As evening fell on West Memphis, Arkansas on May 5, 1993, James Michael Moore, Steven Branch, and Christopher Byers headed off, two on their bicycles. They were each 8 years old; no one would see them alive again, save for the person or persons who killed them. As usually occurs when children fall victim to crime, the community demanded justice.
The horrendous murders of three young boys have been overshadowed by the fate of those convicted, the West Memphis Three. Many people believe that these young men are innocent, and that the actual killer or killers remain at large.
The three boys returned home after school. Christopher Byers did not have a key to his house, and was expected to wait until he could be let in. His stepfather, John Mark Byers, was driving his other son, Ryan, to a courthouse appointment. En route, he saw Christoper skateboarding. He took him home where he spanked the boy with a belt for leaving the house. John and Melissa Byers claim they left the boy at home around 5:30.
Michael Moore's mother, Diana Moore, testified that her son, Christopher Byers, and Steven Branch cycled away together around 6:00.
By that time, Terry Hobbs had grown concerned about the whereabouts of his son. After driving his wife to work for the evening, he claims he spent the next several hours looking for them. He also stopped at the house of an acquaintance. He claims the acquaintance came with him to help search; the acquaintance denies this is the case.
At 6:30, John Mark Byers informed police that his son had disappeared. The police felt that too little time had passed for this to be a concern. At their advice, the local jeweler and one-time police informant waited until 8:00, and then phoned the police to inform them that the boy remained missing. The police soon became aware that three boys had never returned home, and they organized search parties. These stopped when the night grew too dark.
The official search resumed in the morning. At 1:45 in the afternoon, police found the boys' bodies in a drainage ditch in a wooded area known as Robin Hood Hills, not far from a highway truck wash. All had been stripped naked. Their clothing and bicycles were found nearby; two pairs of underwear were missing.
Steven Branch had sustained multiple injuries to his body and had been left in the drainage ditch to drown. James Michael Moore had similar wounds, but he lacked defensive injuries, and was therefore likely unconscious early on. He had been hogtied with shoelaces.
Christopher Byers also had been hogtied with shoelaces, and had many fresh injuries all over his body, more severe than those found on the other. The wounds on his buttocks were most serious, and he had multiple defensive wounds. His skull had been fractured. He had been castrated, and the skin of his penis had been removed. The autopsy would later discover dangerously high levels of the prescription drug carbamazepine in his blood.
Christopher had several older, healed injuries, suggesting he had experienced past abuse. He also had older lacerations on his penis, probably self-inflicted. According to Brent Turvey, a professional criminal profiler who examined this case much later, such injuries in a child often indicate a history of sexual abuse. In fact, his mother, Melissa Byers, previously had discussed with a guidance counselor her concern that her son was being sexually abused, though we have no more information on this matter.
The initial report suggested that the boys were raped, a notion that was repeated consistently by rumor and throughout the investigation. In fact, the autopsy would show no evidence of recent sexual assault.
Dr. Peretti, who examined the bodies, estimated that they died between 1:00 am and 7:00 am that morning. Other doctors have supported this estimate, though Peretti failed to take the bodies' temperatures and time of death cannot be determined absolutely.
A footprint made by someone in a tennis shoe was found at the site. Hair samples were found on the clothing; years later, DNA testing would match one of these, found in the shoelace ligature, to Terry Hobbs, stepfather to Stevie Branch. Investigators also found clothing fibers which would later play a key role in the trial. They were linked with clothing owned by those charged; defense would show that the fibers also matched many items purchased at a local department store.
Despite significant blood loss from the bodies, no blood was found beyond traces where they were found. Although this was spring along a riverbank, mosquito bites were notably absent. Furthermore, search parties had moved through the woods nearby on the evening before. It seems most likely the boys were killed elsewhere and brought to this location.
