It was August 19, 2011. Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley Jr. had been imprisoned for eighteen years and seventy-eight days. They were just three poor boys from West Memphis, Arkansas when they were convicted of the murder of three eight year olds from Robin Hood Hills, Arkansas - that was in 1993. Damien was 18, Jessie was 17, and Jason was 16. It August 19, 2011, and, as grown men, the West Memphis Three were set free.
On May 5, 1993 Stevie Branch, Michael Moore, and Christopher Byers were reported missing by Mark Byers, Christopher's adoptive father. Allegedly, the boys were last seen playing together at 6:30pm, Terry Hobbs, Stevie Branch's stepfather, was seen calling them to come home. Ignoring Terry Hobbs' calls, the boys ran off into the woods. That night, they never made it home. A search party was launched, but the boys weren't discovered - the search party was called off until the morning. It wasn't until the next day at 1:45 pm that a little black shoe was seen floating in the river. The river was immediately dredged, and there, along its empty bank lay the three eight-year old boys - naked, bound ankle-to-wrist, and mutilated. Byers' penis was missing.
Jessie Miskelley Jr. was immediately targeted for the murders. He was poor. He had a record. Damien Echols was also an immediate suspect, along with his best friend Jason Baldwin. They were different. They were strange. They didn't play sports. They read books and listened to heavy metal. They were curious about the world. They weren't well liked in West Memphis, Arkansas. They were targets.
"I don't like people keep on asking me questions when I done told them once," Jessie Misskelley Jr. would later say. "That's what they did, they just egged it on. And finally I just told the cops, look, you know, all right, I did it. I killed them and everything." The cops showed up to Jessie's trailer home and took him in for interrogation…twelve hours of excruciating interrogation. The questions were rapid and intense, Jessie, who has an IQ in the low seventies, was led like a lamb to slaughter into confession. The officers had played dirty. They had bullied the boy into a confession and he implicated Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin. This was the beginning of their story - the story concocted by the authorities and The confession was coerced and shouldn't have been used in the case - it was.
Damien and Jason were sitting on the couch watching TV when the cops arrived. Scared, they went into the bedroom and turned out the lights, hoping they'd just leave. They did leave, eventually - they left with Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin in handcuffs, charged with the murder of three young boys.
The crime scene was immediately trampled and mismanaged. The homes of the three murdered boys were never searched, the parents were never questioned, no trace of blood found in the dirt near the crime scene. How could that be?
Damien Echols, the oldest of the West Memphis Three, was tall, confident, and smart - his jet black hair long and slick. He had been a troubled kid who dropped out of high school when he was 18. The community of West Memphis, Arkansas considered Damien a weirdo, an occultist, an outcast. Then, when he was arrested for these murders, they said he was a Satanist and that the killings were part of a Devil-worshipping ritual. When asked by an interrogating officer to verify his statements regarding membership to a Wiccan cult, Damien replied immediately with his eyes - Are you serious? You think I'm in a religious cult? This is bullshit - he then verbalized his glare, "No, I never said that. I've never been a member of any group."
The prosecutor, with his Southern drawl and condescending tone pushed further. "So you're telling me that Officer Ridge is a liar?"
"Yes, I am."
"And that he made this up…this right here, what it says in his report?"
"Yes, I am."
The prosecutor continued. "Did you also tell him that each person had a demonic side to them?"
"I believe every person has a good side and a bad side, yes."
"…and it states here that you said the person who committed the crime could not control that demonic side…"
Damien jumps to correct the prosecutor.
"He asked me if I thought there were people who could not control the bad side…I said yes, I guess there is."
"Mhm, did you pick that up when you were studying to be a Catholic?" With that, the room had been divided and conquered. In a room full of Catholics someone has to be guilty...
The prosecutor continued further…doing an expert job at pinning an 18 year old boy against a God fearing police officer. To watch old tapes of the trial is to truly understand the tone and demeanor of the prosecutor. The man continually twists and squeezes Damien's words into something they are not. It's like watching an adult argue with a child over right and wrong…the child, pure and innocent, almost always knows more, but the adult, hardened and corrupted by life's woes, laughs off the child's thoughts as fallacies and absurdities.
The prosecutor: "On question number nine, how do you think the person feels that did this?…the answer you gave was, 'Probably makes them feel good, it gives them power…and I suppose Officer Ridge said that too?" he said with a smirk a la George W. Bush.
