Full Moon Over West Memphis
In May 1993, the gruesome murders of three young boys shocked the nation. The "West Memphis Three," as the alleged culprits were dubbed, have spent 17 years behind bars. But why? The evidence - or lack theorof - is shocking.
Memphis shared the shock in May 1993 when investigators found the bodies of three 8-year-old boys submerged in a drainage canal just across the Mississippi River in West Memphis. Fear flooded the region. The unusual tone of that fear was noted just a week after the murders, when USA Today wrote of the "monstrous evil" that lay behind them.
Exactly a month after the murders, West Memphis police said three local teenagers were that evil. Memphis breathed a sigh of relief. And the following year, after two trials that saw one teen sentenced to death and the other two to life in prison, the ordeal seemed to be over.
But it has turned out to be far from that. Since those convictions, many have come to view the roles played by police, prosecutors, and judges in winning those convictions as almost as shocking as the murders of young Stevie Branch, Michael Moore, and Christopher Byers. And now, 17 years later, the growing infamy of the West Memphis case is Arkansas' cross to bear.
Most people in this region who were over 10 years old in that warming, first week of May remember where they were when they heard the grim details of the murders: that the children were naked, that their little bodies were hog-tied wrist-to-foot, that one of the boys was castrated, that they had disappeared in the early evening — on the night of a full moon. Parents remember keeping their own children safe indoors until the announcement by police a month later that the killers were caught at last.
The Commercial Appeal broke the story of how one of the three, 17-year-old Jessie Misskelley Jr., had confessed. And, because someone leaked a transcript of the teenager's questioning by police, the paper devoted its front page to what Misskelley said. The article quoted Misskelley explaining how he had met two other boys — 18-year-old Damien Echols and 16-year-old Jason Baldwin — in the woods where the bodies were found; how he'd witnessed Echols and Baldwin beating and sexually abusing the children; and how, when one of the boys had tried to escape, Misskelley himself had caught and held the boy for Echols and Baldwin to finish him off.
The details were tragically, gruesomely sensational. But the most chilling detail to emerge concerned what appeared to be the teens' motive. Though Misskelley's statement was disjointed and often confused, readers gleaned from it that the killers had been flirting with devil-worship and that the children were somehow sacrificed toward some sort of Satanic end.
The trials (Echols and Baldwin were tried together after Misskelley's trial ended) cemented that impression. Misskelley, who had recanted his incriminating statements the day after making them, was tried in February 1994. He was a small, scrappy boy who had been in special education until he finally dropped out of high school. "I had to take up for myself," he once said, "to let people know they couldn't run over me just because I was small. I was walking around always looking for fights, because I knew they would come. I took up for a lot of people because I had a quick temper and I knew what it was like to be picked on. I'd been picked on since I was about four or five." He sat in the courtroom with his head hung, looking down at the floor.
Prosecutors played a tape of Misskelley's confession. The Arkansas Supreme Court would later note that he was convicted almost solely on the weight of that statement. The jury sentenced him to life in prison plus 40 years.
In March 1994, Echols and Baldwin were tried together. Neither of them had ever confessed, and Misskelley refused to repeat his claim that he had seen them murder the boys. If Misskelley did not agree to testify against Echols and Baldwin, prosecutors were barred from playing the tape of his statement, because to do so would deny Echols and Baldwin their Sixth-Amendment right to face their accuser.
Prosecutors told the parents of the murdered boys that, without Misskelley, they weren't sure they had enough evidence to convict Echols and Baldwin. They explained that was why they offered Misskelley a reduced sentence — to a term of years that could have gotten him out of prison by now — if he agreed to testify. The parents were unhappy about the offer, but Prosecutor Brent Davis told them, "Unfortunately, we need his testimony real bad."
"All is not lost if he doesn't testify," Deputy Prosecuting Attorney John Fogleman added. "But the odds are reduced significantly. I mean, we've still got some evidence."
But the 17-year-old refused the prosecutors' offer.
Without Misskelley, Davis and Fogleman faced asking a jury to order the death penalty for Echols and Baldwin based on this evidence: three fibers found in the homes of the accused that were "microscopically similar" to fibers found on the victims; a woman's claim that, on the night of the murders, she saw Echols walking with a girl near where the bodies were found; statements from two teenage girls who said they'd overheard Echols at a softball field bragging about having committed the murders; the claim of a jailhouse snitch that Baldwin had described killing the boys to him; and a knife that divers pulled from a lake near Baldwin's house that prosecutors said might have been used on the boys.