The day after the grisly discovery, James Sudbury of the West Memphis police discussed the case with Steve Jones, a Juvenile Officer for Crittenden County, Arkansas. Both believed in widespread Satanic ritual abuse; both believed that this crime was occult-related. Indeed, even buckle marks left by Byers' "spanking" of his stepson were initially viewed as the results of a Satanic ritual. Jones named 18-year-old Damien Echols as a possible suspect. Police interviewed Damien on May 7, 1993; they learned nothing of interest. However, they noted that when asked if one of the boys had been more severely beaten than the others, he said that he had heard this was so. In fact, many such details had wide circulation by that point.
Damien Echols' family had moved frequently; he had lived in West Memphis since the age of 13. He had explored many different religions; at the time of the murders, he was investigating Wicca. He also cultivated a "Goth" look, wearing black clothing and a dark trenchcoat. He had a history of depression and suicide attempts, and had come up against the law-- and Steve Jones-- a year before the murders, after he and a girlfriend broke into an abandoned house. Other public comments on his past behavior come as much from local hearsay as actual records. Many claims made about Damien-- that he once bludgeoned an ill dog to death, or that he threatened various people-- remain alarming, but of uncertain veracity, and most were never entered as evidence in court1. Jerry Driver, who worked with Steve Jones, had frequently expressed the belief that Damien was involved in various local crimes. Past deeds he attributed to Echols include a theft on a train which passed through West Memphis even though that train had not stopped locally, and serious crimes in adjacent counties, despite the fact that Echols had neither a license nor easy access to a car.
At the time of the murders, Damien was dividing his time between the home of his mother and stepfather, and the home of his pregnant girlfriend, Domini Teer. Their small circle of friends included Jason Baldwin, then 17; they had a passing acquaintance with Jessie Miskelley, a borderline mentally retarded teenager who lived in the area.
In response to the offer of a reward, a local woman, Vicki Hutcheson and her young son, Aaron claimed the boy had witnessed the murders. He would at first claim the crimes were committed by men speaking Spanish, and later implicated John Mark Byers. Later still, he accused Damien Echols, despite his initial inability to identify this suspect. His rather scattered and often fantastic (at one point, he claimed that two of the victims tried to save the third by rushing their captors with guns they found) testimony would not be used. Among other problems, he and his mother had been placed by police at the scene of a minor altercation the night of the murders. Vicki Hutcheson said she attended a cult meeting with Echols. She could not, however, identify the others present or the location, and she claimed that Damien drove, despite his lack of experience with cars. She would later testify in court to Damien's occult involvements, though she has since said that she fabricated this testimony entirely.
Like many people in the town she had extensive second-hand exposure to ideas about Satanism; the Satanic Panic of the 1980s and early 1990s was alive and well in West Memphis, and the belief that vast, evil cults were routinely abusing and murdering children in America was widely accepted by many residents. And to most residents of the town, and the local police, the horrific crime was clearly the work of Satan.
The belief that Satanists were responsible, and that Damien Echols was a prominent figure in the local demonic hierarchy was so well-established with the police that few other leads were followed. Despite the suspicious behavior of Mark John Byers (who at the time was being treated for a brain tumor, and who had been taking carbamazepine), the police never regarded him as a serious suspect. Terry Hobbs, who would much later emerge as a possible suspect, also failed to get much police attention at the time. And an odd incident at a local restaurant, on the night of the boys' disappearance, was both minimized and mishandled.
At 8:42 pm on May 5, Marty King, manager of the Bojangles restaurant, located near Robin Hood Hills, called the police to report that an unidentified Black man with muddy feet and bloody hands had gone into the women's washroom and remained there for about an hour. Officer Regan Meek responded to the call, but did not enter the restaurant. The next day, police took blood samples, which were later lost. They did not pursue further what seems to be an obvious lead. Whatever the significance of "Bojangles" may be, the incident does not inspire confidence in the local police.
