On May 5, 1993, three 8-year-old West Memphis, Ark., boys, Steven Branch, Michael Moore and Christopher Byers, didn’t come home from school. The next day the three were found murdered in some nearby woods known as Robin Hood Hills. The small town of about 20,000 needed some fast answers to some serious questions. Who did this? Have you arrested them? What are you doing to make sure it doesn’t happen again? The police had no clues and no motives. The townspeople needed a suspect—quick. The authorities obliged and found some.
On June 3, detectives were sent to find Jessie Misskelley, a local 17-year-old with an IQ of 72. The police were dispatched to find Jessie because he was a friend of another local boy, Damien Echols. Damien, a fan of Metallica and black clothing, had been a sore spot for local police for years. When crimes were committed in West Memphis, Damien was questioned. A girl was found murdered 100 miles away. Damien was questioned. The police were anxious he was going to do something wrong.
Jessie was interrogated by investigators for 12 hours, but there is little more than a half-hour of recorded tape from the session. Police told Jessie he had flunked his polygraph test, even though he didn’t. After 12 hours of questioning, authorities came up with a taped confession. On one part of the tape, Jessie says that Damien and another of their friends, Jason Baldwin, were raping two of the three boys while he held the other one. The autopsy indicates otherwise. He also said originally that all three boys were killed at noon on the May 5. The teachers all said that the boys were still in school.
Eventually on the tape, Jessie says that the boys were killed at night, that they bound all three of the boys with rope. In reality, all were tied up with their own shoelaces. A picture of the interrogation room shows a baseball bat in the corner. Also, all three boys were carried to the woods and left there, possibly after assaults on their young bodies. The task of carrying the boys to the woods would have been very difficult for Jason or Jessie, who weren’t much bigger than the 65- to 70-pound boys. Did Damien carry all three himself?
On the night the boys were reported missing, a Bojangles chain restaurant, about a mile or two from the scene of the crime, reported a strange man in their bathroom covered with blood and mud from head to toe. The investigating officer didn’t even bother to go into the restaurant to check it out. She went to the drive-up window and found out that the man had left. The next day, blood samples were taken from the bathroom. They were promptly lost.
On Feb. 4, 1994, Jessie Misskelley was found guilty of one count of first-degree murder and two counts of second-degree murder. With Jessie’s low IQ, he was not much brighter than the 8-year-old victims. He was sentenced to life plus 40 years. One down and two to go.
Jason and Damien were tried together after the sentencing of their friend. The only real evidence introduced at the trial was a shirt fiber similar to one of Damien’s found at the scene of the crime. Most of the local population had shirts similar to this one. Another part of the evidence was a young girl who said she heard Damien confessing. He said he had killed the three and was going to kill two more before he turned himself in to the police, she testified. The girl couldn’t say what he said before that statement or after, but she knew for sure that he had confessed. Another girl on the stand said that Damien was weird “because he dressed in black” and “had long black hair.” One of Jason’s cellmates also said Jason had confessed to him. In Jason’s supposed confession, he admitted to dismembering the boys, although they were not dismembered.
On the stand, Damien was not his own best witness. He was very nervous. They asked if he was familiar with the writings of Aleister Crowley. He told them no. They then proved he had written a paper with Crowley’s name and references to him within the text. They asked, because Crowley had once said children make the best sacrifices.
Regardless of all of the case’s pertinent evidence getting lost, the trial went on. Jason Baldwin was sentenced to life in prison. Damien Echols, the “ringleader,” was given the death penalty. That sentence could be carried out sometime this year.
However, some of the townspeople have found a fourth suspect: Mark Byers, stepfather to one of the victims. He told the press about homosexual orgies in which Damien, Jason and Jessie participated. He told them that one of the dead boys was beaten so badly that he was not recognizable. He said another one of them was skinned. All of this was untrue. He also said that his stepson’s penis was found under Damien’s bed in a jar. That is also untrue. Was he trying to veer the press away from the truth? Did he know something?
It’s likely no one will ever know the truth about what happened in the woods in West Memphis. One thing everyone can do is log onto www.wm3.org and help the West Memphis Three get a new trial. Another is to buy the excellent benefit album (see Sound Affects), that provides the musical connection in all this. You can help six boys get the justice we all deserve.
Thu., Nov. 20, 6 p.m. / $18