Davis and Fogleman feared that wasn't enough. The fibers were generic; they could have been found in anyone's home. In different ways, the credibility of the statements by the woman, the "softball girls," and the snitch all could be attacked. Nothing proved that the "lake knife" had ever been used on the boys or that Baldwin had any connection to the knife. And worse for the prosecution, without Misskelley, there was no apparent motive for the murders.
Sensing that jurors would doubt that Echols and Baldwin would have murdered three children they did not know without a motive, the prosecutors tried to prove one. They called to the stand a young woman, Victoria Hutcheson, who testified that Echols had driven her and Misskelley to an "esbat," which she described as something like a witches' orgy. Defense attorneys countered with testimony that Echols had no driver's license, had never driven, and had no access to a car like the one Hutcheson described.
DEVIL IN THE DETAILS
Nevertheless, the stage having been set, the prosecutors brought in their big gun, Dr. Dale W. Griffis, a self-proclaimed "cult expert." Defense attorneys quickly established that Griffis had gotten the Ph.D. he claimed, without ever attending a class, from a mail-order diploma mill. They argued that Griffis should not be qualified as an expert, but the trial judge, David Burnett, ruled that he would accept Griffis as an expert "based upon his knowledge, experience, and training in the area of occultism or Satanism."
Thus, Griffis was allowed to testify about the aspects of the crime that he said bore "trappings of occultism." There were three victims, he explained. They were killed on the night of a full moon. Echols mostly wore black. He and Baldwin liked heavy-metal music.
Of all the elements of this case that have come in for criticism, Griffis' testimony ranks near the top, especially among those who believe that Echols and Baldwin were, essentially, prosecuted for little more than being "different" — which they were, as Baldwin once acknowledged.
"Others didn't like us," he said. "They'd been accusing me of being a Satanist since the sixth grade. It was because I had long hair and wore concert T-shirts, with bands like Metallica, Guns n' Roses, Ozzy Osbourne, and U2. Damien liked straight clean black clothes, with nothing printed on them.
"But the way we dressed was one thing people criticized," Baldwin continued. "Most of the other kids, they either wore sports clothes, like Tommy Hilfiger stuff, or if they were country people, they wore flannel shirts and cowboy boots with giant buckles. So we stood out because, even though Damien and I dressed different from each other, we was also different from everybody else."
At their trial, those differences took on life-and-death significance. When Fogleman asked Griffis about how he identified "young people involved in the occult," Griffis responded gravely: "I have personally observed people wearing black fingernails, having their hair painted black, wearing black T-shirts, black dungarees, that type of thing. Sometimes they will tattoo themselves."
Defense lawyers tried to focus on facts. Under questioning, they got Griffis to concede that police had not found anything at the scene that appeared to be related to the occult. They'd found no carved pentagram, nothing resembling an altar, no bits of candle wax, no knife or other weapon — and a remarkable absence of blood. Nevertheless, Fogleman wrapped up his prosecution by recounting Griffis' testimony and telling jurors to look at Echols and see that "there's no soul there."
Aside from the so-called "lake knife," which divers found just weeks before the trial, prosecutors had little to say about Baldwin. Nevertheless, they urged jurors to sentence both boys to death.
The jury complied in part. It sentenced Echols, who'd been portrayed as the group's ringleader, to death and Baldwin to life in prison, plus 40 years.
That's where the story might have ended, so far as the public knew, but for a decision made by Judge Burnett shortly after the arrests. Much to his regret, as he would later say, Burnett agreed to allow two filmmakers to record both trials for HBO. Two years later, that decision resulted in the June 1996 release of the documentary Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, which featured dramatic segments from the trials. For the first time, people unfamiliar with the case got a sense of how it was prosecuted, and many were astonished. But the Arkansas Supreme Court took it in stride, and affirmed all three convictions.
The justices on the state Supreme Court had no problem with Griffis' qualifications. They accepted several points from his testimony, including "that the date of the killings, near a pagan holiday, was significant"; that "there was a full moon"; that "the victims were all eight years old, and eight is a witches' number"; and that "the absence of blood at the scene could be significant because cult members store blood for future services in which they would drink the blood or bathe in it."