On June 3, Jessie Miskelley was brought in for questioning. Though his parents knew he had been taken in for questioning, he had no waiver of his Miranda rights, signed by a parent, which normally would be considered a requirement for an official interrogation of a minor. No lawyer was present. He was interviewed for hours— reports claim anywhere from two to ten hours. During this time, the police took no notes or records of any kind. After this interrogation— which many legal experts regard as invalid— he delivered an elaborate confession. Miskelley claimed involvement in a cult which practiced orgies and animal sacrifice. He claimed that Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin had committed the crimes, and that he had been an accessory.
His confession is unusual, to say the least. He initially claims that the children were abducted at 9:00 am; when investigators indicated that they would be in school, he said that they had skipped that day. He later changed the time to noon. This is again impossible, as the children were definitely in class during the day. Finally, he moved the time to 5:00 pm and then, at the suggestion of his interrogators, into the evening. He gave differing accounts regarding how the boys came to be in the woods. He claimed that the boys were bound with rope, rather than shoelaces. He said that the boys had been anally raped; this claim featured prominently in popular rumors, but was not supported by evidence. He claimed that Christopher Byers had been strangled; again, this is incorrect. He also had the ritual killings taking place at the site where the bodies were found; this is, as we have seen, improbable.
Miskelley later retracted the confession.2
Richard Ofshe, a sociology professor at the University of California, Berkeley and an expert in coerced and false confessions, and Warren Holmes, an expert in interrogation both testified that Miskelley's confession seemed obviously fake. Miskelley changed details in response to leading questions. He did not discuss his feelings or motivations. He could not provide a broader context of conversations held or circumstances surrounding the killings. The trial judge permitted only some of their testimony in court.
Several people claim that Jesse was involved with the wrestling team that night. Some of these people testified, but their words were apparently discounted by the jury.
Based on the Miskelley confession, police arrested Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin. The confession would also lead to Miskelley's own conviction. Despite being offered a significant reduction of his sentence (life plus forty years), Miskelley would refuse to testify at Baldwin and Echols' trial.
In preparation for possibly testifying, however, Miskelley gave a second confession (some claim third, as prosecutors allege he confessed shortly after his conviction). This resembles the first. The crimes (including mutilation of the bodies) take place where the bodies were discovered, and anal rape occurs. However, details about the time and how the boys were tied have been corrected. He has also retracted this confession as well.
Other witnesses provided evidence against Echols and Baldwin.
Members of a local family claimed to have seen either Damien and Domini or Damien and Jason on the road near the crime scene around 9:00 or 9:30. A third family member, also present, said it had in fact been too dark to positively identify the people they had seen. Of the seven people riding in the car with this group, only four claimed to have seen anyone at all. Their testimony was used to place the accused at the scene of the crime. The Echols and Baldwin families claim that the boys were at their respective homes at the time in question.
Two young girls testified that they heard Damien admit to the killing. One could not say to whom Damien was speaking; the other had him with Jason Baldwin. Neither could remember what he said before or after this startling public omission. Neither could say how they both heard these statements, given that neither claimed to be standing close by. A lawyer for the defense asked if Damien had yelled this confession; they said he had not. One girl gave the occasion as a softball game; no one else in attendance heard anything of this nature.
Michael Carson, a criminal housed at the same facility as Jason Baldwin, testified that at their second meeting, Baldwin had confessed to the crimes. Danny Williams, who had worked with Carson, had warned both the defense and prosecution that Carson had a history of making false claims. Furthermore, Williams claims that he had told Carson about the West Memphis Case and that, to his knowledge, Carson and Baldwin had never met. Judge Burnett, who presided over the Baldwin/Echols trial, allowed Carson to testify, but barred Williams' testimony about Carson. Carson has since recanted his testimony, and claimed he was inspired in part by his use of LSD and solvents.
Damien Echols' interests in Wicca, heavy metal, and horror novels were admitted as evidence of involvement with a Satanic cult. The prosecution also presented a Book of Shadows belonging to Damien Echols as proof of his sinister nature. This book principally involved Damien's writings, and was more of an odd teen journal than a grimoire. It made no mention of murders.
