The West Memphis Three are Damien Wayne Echols (b. Dec. 11, 1974), Jessie Misskelley Jr. (b. July 10, 1975) and Charles Jason Baldwin (b. April 11, 1977). In 1994, two juries found the men, who were teenagers at the time, guilty of murdering three 8-year-old boys — Steve Edward "Stevie" Branch (b. Nov. 26, 1984), James Michael Moore (b. July 27, 1984) and Christopher Mark Byers (b. June 23, 1984) — in May 1993 in West Memphis. Echols was sentenced to death, Baldwin and Misskelley to life without parole. They were released from prison on Aug. 19, 2011, under the terms of a rare legal maneuver called an Alford Plea, which required them to plead guilty while allowing them to maintain their innocence.see more ⇓
Misskelley was the first of the three to be tried in January 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. Misskelley was found guilty on Feb. 4, 1994. Though prosecutors had asked for the death penalty, jurors sentenced Misskelley to life in prison plus two 25-year terms.
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 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.
Baldwin and Echols were found guilty of capital murder on March 18, 1994. 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. On March 19, trial Judge David Burnett sentenced Baldwin to life in prison without parole, and sentenced Echols to die by lethal injection. 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.
The Robin Hood Hills Murders
The three victims, Stevie Branch, Michael Moore and Christopher Byers were reported missing May 5, 1993, several hours after they left Weaver Elementary School at the end of the school day. They were last seen at approximately 6:30 p.m. on May 5, riding their bikes. 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 shoelaces. 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, 1993 at his family's trailer in Marion.
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 2007, saying police has 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, went 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.
Misskelley, Baldwin and Echols were arrested June 3, 1993, and the theory that they 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.
Miskelley, Echols and Baldwin all pleaded not guilty at a pre-trial hearing on Aug. 4, 1993. 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 later figured largely into the legal maneuverings that set the men free.
Misskelley's trial was severed from Echols and Baldwin's and held in Corning beginning in late January 1994. Jury selection began on Jan. 19, 1994, and the trial began on Jan. 26. 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 in Jonesboro. On March 18, 1994, they were found guilty of three counts of capital murder. The next day, Baldwin was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole and Echols, characterized as the ringleader, was sentenced to die by lethal injection. In May 1994, the three men appealed, and their convictions were upheld.
During the trials of Misskelley, Echols and Baldwin, a documentary crew headed by filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky were allowed inside the courtroom to videotape the proceedings. The video of the courtroom proceedings would later form the core of Berlinger and Sinofsky's 1996 HBO documentary "Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills," the first of what would become a trilogy of documentaries. The films were instrumental in creating a groundswell of public support for freeing the men who would come to be called the West Memphis Three.
"Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills"
"Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills" which was filmed over 10 months, was released on June 22, 1996.
Sinofsky and Berlinger had originally become interested in the lurid details of the case, which they believed involved actual teenage Satan worshippers, but soon began to suspect Misskelley, Echols and Baldwin were innocent of the crimes as filming progressed. The documentary features footage from the trials and interviews with most of the principal players in the case. During the filming, John Mark Byers, the stepfather of victim Christopher Byers, gave a cameraman for the HBO crew a Kershaw folding knife that had blood caked in the hinge. Though Byers told the police the knife had only been used to cut deer meat, the blood was later found to be human, and the same blood type as both John Mark and Christopher Byers, leading some to develop John Mark Byers as an alternative suspect. John Mark Byers would later take and pass a polygraph test about his alleged involvement in the murders.
The film was a critical success, and the questions it raised about the fairness and validity of the prosecutions served as the spark for public support for the West Memphis Three, bringing thousands of people to the cause — including actors Margaret Cho and Johnny Depp, musicians Henry Rollins, Eddie Vedder, Natalie Maines and Patti Smith, and "Lord of the Rings" director Peter Jackson and his partner Fran Walsh, who would go on to quietly finance much of the ongoing testing and investigations related to the case. Damien Echols' future wife Lorri Davis saw the original "Paradise Lost" documentary at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City in February 1996 and began corresponding with Echols. Davis later moved to Arkansas in 1997 to be closer to him, and they married in a Buddhist ceremony on Oct. 30, 1999, at Varner Supermax Prison.
Berlinger and Sinofsky would go on to make two sequels to the film: "Paradise Lost 2: Revelations," released on June 22, 2000; and "Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory," released on Sept. 11, 2011, after Baldwin, Echols and Misskelley had been released from prison. "Paradise Lost: Purgatory" was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in Jan. 2012.
Timeline: the case grinds on as efforts to free the WM3 ramp up
Nov. 7, 1995: John Fogleman, one of the prosecutors in the trials of Echols, Misskelley and Baldwin, is elected judge for the Second Judicial Circuit, representing five counties in Northeastern and Eastern Arkansas.
Feb. 19, 1996: The Arkansas Supreme Court refuses to overturn Misskelley's conviction.
Dec. 23, 1996: The Arkansas Supreme Court refuses to overturn the convictions of Baldwin and Echols.