With the release of the HBO documentary, what seemed significant to many viewers was what seemed an astonishing lack of evidence on which to hang a death sentence and two life imprisonments. Three young Californians were so disturbed by the film that they established a website, wm3.org, to gather more information about the case. The more they learned — and posted on their site — the faster objections spread to the handling of the case.
Today, many still believe that Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley, the men now known as the West Memphis Three, are guilty and rightly in prison. Arkansas' attorney general, Dustin McDaniel, is one of them.
"Do you really think they were convicted because they wore black?" he wrote to the editor of the Arkansas Times. "Do you think their confessions, the knife that matched the wounds, their unique knowledge of the crime, the fiber evidence, and the eyewitnesses who saw them near the scene at the time of the murders should be ignored (then or now)?"
Todd Moore, the father of victim Michael, is satisfied that his son's killers are behind bars. And West Memphis Police Chief Bob Paudert agrees. In March, after Echols said in a televised interview from prison that the true murderer had never been caught, Paudert told a reporter: "Well, we haven't had any more child killings in West Memphis that's unsolved. The ones we have in custody are the ones who did it."
Nevertheless, to the chagrin of Arkansas officials, opposition to the case's outcome has grown as word about it has spread. Despite the dismissals of West Memphis police officers, who say their critics are uninformed, the points that most arouse critics' concern are all part of the official record.
One of the most surprising results of the documentary? Romance for Echols.
Lorri Davis was a landscape architect living in New York when she saw the film. She began writing to Echols, then allowed him to call her, then made trips to Arkansas to visit him. She eventually moved to Little Rock and married Echols in a Buddhist ceremony at the prison in 1999.
TRIAL AND ERRORS
Discussion boards have provided a forum where, for years now, people from around the world have expressed amazement at how the case was handled. Participants note, for example, that workers at a fast-food restaurant near where the bodies were discovered reported that, on the night the boys disappeared, a man came into their establishment with blood and mud on his clothes and tried to clean up in a restroom. However, when police were asked about that man at the trials, they testified that, while they'd collected paper towels and blood scrapings from the restroom, this evidence had been "lost."
They note that police questioned Jessie Misskelley, a 17-year-old special-ed student, for nearly eight hours — all without a parent or lawyer present — but recorded only a small portion of what he said, the part they called his "confession."
They write of finding it hard to believe that police and prosecutors accepted Misskelley's confession, when they knew that crucial elements of the crime he described to them were wrong. Misskelley said, for instance, that the boys were tied with "brown rope," when, in fact, they were tied with their own shoelaces — some black, some white. He said they were beaten and stabbed while wearing their clothes, but the clothes were not torn or bloodstained. He said the attacks took place in the daytime, the victims having skipped school; but the children were in school all day and last seen around dusk. When asked about these errors at the trial, the West Memphis police chief explained, "Jessie simply got confused."
A lot of attention has been focused on Judge Burnett and his rulings. Critics note that besides accepting Griffis, with his phony Ph.D., as an "occult expert," the judge allowed prosecutors to claim repeatedly that the children had been sodomized, when in fact, the state medical examiner testified that autopsies had revealed no evidence of such an attack.
Several entertainers have lent their celebrity to the case, often to call attention to what they consider the prosecutors' abuse of the defendants' right to free expression. Henry Rollins, Jack Black, Winona Ryder, Margaret Cho, Johnny Depp, Tom Waits, Steve Earle, and Eddie Vedder are just a few of the actors and musicans who've criticized prosecutors for attempting to win a conviction based on, among other things, the books Echols read, the clothes he wore, and the music that he and Baldwin listened to.
Most supporters, however, are ordinary people who cannot believe that Arkansas is willing to execute Echols and keep Baldwin and Misskelley in prison for life, based on nothing more substantial than what was presented at their trials. An oft-cited reason for getting involved goes like this: "I was 'different' in high school too. What happened to the West Memphis Three could easily have happened to me."
Over the years, as opposition to the convictions has grown, further cracks have appeared in the case. A juvenile detention supervisor who was scheduled to testify on behalf of Baldwin reported that she was told to leave town or risk losing her job if she appeared in court. She did not testify.
Victoria Hutcheson told the Arkansas Times that her testimony about attending a witches' orgy with Misskelley and Echols was "a total lie." Hutcheson said she was facing legal problems at the time of the murders and that police promised they would "take care of" her hot checks if she testified against the teenagers. She did testify, but in October 1993, she apologized to the men in prison for those lies.