Police divers found a knife in the lake behind the Baldwin house. While it could have been used to inflict some of the injuries found on the children, no evidence directly linked the accused to the knife, or the knife to the crime.
On this evidence, Jason Baldwin was sentenced to life in prison, and Damien Echols to die by lethal injection
The case might have remained unnoticed save that HBO had commissioned a documentary very soon after the killings. Filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky had unprecedented access to police, witnesses, the accused, the victims' families, and others in the community. The results, presented in Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills caused a sensation and made the "West Memphis Three" a cause célèbre.
The team filmmakers became directly involved with the trial itself after John Mark Byers gave them a small knife which appeared to have blood on it. The blood was tested, and could have been either Byers' or his stepson's. It also had characteristics which suggest it could have been used to inflict some of the injuries found on the children. The knife was entered as evidence by the defense.
Criminal profiler Brent Turvey took an interest in the case and agreed to work pro bono after the convictions. He claims that certain marks found on Steven Branch's face and Chris Byer's thighs were bite marks, rather than knife marks. Dental impressions given by all three convicted do not match those identified by Turvey. An orthodontic expert provided by the prosecution disputed that these were bite marks, and an appeal based on this evidence was denied. Since the murders Byers, interestingly, has had all of his teeth removed by an oral surgeon-- though in Paradise Lost 2: Revelations, the sequel to the first documentary, he gives wildly conflicting stories about why he no longer has his teeth.
Later still, multiple forensic experts would independently identify the bites as being made, not by humans, but by snapping turtles and other types of turtles, which were plentiful in the water where the bodies were found. All experts consulted agree that the majority of the injuries occurred postmortem.
Since the trial, John Mark Byers and another stepfather, Terry Hobbs, have become troubling figures to those interested in the case.
Byers has been fined, required to pay restitution, and asked to leave several Arkansas counties in an agreement reached over various infractions of the law. These include a burglary, and an incident in which he forced a group of youths, at gunpoint, to fight. Melissa Byers also has faced charges in connection with the burglary, threatening carpet-layers at gunpoint, and for uttering death threats against a neighboring family.
In 1996, Melissa Byers died. Traces of various drugs were found in her blood and urine, but the coroner who investigated the death claims that these are not the cause of death. Her death remains unexplained. These and other incidents focused suspicion on Byers. In an unusual twist, in 2007, Byers announced that he has come to believe that those convicted are, in fact, innocent.
Pamela Hobbs, too, the mother of victim Stevie Branch, has also expressed her belief that the accused did not receive a fair trial. She has since divorced her husband, and publicly claimed he abused her and her children. These claims have been corroborated by other family members. Hobbs has also given conflicting accounts about his activities and whereabouts on the night of the murders-- stories which were not considered by police at the time of the investigation.
In addition to claims of abuse by both his ex-wives and his former stepdaughter, one of his nephews alleges that his role in the killing is the Hobbs' "family secret" (West of Memphis). This information comes, allegedly, from Terry's brother, who has not spoken publicly, and it therefore remains hearsay.
Equally problematic are claims made by neighbors that they saw Hobbs with the three boys early that evening. This may be true, but they said nothing for years, and the reliability of such recollected testimony, more than a decade after the fact, remains open to question.
"Bojangles" has never been identified.
In addition to the documentaries and the charity benefit CD, Peter Straub, Clive Barker, and others have contributed material to Last Petancle of the Sun: Writings in Support of the West Memphis Three (Vancouver: Arsenal, 2004). Factual books about the case also have appeared, most notably Mara Leveritt's Devil’s Knot. Echols himself wrote Almost Home: My Life Story, which was published in 2005. Several petitions exist asking that the case be reopened; supporters have established funds to help pay for appeals and other legal bills. Web sites supporting the verdict and condemning it exist. A feature film had been in production, but was abandoned in 2005. In 2006, Pearl Jam recorded the song "Army Reserve," co-written by Echols.
