Written By: Billy Sinclair
Let me state at the outset I do not know if Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelly are guilty of the brutal murders of three eight year old boys: Stevie Branch, Michael Moore, and Chris Byers. The murders occurred in May 1993, apparently at or around a local playground known as Robin Hood Hills in Crittenden County, Arkansas where children were known to play. The playground at the time was near a major interstate. The horrible nature of the murders shocked the rural West Memphis community, and the crime was quickly linked to “satanic cult” worshipping and sacrifice (both of which were part of a national media craze in the early 1990s).
And that’s where Damien Echols came into the picture. He was a troubled teenager who always dressed in black, wore his hair in styles similar to “Satan worshippers,” and had some serious psychological problems. In fact, a local juvenile probation officer named Jerry Driver who was assisting the police at the crime scene immediately tagged Echols at the crime scene as the person probably responsible for the murders. Perhaps it was Driver’s initial assessment of the crime scene itself or the official belief that the murders of the young boys was tied to Satanism which prompted the local police to round up, question, and even polygraph a number of West Memphis teenagers, including Echols.
The public record in the West Memphis Three case suggests Echols actually requested a polygraph examination which, according to the police and the polygraph examiner, revealed the teenager was being deceptive about his alleged involvement in the crime. But these findings are subject to critical debate because no written record of the polygraph examination was kept, leaving its conclusion in serious doubt. But the “deceptive” findings of that initial polygraph examination, and the fact that Echols had reportedly boasted in the presence of others about his involvement in the murders, led the West Memphis Police Department to believe Echols and his two frequent associates, Baldwin and Misskelly (who was, perhaps still is, borderline intellectually challenged) were responsible for the murders.
This is where the case takes its most incriminating turn against the West Memphis Three. With the approval of Misskelly’s father, the police took the teenager into quasi- official custody at which time he confessed, primarily pointing the finger of blame at Echols and Baldwin. All three teenagers were arrested and charged with the murders of the young boys. While Misskelly has recanted that original confession, claiming it was the product of police coercion, six months later he confessed a second time in much greater detail to the police in the presence of his attorney and against his attorney’s advice.
Misskelly was tried first and separate from Echols and Baldwin. He was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment and two 20-year terms. Echols and Baldwin were tried together with Echols being found guilty of capital murder and sentenced to death while Baldwin was spared the death sentence and given a life sentence.
These convictions and sentences occurred in 1994. Two years later HBO aired a documentary about the case titled Paradise Lost which cast grave doubts on the guilt of Echols, Baldwin and Misskelly. The documentary was the spring board for national and international support for the three convicted murderers who became known as “West Memphis Three.” The case became a cause celebre for stars like Johnny Depp, Nathalie Maines, and Eddie Vedder. Another HBO documentary and at least one book would be devoted to establishing the innocence of the West Memphis Three.
In their zeal to establish the innocence of the West Memphis Three, supporters for the trio have been shockingly irresponsible in pointing the finger of blame at other people as the probable killers of the three boys. First, there was the possible African-American man who was seen by employees of a local Bojangles’ restaurant on the evening of the crime at the restaurant. The restaurant was located near the bayou in Robin Hood Hills where the bodies of the three boys were found. The black man was reportedly dazed, covered with blood and mud, and went into the ladies restroom. The employees called the police who responded to the call but did not fuly check out the information. The following day the restaurant’s manager called the police a second time when the bodies of the young boys were found, operating on the premise there may be a connection between the two events. This time the police took blood scrapings from the walls of the restaurant’s restroom but it was later carelessly lost or deliberately destroyed. No one knows for sure.
Supporters for the West Memphis Three labeled the bloody African-American man as “Mr. Bojangles”—a moniker reminiscent of the Old South. Contrary to what some of the West Memphis Three supporters believe, I don’t think the local police deliberately destroyed the “Mr. Bojangles” evidence just so they could convict three local white teenagers for this unspeakable crime. If the police even remotely believed the mysterious black Mr. Bojangles was connected with the murder of three white kids, they would have devoted every law enforcement resource in the State of Arkansas to make a case against him (or any black man they could ‘frame” as him).
The next person who became a target of the West Memphis Three supporters’ “red-herring” blame game was Mark Byers, the step-father of Chris Byers. Police took some photographs of the boys’ bodies shortly after they were found. One of these photos indicated a “bite mark” was left on at least one of the victims. This was the conclusion drawn by HBO’s second documentary, Paradise Lost 2. The fact that Mark Byers had all his teeth extracted and replaced with dentures after the murders was enough “evidence” for some of the West Memphis Three supporters to conclude he was either the killer or somehow connected to the murders. And the fact that Mark Byers gave the HBO producers of the first Paradise Lost documentary a pocket knife which was discovered to have a speck of blood on it added to the clamor of his guilt, even though test results on the blood proved inconclusive. And the fact that Byers has some “garden variety” violent episodes in his past (accusations by a former wife that he assaulted her, for example), which are woven into the cultural fabric of the South, added fuel to those who believed he was involved in the murders. It didn’t matter that Byers eventually took and passed a polygraph examination which cleared him of any involvement in the horrible crime, or that he was eliminated as the source of subsequent DNA evidence discovered at the crime scene—some still believe he did it..
