Who are the West Memphis Three? 

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The West Memphis Three are Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, Jr. and Jason Baldwin. In 1994, two juries found the men, who were teenagers at the time, guilty of murdering three eight-year-old boys (Stevie Branch, Michael Moore and Christopher Byers) in May 1993 in West Memphis. Echols was sentenced to death, Baldwin and Misskelley to life without parole.

Misskelley was the first of the three to be tried in 1994. He was 17 at the time. He was tried separately from the other two because he had confessed—and implicated Echols and Baldwin — in a statement tape-recorded by police. Misskelley retracted the statement but was convicted after prosecutors played it at his trial. Though prosecutors had asked for the death penalty, jurors sentenced Misskelley to life in prison.

Echols and Baldwin were tried immediately after Misskelley. Prosecutors wanted Misskelley to testify at their trial, but he refused, despite offers of a reduced sentence if he would say again that he'd seen them kill the children. Echols and Baldwin have always said they are innocent.

The case gained national attention soon after the teenagers' arrests, when word was leaked that the murders were committed as part of a satanic ritual. A key prosecution witness in the second trial was a self-proclaimed cult expert, who stated that the murders bore "trappings" of the occult. This testimony, combined with testimony about books Echols read and some of his writings, plus evidence that he and Baldwin liked heavy-metal music, and that a number of black t-shirts were found in Baldwin's closet, helped to convict the two.

Prosecutors asked jurors to sentence both to death. Jurors complied with regard to Echols, who was the oldest of the three, at 18, and the accused ringleader. Baldwin, 16, was sentenced to life in prison. Shortly before the trial, prosecutors had offered not to seek the death penalty against Baldwin, if he would say he'd seen Echols kill the boys. Baldwin refused.

In 1996, the Arkansas Supreme Court unanimously affirmed all three convictions. Years of appeals followed, and evidence from the crime was subjected to scientific testing not available in the early '90s. No physical evidence — at the trials or discovered since — has been linked to any of the three convicted. Recent tests, however, did establish that a hair found inside a knot used to bind one of the boys may have come from the stepfather of another of the victims. Additionally, a hair found in the bark of a tree near where the bodies were found was identified as probably belonging to a friend of that stepfather.

The Robin Hood Hills Murders

Branch, Moore and Byers were reported missing May 5, 1993, several hours after they left Weaver Elementary School at the end of the school day. Their bodies were found the next afternoon, in a creek in an area known locally as the Robin Hood Hills. The children had been beaten and hog-tied with their shoe laces. Two of the three had drowned after the beatings. They were naked, and Byers had apparently been stabbed and castrated. (Years later, attorneys for the defense would suggest that the boy’s wounds were not consistent with castration, but that the soft tissue had been eaten by fish in the creek.) Perhaps because they were unused to handling such a homicide, the West Memphis police investigation at the scene allowed potential evidence to be destroyed. It wasn’t until eight days later that the State Crime Lab appeared at the scene with equipment to study the scene.

A juvenile probation officer at the scene told police he’d been following the activities of Damien Echols for several years; he’d never been able to pin anything on him. It was this probation officer who first suggested that Satanism was involved in the killings, through nothing at the scene suggested that. The police first made contact with Echols the next day, May 6, at his family’s trailer in Marion.

The investigation

Though accounts differ on her motive, a woman named Vicki Hutcheson agreed to secretly tape Echols to get a confession and provide the tape to the police. Echols said nothing incriminating on the tape and the West Memphis police later said it was unintelligible, and then that it was lost. (Hutcheson and her son, who told police he’d witnessed the killings, testified in Miskelley’s trial, but Hutcheson recanted in 2004, saying police had coerced her into giving false testimony. Hutcheson then convinced Misskelley, whom she met through her son, to tell the police that he’d seen the boys killed. The mentally challenged Misskelley, 17, did go to the police and spent 12 hours with police Inspector Gary Gitchell and Detective Bryn Ridge, who got a statement from him in which he implicated himself, Baldwin and Echols. He later recanted the confession. An expert on false confessions told Misskelley’s lawyer that the taped interview showed the confession to be clearly coerced, but the trial judge did not allow the jury to hear the expert’s testimony. (To hear the tape, go here.)

Satanic panic

Misskelley, Baldwin and Echols were arrested June 3, and the theory that the boys were involved in devil worship quickly emerged, throwing the community into turmoil and giving rise to all kinds of allegations, including John Mark Byers’ statement that his step-son’s testicles were found in a jar of formaldehyde under Damien’s bed (a statement he later denied saying). At one point, the Jonesboro police department said they were going to call in 60 extra officers to protect a freedom of religion march organized by wiccans.

The trials

Miskelley, Echols and Baldwin all pleaded not guilty at a pre-trial hearing on Aug. 4. Ironically, attorneys for Misskelley, Echols and Baldwin fought the state’s efforts to take DNA samples from them. The fact that no DNA of the West Memphis Three had been collected from the bodies while other DNA had figured largely into the legal maneuverings that set the men free.

Misskelley’s trial was severed from Echols and Baldwins’ and held in Corning beginning in late January 1994. On Feb. 4, 1994, a jury found him guilty and the judge sentenced him to life plus 40 years -- his attorneys cited his IQ of 75 in their plea that he not be executed. Baldwin and Echols went to trial Feb. 28. They were found guilty of three counts of capital murder two weeks later; Baldwin got life in prison without the possibility of parole and Echols, characterized as the ringleader, was sentenced to die by lethal injection.

Slideshow
The West Memphis Three
The West Memphis Three The West Memphis Three The West Memphis Three The West Memphis Three The West Memphis Three The West Memphis Three The West Memphis Three The West Memphis Three

The West Memphis Three

A look back at the 18-year case.

Click to View 32 slides

Cover stories

April 7, 1994
The Devil on trial
Some concluding thoughts on the state's most notorious murder case.
By Bob Lancaster

June 23, 1994
Witch on death row
Damien Echols contends his only crime was being different.
By Mara Leveritt

November 25, 1994
The legal troubles of Terry Hobbs and John Mark Byers
Damien Echols contends his only crime was being different.
By Mara Leveritt

June 7, 1996
John Grisham, meet Dan Stidham
Fiction pales against a Paragould lawyer's real life trial in a triple child slaying.
By James Morgan

October 11, 1996
Fame and Damien Echols
A powerful documentary focuses critical attention on the West Memphis Three.
By Mara Leveritt

December 26, 1997
The strange demise of Melissa Byers
The mother of one of the three boys murdered in West Memphis died, but investigators have yet to figure out how.
By Mara Leveritt

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