Written By: Billy Sinclair
Following my last post about the West Memphis Three case, I was encouraged by supporters of the three convicted men to visit websites supporting the men and re-examine the “facts” in the case. The supporters suggested that my core factual presentation in my two previous posts was not entirely “accurate.” Their primary concern was about my assertion that despite all the “new” evidence developed in the case, there is no “smoking gun” for exoneration of the West Memphis Three. I spent the better part of my weekend reading Terry Hobbs’ 2007 interview with the police, his court deposition/documents, and a four-part series about Damien Echols which ran in the Jonesboro Sun this past July (and can be found here). Not only did this research leave me more convinced that there is no exoneration “smoking gun,” it created a cast of troubling new questions about the history of the case and the West Memphis Three’s primay figure, Damien Echols.
Let me preface my comments with the observation that “innocence advocates” play a vital role in maintaining the integrity of our criminal justice system. But the “innocence movement” has become a “cottage industry” with a political agenda that has less to do with determining the “actual innocence” of wrongly convicted defendants and more to do with undermining the death penalty (here and here). For those who truly appreciate the integrity of the “actual innocence” issue, I suggest they visit John Allen’s Skeptical Juror website (here).
One of the most troubling aspects about the West Memphis Three case has been the tendency of their supporters to offer up other “suspects” as the real killers of the three eight-year-old boys: Stevie Branch, Michael Moore, and Chris Byers. The first suspect was a bloody African-American man dubbed “Mr. Bojanles” who was seen by employees at a local Bojangles restaurant on the evening of the crime. The restaurant was located near by the bayou in Robin Hood Hills where the bodies of the three boys were found. Employees said the black man was dazed, covered with blood and mud, and used the restroom at the restaurant. The employees called the police who responded to the call but did not fully investigate the incident. When the bodies of the three boys were found the next day, the restaurant’s manager once again called the police who this time responded by taking blood scrapings from the walls of the restroom. That evidence (if it can be called such) was later destroyed or lost.
The next suspect was John Mark Byers, the adoptive father of Chris Byers. He became a prime suspect after Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky produced a 1996 documentary about the West Memphis Three titled Paradise Lost. During the filming of this HBO documentary, Byers reportedly gave a knife to cameraman Doug Cooper who gave it to Berlinger and Sinofsky. After filming of the documentary had been completed, the two filmmakers reportedly discovered what appeared to be blood on the knife and quickly turned it over to West Memphis law enforcement authorities. At the time the “bloody knife” was significant because the prosecution’s case was built on the premise that the bodies of the three boys had been mutilated with a knife after they had been strangled—a premise that would later be undermined by the West Memphis Three defense team who secured testimony from prominent forensic experts who said the mutilation had been caused by animal predation and not a knife.
The third and fourth possible suspects became Terry Hobbs and a co-worker named David Jacoby. Hobbs, the stepfather of Stevie Branch, was actually a suspect in the eyes of his ex-wife Pam (Stevie’s mother through a previous marriage) immediately after the crime was discovered. This ex-wife, who by all accounts was two bulbs shy in a three-bulb lamp, began telling her family, friends, and anyone else who would listen as her marriage fell apart about her suspicions that her husband had murdered the three boys. Pam never offered any logical motive as to why Terry Hobbs would brutally murder the three boys or any reasonable explanation as to how he could have carried out those murders.
The case against Hobbs’ gained momentum among West Memphis Three when supporters secured DNA testing of evidence found at the crime scene. The Arkansas Supreme Court recently described this evidence as “a foreign allele from a penile swab of victim Steven Branch; a hair from the ligature used to bind victim Michael Moore; and a hair recovered from a tree stump where the bodies were recovered.” The DNA testing on this evidence, performed sometime between 2005 and 2007, excluded the West Memphis Three as sources of the material. However, the tests revealed that the hair found on the Moore ligature was consistent with Terry Hobbs and the hair found on the tree stump was consistent with David Jacoby.
These findings, along with Pam Hobbs’ longstanding ranting accusations against her husband and the fact that John Byers and Mr. Bojangles had been dismissed as prime suspects, was enough for many West Memphis Three supporters, including Dixie Chick lead singer Natalie Maines and John Byers himself (who had climbed on board the wagon against Hobbs once he was cleared as a suspect), to make direct public accusations and/or unmistakable insinuations that Hobbs was in fact the killer. This chorus for Hobbs’ guilt reached a crescendo last year when Jamie Clark Ballard, who lived several houses from the Hobbs, signed an affidavit saying she saw the three boys with Terry Hobbs at about 6:30 p.m. on the day they went missing. The Ballard affidavit is reportedly supported by statements from her mother and sister as well.
I have absolutely no respect for belated, “johnny-come-lately” affidavits in high profile cases, especially those case which have achieved celebrity-like status. The Ballards, who have never received any recognition beyond the small block they live on in West Memphis, are now part of a cause celebre. This horrific crime happened in 1993. It took these local-yokels some 16 years to realize that they had information “pertinent” about the case. However, at the very time Jamie Ballard says she saw the three boys with Hobbs, Robert and Betty Martins told police they saw the boys on Goodwin Street. Other witnesses saw the boys between 5:00 and 6:30 p.m. and none placed them with Terry Hobbs. That’s why I placed as much credence in these so-called Ballard “affidavits” as I do the rumor that Lindsay Lohan is a virgin.