No one trusts a teenager with knowledge beyond his years. Damien's response: "No, I used common sense on that. If someone was doing it then they must have wanted to…and if they were doing something they wanted to then it must have made them feel happy. I don't think they were doing it because someone forced them to."
During Damien's response the prosecutor can be heard facetiously uttering "mmkay" over and over again. Then, speaking very slowly so as to personify the stupidity of Damien's response, he rattles on childishly: "So…in your mind…it's common sense…that…[starts to walk around]…killing three eight year olds would make someone feel good?"
"Whoever did it, it must have." Damien, at this point, understands what's going on…he understands he cannot win. He understands that this is a witch hunt, and they've already planted the broomstick and confiscated his book of spells.
The prosecutor goes on to sculpt Damien's answers into a manifesto, and morph Damien in a Satanic murderer.
Jason Baldwin was Damien's best friend. If Damien was guilty so was Jason, the scrawny, gap-toothed boy with messy hair. Damien and Jason were fans of Metallica and read Stephen King books. They sometimes work black Metalica shirts. The prosecution brought in reknowned crackpot Dr. Dale W. Griffis, an expert on the Occult. What he had to say was truly enlightening.
"I have observed people wearing black fingernails, having their hair painted black, wearing black t-shirts. Sometimes they will tattoo themselves." Gripping stuff, Doctor…very gripping stuff.
The prosecution then asks him about the Occult overtones of the crime…let's hear what the Doctor has to say.
"Well, the date…May 1st being close to Beltane…then you go into the fact that some groups, uhh, occult groups will use a full moon…in several occult books they will talk about the life force of the blood. Usually the younger the individual the more pure it is, the more power it has. A lot of times they will consume it…or bathe in in it."
A blatant play at Damien Echols' troubled past. Damien was arrested for burglary when he and his girlfriend entered an abandoned trailer during a rain storm. Damien's parents weren't around much so the boy rarely went to school. His continual absence caused his classmates to ostracize him, even starting rumors that he and his girlfriend were planning to have a baby and sacrifice it. As a result of these rumors, Damien was institutionalized and diagnosed with depression. Allegedly, he had claimed he had consumed the blood of one of his peers and felt that it gave him power. Damien denied the claims. However, a book with a pentagram on the front of it, the book called Book of Shadows was found in his room and brought to court as evidence. On the inside Damien had drawn upside crosses, which are the sign of black magic. Yes, an upside cross has been linked to black magic, but it's also been linked to renouncement organized religion, Sinister Surfing CLub and my ass. I'm not a witch or a Satanist or a murderer. Echols, a devout Catholic, stated over and over that he was simply interested in Wicca and black magic - nothing more. Wicca, upon closer examination, is rooted in a spiritual connection with the earth - it has been contaminated by rumors started by those who don't understand it. "It's evil," they say. "It's black magic," they scream. "Burn the witch," they condemn.
Jason Baldwin's defense attorney, Paul Ford, does a marvelous job exposing the holes in the Doctor's (Dr. Dale W. Griffis) credibility and education.
Ford starts off, "That's a mail order college, isn't it?" He shows the brochure to the jury. The doctor remains silent. "How were you accepted into enrollment at Columbia Pacific University?"
"I had to fill out several pieces of paper chronicling my past education."
"Did you ever fill out a little flier like this that says Call toll free for information on how to become a doctor ?"
"What classes did you take between 1980 and 1982 to obtain your degree?"
The Doctor, truly revealing his ignorance bobbles the question with wild unease. "Uh, I…I testified…I uhh."
"What classes…I'm asking what classes did you take?"
"I answered that before…none."
And between 1982 and 1984 when you became a PHD what classes did you take?"
"None." The Doctor, by this point has lost the heavenly gleam that seemed to be shining so selectively down atop his giant square head.
On both sides of this case, there are injustices...they are all victims. It wrenches my heart to see old footage of the parents of these three boys on trial. John Hutchinson, Damien's father, on the verge of tears declares painfully that he cannot understand why this community holds such hatred towards his son. He cannot understand why they don't accept him, why they treat him with such disdain. As any parent, and a parent I am not, but to know…they don't like my son…they don't like him…that's a hard pill to swallow. It breaks my heart. He goes on to say, "Who cares if he wears black…I wear black. Johnny Cash wears black. So what?"
