather of Christopher Byers; and Pam Hicks, the mother of Steve Branch; both of whom appeared in the Paradise Lost movies (that’s Byers in the clip above) and didn’t hold back in expressing their belief in the WM3’s guilt at the time, had a complete change of heart after the massive flaws in the police investigation were revealed. Both have also expressed their belief that Terry Hobbs, Hicks’s ex-husband, committed the murders with three friends. They claim that the DNA evidence not only ties him to the crime scene, but neighbors have since attested to seeing Hobbs with the boys the evening they disappeared, which he had long denied.
During their incarceration, advocates for the West Memphis 3, including West of Memphis director Peter Jackson, musician Henry Rollins, Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks, Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, and actor Johnny Depp, raised money to fund their appeals efforts, including the forensic testing which ultimately forced the Arkansas courts to overturn their convictions.
There is hope that as advancements are made in forensic testing, Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley will one day be fully exonerated of the murders, thus forcing Arkansas authorities to open the investigation once more.
If you’re interested in learning more about the West Memphis Three case, we highly recommend the following books and documentaries, all of which have helped inform the content of this post:
- Paradise Lost 1-3
- West of Memphis
- Devil’s Knot: The True Story of the West Memphis Three by Mara Leveritt (there is also a movie adaptation of the book starring Reese Witherspoon, but you’re better off reading the book or watching the documentaries above)
- Life After Death by Damien Echols
- Yours For Eternity: A Love Story on Death Row by Lorri Davis and Damien Echols
For more on this case, watch the “West Memphis Three” episode of Investigation Discovery’s True Crime With Aphrodite Jones on ID GO now!
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Main photo: Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, and Jason Baldwin [West Memphis Police Department]