And, finally, the West Memphis Three supporters, including the mother of one of the victims (Stevie Branch) pointed the guilt finger at Terry Hobbs. Pam Branch is now estranged from her former husband, Terry Hobbs, and there has been a lot of animosity associated with their estrangement. The basis for the guilt finger being pointed at Hobbs is a strand of hair found in the ligature which bound Michael Moore and proved to be consistent with Hobbs’ hair and another strand of hair found nearby which proved to be consistent with the hair of a friend of Hobbs, David Jacoby. This was enough to make the local police some fourteen years after the crime question Hobbs about the crime and later declared he was not a suspect. Still, Stevie’s mother has concerns about Hobbs’ involvement because after the murders she found a pocketknife belonging to her son in Hobbs’ personal belongings—a knife the boy carried with him everywhere. Hobbs recently told CBS’ 48 Hours host Erin Moriarty that he took the knife from Stevie before the crime because he didn’t want an 8-year-old walking around with it.
Based on what I have read and viewed about the West Memphis Three murders, particularly the latest 48 Hours program, I do not believe one person committed the crime. It would be hard for one person to corral three 8-year-olds and slaughter them with a knife or a blunt instrument and hogtie them in the manner they were found. It’s possible but not likely. That certainly eliminates the “dazed and crazed” Mr. Bojangles who was so messed up he couldn’t even control his own bowel movements. And I don’t believe the step-fathers did it either. Just because Mark Byers got his teeth pulled and replaced with dentures after the murders and may have slapped a former wife certainly does not translate into enough evidence to even suspect he slaughtered three innocent children, one of whom was his own stepson. And Terry Hobbs didn’t do it—and for anyone to believe the two strands of hair found at the crime scene which are consistent with Hobbs’ hair and the hair of one of his friends is sufficient “evidence” of guilt is out of touch with reality and knows very little about forensic evidence.
Did the West Memphis Three commit the murders? I don’t know, but I do know there is more “evidence” indicating they did it than anyone else so far tagged as a potential suspect in the case. There’s the two Misskelly confessions, there’s the possible failed polygraph examination by Echols, there’s Echols own boasts that he participated in the killings, and there’s the serious psychological disorders Echols was suffering with at the time of the killings. But even this “evidence,” taken in its totality, leaves plenty of room to doubt the involvement of the West Memphis Three in the killings.
Having said that, I must say quite strongly that Echols and Baldwin are entitled to a new trial. It has been indisputably established that one or more of the jurors who convicted them were influenced by Misskelly’s confessions. In effect, the Echols/Baldwin jury relied upon evidence not presented at their trial and which was not subject to cross-examination. The law is clear on this issue: a reversal of their convictions is mandated.
Of course, a reversal of the Echols/Baldwin convictions could lead to an unholy result. They could either be set free because the State elects not to retry them due to the high-profile nature of the case or they could be acquitted by a jury. This would leave Misskelly as the only convicted defendant in the case—the alleged mentally retarded individual who stepped up to the plate and accepted responsibility for the horrific murders, assuming he and Echols and Baldwin committed them, locked up in prison with a life sentence and two 20-year sentences while the other two are walking free. Talk about a miscarriage of justice.
I would suggest that supporters for the West Memphis Three, some of whom have deep money pockets like Johnny Depp, hire a litany of experts to have Echols and Baldwin undergo truth-seeking examinations: a polygraph examination (the results of which would be maintained this time), hypnosis, voice stress analysis, and psychological examination designed to detect deception. If the two men pass these tests (and any other their defense team could put together), their supporters would have credible evidence to present to the American public that the two men are, in fact, innocent of the horrible murders for which they stand convicted.
Personally, I have a number of questions after viewing the recent 48 Hours program. Why didn’t Erin Moriarty interview Baldwin? Why didn’t she interview Misskelly? Why didn’t she ask Echols, whom she did interview, if he would be willing to undergo a polygraph examination at the program’s expense? The program, I suspect, was set up to give Echols and his supporters an opportunity to make an uncontested argument for his innocence and to point the finger of guilt at the three other possible suspects, Mr. Bojangles, Mark Byers, and Terry Hobbs.
The one thing 48 Hours got right about the West Memphis Three case was to call it a “mystery” and one not likely to be solved anytime soon. One other thing is also clear: Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin should be given a new trial based upon juror misconduct and let the chips fall where they may afterwards.