In November of 2010, the three received the right to a new hearing before the Arkansas Supreme Court. The court rebuked Burnett for refusing their earlier appeal without first considering new DNA evidence. None of the DNA evidence matches the three who were convicted. The hair sample found in the ligatures matches Terry Hobbs, while another, found in the area, matches the friend he visited that night. In addition, Hobbs has in his possession the small jackknife that his stepson took everywhere, and which Pam Hobbs claims he was carrying the day he disappeared. Based on the new evidence, a new trial was ordered.
On August 19, 2011, the West Memphis Three went free. They accepted a problematic deal whereby they maintain their innocence, but state that the prosecution had enough evidence for a conviction. This may prevent suits for wrongful conviction. However, they are free and no further charges are pending.
Jason Baldwin did not want to accept the deal; few legal experts doubt that the three men would be exonerated at the retrial. However, Damien has spent the last ten years of his sentence in isolation on death row, and none of the West Memphis Three trust the judicial system. In the end they accepted this in exchange for their freedom, and they all intend to pursue full exoneration.
The deal has little to do, unfortunately, with justice, and everything to do with the judicial system and its officials saving face and avoiding costly lawsuits.
In 2012, a new documentary appeared, West of Memphis, produced by Peter Jackson. This film reviews the story and makes the case for Terry Hobbs as the killer. However, with the "West Memphis Three" free and unable to sue, and the state still officially holding that the three are the killers, a new trial seems unlikely.
A feature film is also in production.
It seems certain that the actual killer or killers walk freely-- and we wonder how many such cases have occurred when documentary filmmakers were not interested.
1. An earlier psychiatric evaluation of Damien Echols was entered after the conviction, to be considered when sentencing was determined. It shows that, at the time of that evaluation, he was suicidal and filled with rage. The record of past evaluations mixes troubling fact with conjecture and unsupported allegations. Most sensationally, Jerry Driver claims at one point that Echols wanted to sacrifice a child to the devil, but he bases this on a sketch Damien did of tombstones and on local rumors. Supporters of the prosecution's case speak of this evaluation-- "Exhibit 500"-- as a smoking gun, but it shows a psychologically troubled adolescent of a sort found in many high schools. We get some insight into why people may have found Echols suspicious, but nothing in the assessment links him to the West Memphis murders.
2. A thorough reading of the interrogation shows far more clearly than any of the coverage how frequently Miskelley was prompted by police to respond in specific ways. If anyone wishes to examine the case further, I recommend they start by reading the records that exist of the police interrogation. Not only does it look spectacularly like a coerced confession, it fails the tests applied by police when they screen for the attention-seeking false confessions often offered on high-profile cases. Most notably, it contains many statements that do not match the actual, testable details of the crime.
Amy. J. Berg. West of Memphis. Sony Picture Classics, 2012.
Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky. Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills. Gotham Entertainment, 1996.
Paradise Lost 2: Revelations. Gotham Entertainment, 2001..
Stephanie Booher. "Free the West Memphis Three." The Free Press. http://www.freepress.org/journal.php?strFunc=display&strID=105&strJournal=15
Callahan Archives. http://callahan.8k.com/index.html
Stephanie Chen. "Victims' parents remain divided over West Memphis 3 case." CNN. December 28, 2009.
Mara Leveritt. "The strange demise of Melissa Byers." Arkansas Times December 26, 1997. http://www.www.arktimes.com/12-26-97_news.htm
Ricard Ofshe. "Jessie Miskelley’s Trial: Transcript of Richard Ofshe’s Testimony." http://www.wm3.org/html/ofshe/ofshe.html
B.A. Robinson. "The Robin Hood Hills Murderer(s)." Religous Tolerance.org. http://www.religioustolerance.org/ra_robin.htm
Fiona Steele. "The West Memphis Three." Court TV's Crime Library. http://www.crimelibrary.com/classics/westmemphis/
"The West Memphis Three." Witchcraze: Then and Now. http://members.aol.com/ddraig93/memphis.html
West Memphis Three. http://www.wm3.org/