On May 5, 1993, three young boys from West Memphis, Arkansas left their homes for a bike ride. The next day their bodies were found in a secluded, wooded area known as Robin Hood Hills.
Steve (Stevie) Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore were second-graders at Weaver Elementary School. The boys had been stripped naked, hogtied with their own shoelaces, viciously beaten and left in a muddy creek to die.
After a month of investigating, Arkansas authorities made no arrests. Under mounting pressure from an outraged community, the focus turned to three local teens. They were known for wearing black and listening to heavy metal. Jason Baldwin, 16, Jessie Misskelley, 17, and Damien Echols, 18, were ultimately convicted in 1994. Baldwin and Misskelley were sentenced to life in prison. Echols, who had been tried as an adult, was sentenced to death.
But questions about the investigation and the convictions began immediately. Echols, the suspected ringleader, had a history of psychiatric problems and violent outbursts, which was apparently the only reason investigators targeted him. In this Bible Belt community there was speculation that the killers may have been part of a Satanic cult, and Echols had expressed interest in the occult and in the pagan nature religion called Wicca, sometimes associated with witchcraft.
All of the evidence against the young men was circumstantial. No DNA from the suspects was found at the crime scene or on the children. But police finally got a confession—from Misskelley. Misskelley’s attorney said his client was mentally slow and had been been manipulated into confessing, simply telling investigators what they wanted to hear. A local woman who claimed she heard Echols bragging about the murders later recanted her story.
The case began to attract interest far beyond Arkansas, and in 1996, HBO filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky released Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills. The documentary was a major success and was followed by two more, Paradise Lost 2: Revelations, and Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory.
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Although many in West Memphis were quick to target the three outcasts as killers, many on the outside believed they had been convicted on false evidence and lies. With the release of the first Paradise Lost in 1996, the story grabbed the attention of the general population and caused a public outcry of justice for the three teens. There was widespread criticism of the manner in which the criminal investigation was handled—there were multiple errors at the crime scene alone. The bodies had been removed from before the coroner arrived to determine the state of rigor mortis; the coroner wasn’t brought in until two hours after the bodies were discovered which meant they had been exposed to sunlight and insects. Furthermore, Misskelley’s former attorney Dan Stidham called the coroner’s investigation “extremely substandard.” Some physical evidence was stored in paper sacks obtained from a supermarket instead of containers with known origin.
During the production of the first Paradise Lost feature, John Mark Byers—adoptive father of victim Christopher Byers—gave a knife to cameraman Doug Cooper who handed it to the documentary crew. Documentary filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky returned to New York only to discover that the knife had blood on it. They sent it to the West Memphis Police Department and the knife underwent DNA analysis, which determined that the DNA matched Chris and John’s blood type. Questions arose about how the knife could have contained two of the victims' blood, and whether the finding introduced reasonable doubt as to the convicted trio's guilt.
In Paradise Lost 2, a forensic scientist—Brent Turvey—concluded that human bite marks could have been left on one of the victims. The potential bite marks were noticed in photographs years after the trials and were not inspected until years after the murders. The State eventually determined that there were no bite marks, yet further examination resolved that if the marks were in fact bite marks, they didn’t match any of the convicted men's teeth.
Celebrities including Johnny Depp, Eddie Vedder and The Dixie Chicks joined the cause to free the men, now called the West Memphis Three (WM3). Amy Berg made a documentary on the case titled West of Memphis.
In 2007, the case was reopened after the discovery of new forensic evidence. There was a new statute that permitted post-conviction testing of DNA evidence, which led Echols to file a petition; Echols’ lawyer stated that the new DNA evidence proved his client was not at the scene. Other DNA from the crime scene was tested and none matched Echols, Baldwin, or Misskelley. A hair was found tied into the knots used to bind one of the victims, and it was deemed “not inconsistent with” Steve Branch’s stepfather, Terry Hobbs.
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In 2011 the three men were released, after almost 18 years in prison.
But even today, the wider public remains divided on the case. Many believe the men were innocent, while many others remain skeptical. There are claims that the many documentaries cherry-picked information, leaving out the most damning.
Complicating the story, the men used an unusual legal strategy to escape prison called the Alford plea. In an Alford plea, the defendant asserts he is innocent, but admits the state has enough evidence to convict him. So while they are free, the West Memphis Three are still legally guilty.
So now for the burning question: where are the West Memphis Three now?
Echols, the central figure in the Paradise Lost documentaries, left the state which placed him on death row on the day he was released from prison. He moved to New York with his wife Lorri Davis. (She had reached out to Echols in prison after seeing the HBO documentary.) After a few years living in the hip Manhattan neighborhood of Tribeca, they bought a home in Wicca-friendly Salem, Massachusetts (site of the infamous witch trials). Echols began making art in prison, and he has self-published his memoir. He now tours the country as a successful artist and writer. A multi-media artwork called “Salem” was displayed at the Copro Gallery in Santa Monica, California.
Echols is also an activist working on behalf of others wrongly convicted. In 2016, he became involved in the case of Steven Avery, subject of the popular Netflix documentary series, Making a Murderer. Avery is currently serving a life sentence in the murder of 25-year-old Manitowoc County, Wisconsin resident Teresa Halbach. Like the West Memphis Three, Avery has a large group of supporters who believe he is innocent.
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“People have told me over and over that my story is unique,” Echols is quoted as saying. “The circumstances of my case—the injustices to the real victims, their families, to the West Memphis Three—made for a perfect storm, never to be seen again. But lightning does strike twice, and many more times after that—my story and Steven’s are only two in the vast, impenetrable legal landscape.”
The youngest of the three, Baldwin is now married and living in Seattle. He gave a first-hand account of his experience in the book Dark Spell: Surviving the Sentence, released in 2014 and written by Mara Leveritt, who had written about the murders in her book Devil’s Knot. Baldwin was the Executive Producer for the 2014 film Devil’s Knot starring Reese Witherspoon and Colin Firth.
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However, his involvement in the film led to a rift with Echols, who said the movie failed to portray the events accurately. Baldwin countered, “Not everyone watches documentaries and there are many people out there who have never heard about this case.”
Baldwin hasn't been in the public eye as often since, but says he is trying to raise money to attend law school in order to work for others who have been wrongly convicted.
Misskelley was the only one of the three to return home to West Memphis after his release, and the only one who tried to remain out of the spotlight. In 2013, his father, Jessie Misskelley, Sr., said his son was living with his girlfriend and had been working at a construction site, but had been laid off.
Asked why his son was avoiding reporters, Misskelley Sr. retorted, “Because ya’ll are the ones that sent him to the pen.”
Although more than two decades have passed since the murders, this is a case that continues to generate strong opinions and eager attention. The guilt or innocence of the West Memphis Three is still debated by experts and amateurs alike, making this one of the most controversial cases ever to see the light of a courtroom.
Featured photo: Wikimedia Commons