The journal Forensic Linguistics published an analysis of the transcript of Misskelley's confession. The author concluded, "None of the key, specific, verifiable details were provided by the confessor," but rather, "the police were the source of nearly all of the substantive information regarding the crime."
None of this public reflection on the case, however, carried any weight in court. Since the state Supreme Court had affirmed all three convictions, Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley had only two routes of appeal left in Arkansas. And both would take them back before Judge Burnett.
One route involved retesting of evidence from the crime scene, looking for DNA that was not discernible with testing methods available at the time of the trials. Inmates must pay the lab and legal expenses, which few can do. But the West Memphis Three were fortunate. By the early part of this decade, they had supporters numbering in the thousands, and many of those supporters wanted to help financially.
Some, like the young woman in New Jersey who sent five dollars every month for years, contributed small amounts. Others wrote larger checks. There will likely never be an accounting of the money paid to lawyers, investigators, and laboratories in the 16 years since the convictions, but it's safe to assume the sum would be staggering.
The money has produced results. In 2007, the lab that examined close to 70 items from the crime scene reported that, while no DNA from Echols, Baldwin, or Misskelley was found, testing revealed — by a high probability— that a hair found in the shoelaces binding one of the children belonged to Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of Stevie Branch. A second hair found at the scene was identified as having come from David Jacoby, a friend of Hobbs', who was with him the day the children disappeared.
With attention suddenly focused on Hobbs, Natalie Maines Pasdar of the Dixie Chicks appeared with Echols' wife, Lorri Davis, at a rally in front of the Arkansas Capitol to urge state officials to re-open the case. In Pasdar's brief remarks, she mentioned the new evidence pointing toward Hobbs.
Hobbs sued the singer for slander. In preparing for trial, lawyers for Pasdar questioned Hobbs under oath. They asked if he'd seen any of the victims on the day they died. Hobbs replied that he had not. A federal judge later dismissed the lawsuit and it never went to trial.
But when word of Hobbs' statement was reported in a northeast Arkansas paper, three of his former neighbors came forward to dispute that claim. They gave sworn statements that they had seen Hobbs in front of his home, three doors away from their own, with Stevie, Michael, and Christopher. They placed the time at between 5:30 and 6:30 p.m. on the day the children disappeared. If true, the women's claim would make Hobbs the last person known to have seen the boys alive.
The next incriminating claim against Hobbs came from his ex-wife, Pamela Hobbs. In the wake of news about the DNA findings and the neighbors' claim to have seen Hobbs with the boys, Pamela Hobbs told a reporter that she had harbored suspicions about him ever since 2002, when she discovered among his possessions a small pocketknife belonging to her son. Pamela Hobbs said Stevie always carried the knife in his pocket and that she believed he'd had it with him when he was killed.
For years, Pamela Hobbs was vehement in her conviction that Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley were guilty. Now she's not so sure. She now says all she wants is a thorough investigation and a fair trial — things she does not believe have yet occurred.
John Mark Byers, the stepfather of Christopher Byers, another of the victims, goes further. Once hateful in his denunciations of the West Memphis Three, Byers recently said: "I was fooled for 14 years. But now I know an injustice was dealt upon these boys by the state of Arkansas."
Rick Murray, Christopher's biological father, has also voiced skepticism about the convictions. "I want to know who murdered my son," Murray said. "I don't want three innocent people to suffer for something they didn't do."
Burnett heard Echols' appeal based on the new DNA findings. Lawyers with the state attorney general's office argued that the DNA results did not prove that Echols was innocent and did not "establish by compelling evidence that a new trial would result in an acquittal." Burnett sided with the state.
In Arkansas, the last state remedy a prisoner can try is something called a Rule 37 petition. It allows an inmate to argue that he deserves a new trial because his attorney was so ineffective as to have rendered his original trial unfair. Rule 37 petitions are almost never successful, in part, perhaps, because they are generally heard by the same judge who officiated at the original trial.
At Echols' Rule 37 hearing, his new lawyers presented a half dozen prominent forensic scientists, all of whom testified that animals, not humans, had caused what was believed to be the castration of Christopher Byers and other injuries to the boys. The witnesses said that all three boys had died from forcible drowning and that "none of the injuries were caused during life, and none were caused by a serrated knife, or any knife for that matter."
Their conclusion contradicted the state's entire theory of the case.