May 27, 1997: The U.S. Supreme Court rejects Echols' appeal without comment.
June 17, 1999: The original trial Judge, David Burnett, denies Echols' argument that his defense was ineffective during the original trial, and denies Echols' appeal for a new trial.
Oct. 8, 2002: "Rise Above: 24 Black Flag Songs to Benefit the West Memphis Three" is released by producer Henry Rollins. The album features cover versions of songs by the punk band Black Flag, as performed by a host of indie, rap and punk icons, including Rollins, Iggy Pop, Chuck D. of Public Enemy, Hank Williams III, Ice-T, Ian "Lemmy" Kilmister of the band Motorhead, and others. Money raised from the sale of the album was donated to efforts to free the WM3.
Oct. 8, 2002: Arkansas Times contributing editor Mara Leveritt publishes "Devil's Knot: The True Story of the West Memphis Three." Leveritt's exhaustively researched book becomes the definitive account of the investigation into the murders, the trials of the West Memphis Three, and the aftermath. A film version of the book, directed by Atom Egoyan and starring Oscar winners Reese Witherspoon and Colin Firth, debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 8, 2013.
Oct. 20, 2003: The Arkansas Supreme Court affirms Judge Burnett's 1999 denial of Damien Echols' appeal.
Feb. 24, 2005: The Arkansas Supreme Court denies Echols' petition for a new hearing.
June 3, 2005: Damien Echols publishes a collection of writing titled, "Almost Home: My Life Story, Vol. 1"
July 19, 2007: West Memphis police question the mother and stepfather of Stevie Branch, Terry Hobbs, who lives in Bartlett, Tenn. Hobbs said police requested the interview with him as a result of recent DNA tests on items found with the bodies. Hobbs says he is not bothered by the evidence and maintains he has no connection with the crime.
Dec. 18, 2007: Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks and other WM3 supporters present Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe with hundreds of postcards from supporters around the world asking for their pardon. The governor says he won't pardon the three or commute their sentences. Maines later posted a letter on the Dixie Chicks website in which she claimed DNA evidence — a hair found tied into a shoelace used to bind one of the three victims — linked Stevie Branch's stepfather Terry Hobbs to the murder. Hobbs sued Maines for defamation in November 2008. Hobbs lost the case in April 2010, with a federal judge ordering that Hobbs was required to pay Maines' legal fees in the case, totaling $17,590.
May 30, 2008: Little Rock attorney Lloyd Warford signs an affidavit saying that Kent Arnold, who had retained Warford as an attorney in 1994 and who served as the jury foreman during the trial of Baldwin and Echols, told Warford that he knew of Jessie Misskelley's alleged murder confession prior to the trials of Baldwin and Echols, even though the voir dire process sought to exclude members of the jury pool who had prior knowledge of the murders or subsequent investigations. According to Warford's affidavit, Arnold "seemed to have made up his mind the defendants were guilty" before being selected for the jury, and — after he was selected — asked Warford for advice on how to convince other jurors to convict, a request which Warford said he refused. "As part of Kent's continued ranting about the jury not being allowed to hear the confession," Warford writes in the affidavit, "he said several times that he could not believe how many jurors had not been aware of the Misskelley's confession until it was mentioned in court. ... I had at least a dozen conversations about the trial with Kent Arnold and not one time do I remember him ever mentioning any evidence of the defendants' guilt other than the inadmissible confession and the fact that Echols looked like he worshiped the devil."
Sept. 10, 2008: Judge Burnett denies request for a new trial for Echols and
declines to hold hearing to consider new DNA evidence.
Jan. 1, 2009: Judge Burnett officially retires as a Craighead County Circuit Judge, but the Arkansas Administrative Office of the Courts says he will be returning as a special judge for future WM3 case appeals.
Jan. 20, 2010: Judge Burnett denies Baldwin and Misskelley's request for retrials.
April 25, 2010: Actor Johnny Depp appears on the NBC news show "48 Hours Mystery" in support of the West Memphis Three, telling reporters: "I firmly believe Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley are totally innocent. There was a need for swift justice to placate the community."
May 18, 2010: Former WM3 prosecutor and sitting 2nd Circuit Judge John Fogleman fails in his bid for a seat on the Arkansas Supreme Court, losing to Appeals Court Judge Courtney Henry.
Aug. 28, 2010: WM3 supporters stage a concert and rally at Little Rock's Robinson Center Music Hall to raise awareness about the case. Pearl Jam's Vedder, Maines of the Dixie Chicks, Patti Smith, Ben Harper and Johnny Depp performed.
Sept. 30, 2010: The state Supreme Court hears oral arguments to determine whether there should be an evidentiary hearing for a new trial. At issue is each side's interpretation of the state's DNA statute and the "intent" behind the law that grants access to DNA testing, and possibly relief, for those wrongly convicted of crimes.
Oct. 7, 2010: Former state Sen. Kevin Smith, D-Helena, who wrote the state's DNA statute, says the intent of the law is clear: to allow a new trial or venue for post-conviction relief in cases just like this one.
