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Escaping Death: The West Memphis Three

What does it feel like to spend 18 years on death row for a crime you didn’t commit? What does it feel like to get out?


Damien Echols celebrated five years of freedom on August 19, 2016 with a simple message on Facebook:

In 1994, Echols was sentenced to die by lethal injection for the horrific murder of three young boys: Michael Moore, Stevie Branch, and Christopher Byers. The boys had been hogtied, beaten, and left to die. Echols was considered the ringleader. He would spend the next 18 years on death row, much of it in solitary confinement. His two alleged accomplices, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, were sentenced to life in prison. 

That was supposed to be the end of the story - justice for three murdered children and punishment for their killers. But there were many people in the community, and in the nation, who thought Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley were innocent. They became known as the West Memphis Three, and a national campaign developed to free them.

The teens had expressed interest in the occult. They were known for wearing black and listening to heavy metal. That seemed to be the only reason suspicion first fell on them. No physical evidence was ever found to connect them to the crime. 

Michael Moore, Stevie Branch, and Christopher Byers
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  • Michael Moore, Stevie Branch, and Christopher Byers.

    Photo Credit: West Memphis Police Department

Among those who began calling for the release of the West Memphis Three were some of the relatives of the murdered boys. Famous names including Eddie Vedder, Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks, and Johnny Depp joined the campaign.

Director Peter Jackson produced a documentary, West of Memphis, about the case. On August 19, 2011 the three teens, now men, were released from prison. But their records were not cleared. They agreed to a rare legal maneuver called an Alford plea to win their freedom. It means they claim their innocence, but agree that the state had enough evidence to convict them. In the eyes of the law, they are still responsible for the murders, and the investigation into who really killed those three boys has not been reopened. 

For much more on the West Memphis Three, check out these articles, books and documentaries:

Where Are They Now: The West Memphis Three

Devil’s Knot: The True Story of the West Memphis Three by Mara Leveritt

Life After Death by Damien Echols

Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills 

West of Memphis

Feature still from "Paradise Lost 2: Revelations" via HBO