LAW & DISORDER
Another argument struck at the very heart of Echols' and Baldwin's trial. It centered on the sworn statement of Lloyd Warford, a Little Rock lawyer, who had nothing to do with the trial, except that he happened to know the jury foreman.
Warford, a former prosecuting attorney, said in his affidavit that he entered private practice in 1993, the year of the West Memphis murders. The following year, he was hired by Kent Arnold to represent Arnold's brother, who stood accused of raping his 4-year-old daughter. At about that same time, Kent Arnold was called as a potential juror for the trial of Echols and Baldwin.
Warford wrote that he doubted Arnold would be selected as a juror because Arnold had a relative facing prosecution, he clearly "knew way too much about the case," and "he seemed to have made up his mind the defendants were guilty." According to Warford, Arnold once told him, "All you had to do to know that Echols was a devil worshiper was to look in his eyes and you knew he was evil."
According to Warford, he told Arnold that "we could not talk about the case until it was over, and he agreed." Judge Burnett also admonished jurors at the start of the trial that they were not to discuss the case outside the jury room. Nevertheless, Warford said, throughout the trial, "Kent made constant offhand comments or statements about the trial and his jury service."
"At one point," Warford said, "I remember him saying something to the effect that 'at least nine of us are ready to vote right now' and asked why don't the prosecutors just play the [Misskelley] confession and get this over with." (The reason they didn't, of course, was that Misskelley's statement was inadmissible.)
Warford continued: "Nevertheless, as the trial progressed, Kent Arnold's comments were increasingly critical of the prosecution. Eventually, Kent said this prosecutor has not done his job and that if the prosecution didn't come up with something powerful the next day, there was probably going to be an acquittal. At one point, I distinctly remember him saying, 'If anyone is going to convince this jury to convict, it is going to have to be me.'"
During the trial, a police officer did, in fact, allude to "the statement of Jessie Misskelley." Defense lawyers immediately moved for a mistrial, but Burnett denied the motion. The judge cautioned the jurors to disregard the police officer's statement.
"Kent told me if the confession had not been mentioned in court, then he might not have been able to convince the swing jurors to convict," Warford said. "He said several times that he could not believe how many jurors had not been aware of Misskelley's confession until it was mentioned in court."
There will be no new trials for any of the men unless some court orders that. Legal teams for each of the men are proceeding independently.
Echols' last state appeal of his Rule 37 petition is before the Arkansas Supreme Court. That court has said it will hold a hearing on the appeal, but has not set a date. If no date is set before the court recesses for summer, the hearing (and thus their eventual ruling) will be delayed until fall.
Baldwin and Misskelley are also appealing Judge Burnett's denial of their Rule 37 petitions to the state Supreme Court. They too see their best hope at the federal level.
Lawyers for Echols and Baldwin believe they have an exceptionally strong case for a new trial. But they were not surprised when Burnett, who ruled on the case even though he had retired from the bench by this point and was a candidate for political office, turned them down.
Attorneys for Echols and Baldwin have complained to the state Supreme Court that Burnett's dual roles of judge and political candidate constituted a conflict of interest, but the high court did not intervene to stop him. As a result, the lawyers will add the claim of judicial bias to their quiver of arguments for future federal appeals.
Indeed, the case has taken on additional political overtones in other ways.
Former Judge David Burnett is running for the Arkansas Senate. And the former prosecutor, John Fogleman, now a circuit judge, is campaigning for election to the Arkansas Supreme Court.
If the Supreme Court does not hold hearings before it recesses for the summer, a decision could be delayed until after elections in the fall. That would look to many like the court was shielding the two candidates from possible political fallout. "That," said Echols' wife, Lorri Davis, "would be another crime."
If the court does hold hearings soon, it could follow form and rule against a new trial. That would free attorneys for Echols and Baldwin to bring their appeal immediately to a federal court.
Of course, it is possible that the ArkansasSupreme Court would order Echols and Baldwin retried. In that event, in light of all that has transpired these past 17 years, it is intriguing to imagine what evidence state prosecutors would present in their attempt to win new convictions.
One town ripped apart by gruesome murders of three young boys. Three teens, now grown men, imprisoned for 17 years on questionable evidence. Two documentaries, one book, and countless appeals from celebrities and organizations.
And, if the courts see fit, one last chance for freedom for the West Memphis Three.
— Mara Leveritt is the author of Devil's Knot: The True Story of the West Memphis Three.