I have also read Terry Hobbs’ June 21, 2007 interview with West Memphis Police Lt. Ken Mitchell and Detective Chuck Noles which was conducted in response to the results of the DNA tests. No one has refuted the facts presented by Hobbs during that interview; namely, that he got home from work between 3:00 and 3:30 p.m. on the day the boys went missing. Pam was at home at the time with their 4-year-old daughter Amanda. A little later, just before 5:00 p.m., Hobbs drove Pam to her place of employment at Catfish Island. The couple took Amanda with them. After Hobbs dropped Pam off at work, he drove around looking for Stevie because it was past time for him to be at home. He had Amanda with him. He picked Pam up at her job at around 9:00 p.m. Stevie was still missing.
A number of witnesses, including Jamie Ballard, saw the three boys alive and well all the way up to 6:30 p.m. To accept the Hobbs-as-the-killer theory, one would have to conclude he picked up David Jacoby sometime after 6:30 p.m., found the boys, took them into the Robin Hood Hills, stripped them naked, strangled and/or drowned them. There’s no way the two adults could have planned the murders. No one would have known on that date, May 5, 1993, and at that time, the boys would all be together riding around on their bikes. So you would have to surmise that Hobbs drove by Jacoby’s house, picked him up, and said, “hey, let’s go kill some boys for being late coming home.” Keep in mind that Jacoby was not an “old friend” of Hobbs—to the contrary, he was a family friend of Pam Hobbs. Terry Hobbs simply helped Jacoby get a job where he worked at a local ice cream place.
Now, why in God’s name would two grown men—neither of whom have any history of sexually molesting or physically abusing kids—hunt down three helpless eight-year-old boys and brutally murder them? Not one West Memphis Three supporter has offered a logical reason why Hobbs and Jacoby would want to kill the boys, much less that Jacoby would even join Hobbs in such a murderous venture. There was no evidence of sexual abuse, and the two men were certainly not part of some satanic cult.
Beyond the lack of motive, there is the timeline. There’s no way Hobbs (with or without Jacoby’s assistance) could have hunted the boys down between 6:30 and 8:30 p.m., take them to the Robin Hood Hills, strip them, kill them, and get rid of his bloody clothes before picking Pam up at around 9:00 p.m. at Catfish Island. Couldn’t happen; didn’t happen. And all this would have been done with his 4-year-old daughter sitting in the car. No way. Two strands of hair, which could easily been on the boys through transference, is not enough evidence to even warrant probable cause for an arrest, as concluded by the local law enforcement authorities, much less evidence of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
As for the West Memphis Three, I will say this loud and clear: Damien Echols is an unmitigated liar. In the second part of the four-part series in the Jonesboro Sun, Echols told reporter George Jared that he had been “repeatedly raped after family visitations and forced to perform sex acts with guards.”
I didn’t need an investigation by the Arkansas corrections department to know this alleged sexual abuse did not happen. No way, Jose. Echols is lying through his teeth, and for no other reason than to enhance the public perception that he is being continuously abused by the Arkansas criminal justice system. This condemned inmate is apparently following the lead of former famed prison journalist Wilbert Rideau who was, and remains, a master at making himself a “victim.” Celebrity-type inmates who lie about events or distort issues in order to create a false “victim” persona have absolutely no credibility with me. The old adage, “you may fool the fans but not the players,” applies here. Thus, I take Echols exhortations about his “actual innocence” with the same grain of salt I attach to Wilbert Rideau’s credibility.
There’s are a couple other points made by Echols in the Jonesboro Sun series that don’t jive under close scrutiny. He said he and his family lived in “abject poverty” yet they could afford pharmacy prescriptions, landline telephone service, and television. He told Jared that as a kid he looked forward to watching “’It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown’ or Christmas specials aired once a year.” Yet he grew up playing with the occult and, in fact, was watching the horror flick “Leprechaun” with Baldwin and two girls when he was arrested on June 3, 1993. To this day, he maintains a fascination in the occult. He told Jared one of the first trips he wants to make after his release from prison is to Salem, Massachusetts where he can celebrate Halloween. A strange aspiration for a 35-year-old condemned inmate sitting on death row convicted of three murders with possible occult implications.
Then there is the Jessie MissKelley confession. Standing alone, it could be reasonably dismissed as the product of a borderline mental retardate who succumbed to police pressure and influence. But then we have Echols own admission that he probably made statements at a local softball game several weeks after the murders that he killed the boys. Two witnesses, Jodee Medford and Christy Van Vickle who were not retardate or under no police pressure, said they overheard Echols make the statements.
“I might have said it, but it wasn’t because I did it,” Echols told Jared. “I was a teen-ager. People were saying a lot of stuff about me. I might have said it joking around.”
I was a teenager once also. Normal, right-thinking teenagers don’t “joke around” about killing three 8-year-old boys. Echols may feel his admissions of guilt can casually be dismissed as a “teen-ager … joking around” but I don’t. Those public admissions, made outside of the police setting, are as credible as confessions given in a police setting—and when the admissions are considered against the backdrop of MissKelley’s confessions, they must be considered as part of the “totality of circumstances” in deciding whether to believe the claims of innocence by Echols and his supporters..
So, after additional research in this case, I remain basically uncertain about the guilt of the West Memphis Three. I do believe that all the evidence, in its totality, is more incriminating against them than it is against Terry Hobbs and David Jacoby. But I remain firmly convinced that the convictions of the West Memphis Three should be set aside and that each defendant given a new (although separate) trial. Echols and Jason Baldwin are entitled to a new trial because the jury foreman in their case used MissKelley’s confession against them without him testifying at trial, and MissKelley is entitled to a new trial based on the new DNA evidence.