Nov. 4, 2010: The state Supreme Court unanimously orders a new circuit court evidentiary hearing for Baldwin, Echols and Misskelley. The court says the circuit judge must consider not only the DNA evidence presented by the defense, but any other exculpatory evidence, including evidence not presented in the original trials.
Nov. 2, 2010: David Burnett is elected to the state Senate, a position that doesn't allow him to continue as a special judge during appeals in the WM3 case. Judge David Laser replaces Burnett as the judge in the case in December 2010.
The Alford Plea and release
On Aug. 3, 2011, Little Rock attorney Patrick Benca, who was working for the WM3 defense team, met with his friend and former law school classmate Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel for lunch at the Little Rock Club. During that lunch, according to reporting by Mara Leveritt, Benca asked McDaniel whether the state would agree to new trials prior to Laser's ruling on the issue.
McDaniel later arranged an Aug. 9 meeting with Craighead Country prosecutor Scott Ellington and members of the defense teams representing the WM3. At that meeting, after defense attorneys lined out the weakness of the state's case — the absence of definitive DNA or other physical evidence, DNA hits that might point to other suspects, witnesses who had changed or recanted their testimony since the original trial — they proposed an Alford Plea, a rare legal maneuver that would require the Echols, Misskelley and Baldwin to plead guilty while maintaining their innocence, but would release the three men from prison immediately.
Though Echols and Misskelley almost immediately approved the idea, Jason Baldwin turned down the Alford Plea when first presented with the idea by his attorney Blake Hendrix on Aug. 10, with Baldwin saying he wouldn't admit to crimes he didn't commit. Attorneys had previously been told the deal was a "global proposition," meaning all three had to accept it or none would be allowed to. After Hendrix inquired with prosecutors whether the state would allow Echols and Misskelley to take the Alford Plea and leave Baldwin to continue his appeals, he was told no. After several of Baldwin's friends visited him in prison and encouraged him to accept the deal, he agreed to go along with it on Aug. 16.
The deal required Echols and Baldwin to plead guilty to three counts of first-degree murder, with Misskelley pleading guilty to two counts of second-degree murder and one count of first degree murder. It included a 10-year suspended imposition of sentence, meaning that if any of them commit a felony crime in the 10 years after release, his whole sentence on the charges would have to be served. They also agreed not to sue the state for civil damages.
On Aug. 17, Judge Laser's court announced a surprise hearing in the case, set for Friday, Aug. 19, in Jonesboro. On Aug. 19, just after noon, Baldwin, Echols and Misskelley — with entertainer supporters including Vedder and Maines looking on — took the Alford Plea in Laser's court, and were officially free men.
After a short press conference with the defense team, Misskelley left the courthouse with his family. Echols and Baldwin went together with supporters to Marked Tree, where they obtained state-issued identification cards at the State Revenue office. From there, they went to on Memphis, where they were the guests of honor at a rooftop party at The Madison Hotel before leaving the state the next day.
Where are they now?
As of May 3, 2013, when his father was interviewed by Little Rock TV station KTHV, Jessie Misskelley was living in Earle, Ark., near his family, and had been working construction until being laid off. At the time of the interview, he was living off donations from West Memphis Three supporters. Though he has attended some events with Baldwin and Echols related to "Paradise Lost: Purgatory," Misskelley generally refuses to talk to reporters. Asked why, Jessie's father Jessie Misskelley Sr. told KTHV in 2013: "Because y'all are the ones that sent him to the pen."
Jason Baldwin lives in Seattle, Wash., where he moved immediately following his release from prison. Since his release, he has received an associates' degree, launched a website called proclaimjustice.org that seeks to bring attention to the wrongfully accused, and served as a producer on the film version of Mara Leveritt's book, "Devil's Knot." On Nov. 25, 2013, he announced on his Facebook page that he is engaged to long-time girlfriend Holly Ballard, who he met after the two began exchanging letters while he was in prison. The same day, he officially launched a Kickstarter.com fundraiser seeking to raise $25,000 to give him a year of free time to complete a memoir. The project raised $29,453 in one month. He hopes to have the memoir completed and ready for a publisher by December 2014.
Damien Echols moved to New York City immediately after his release from prison, but now lives in Salem, Mass., with his wife, Lorri Davis. Echols and Davis bought a house in Salem, and own a business there called The Hermetic Reiki Center, which offers New Age classes and alternative medicine treatments. On Sept. 18, 2012, Echols published "Life After Death," a memoir of his time in prison, and toured both nationally and internationally with the book. Echols and Davis served as producers on the documentary "West of Memphis," an account of the WM3 case directed by Amy Berg and financed by the film director Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, who began contributing to the WM3 defense fund after seeing "Paradise Lost" in New Zealand in 2005. "West of Memphis" debuted on Jan. 21, 2012, at the Sundance Film Festival. "Yours for Eternity: A Love Story on Death Row," memoir by Echols and Daivs about falling in love while Echols was on death row, will be released June 2014 by Blue Rider Press.
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