"People probably think I'm a Satanist because usually what people don't understand they try to destroy or ridicule," Damien says, his eyes focused on the floor. He looks beaten. He looks defeated. "West Memphis is pretty much like the second Salem…every crime no matter what it is, is blamed on Satan."
"A bad hairdo, a black wardrobe, teenage angst-ridden 'poetry' … is enough to send you to prison. Death Row, no less,'' Echols writes.
Damien Wayne Echols, he was not born with that name. He gave it to himself. He was devoutly involved in the Catholic church and learned about a man named Father Damien, who sought to help lepers on the Hawaiian islands until he caught the disease himself and died. He died helping people, and that's whom Damien Wayne Echols chose to name himself after. He legally changed it to Damien when he turned eighteen.
He has admitted to having studied Wicca, a religion wildly misunderstand. Wicca is centered around a goddess of a higher power, it focuses on a deep connection with the earth. During the trial he reads from one of his notebooks…a quote from Shakespeare's A Midsummer's Night Dream, followed by a quote from the Metallica tape Injustice for All. Echols never had the same interests as the other kids in school, he was a vivacious reader and naturally curious in religion - every religion.
A knife was found behind Jason Baldwin's home six months after the boys were arrested. The prosecution claimed this was the weapon used in the murder. They tested the weapon for DNA, but found no link to any of the three boys. The crime scene, tirelessly scoured for DNA never produced a single link to any of the three boys accused. The bodies of the three victims were tested for DNA - not a single link to Echols, Baldwin or Misskelley Jr..
Damien Echols was convicted and sentenced to death. Jason Baldwin was sentenced to life in Prison. Jessie Misskelley Jr. was sentenced to life and two twenty-year sentences.
In late 1993, a knife was given to Douglas Cooper, a cameraman for HBO by Mark Byers, the adoptive father of Christoper Byers. Cooper told Byers repeatedly he didn't want the gift, but Byers insisted. "It's sharp…real sharp…just between us." Upon his return to New York, Cooper found what appeared to be a spot of blood. He gave the knife to the authorities. The blood was tested and proved to be the same blood type as Mark Byers and his son Christopher Byers. However, a second test was unable to be performed because of the size of sample. Pathologist, Dr. Frank J. Peretti examined the knife and found comparisons between the blade and the wounds found on Christopher Byers. Before the discovery of the blood spot and Dr. Peretti's examination, Mark Byers had said that no one had cut themselves on the knife. At 5:30 pm, an hour before the three boys disappeared, Byers confessed that he had spanked his son with his belt buckle. The marks were found on his dead son's body on the afternoon of May 6, 1993. On the stand, he denied any involvement in the murders.
Mr. Bojangles…Mr. Bojangles….Mr. Bojangles. At the local restaurant, Mr. Bojangles, on the night of the boys' disappearance, a man entered the restroom, his forearm was bleeding and he appeared disoriented and aloof as if he were on drugs. The man smeared his blood against the bathroom wall, then left. The police were called but the arriving officer didn't even get out of her patrol car, she simply drove through the drive-thru. A connection between the two incidents was not made. The man with the bloody forearm was dubbed "Mr. Bojangles". Mr. Bojangles was never found or questioned. In the days following the murders, the police returned to Mr. Bojangles and collected samples to test. However, before the trials of Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley, the samples and the DNA results disappeared. No one was ever held accountable for the disappearance.
In 2007, the West Memphis Three had been incarcerated for 14 years, new evidence was discovered. The hair of Terry Hobbs, Stevie Branch's stepfather, was found in the rope used to tie each of the three young boys. His hair was found in rope used on each one of the boys. Hobbs' DNA was the only DNA ever found at the crime scene. The courts were unwilling to reopen the case until 2011, despite no DNA evidence ever linking Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, or Jessie Misskelley Jr. to the scene of the crime. Terry Hobbs' hair and the blood on Mark Byer's knife. Mr. Bojangles. A mismanaged crime scene. Lost evidence.
The people of West Memphis was unwilling to admit they had made a mistake…they were unwilling to exonerate the boys of murder…they were unwilling…but they knew they were wrong…these were their witches, but they could no longer keep them. Terry Hobbs was never investigated for the murder of the three boys…Nor Mark Byers. In cases like these, the parents are the first ones investigated. Not in this case.
Alford's Pleas were entered and the boys, although still convicted, were set free.
It was August 19, 2011 when Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley Jr. walked out of prison as free men. They had changed. They were men. They were free. It had been eighteen years since they had been wrongly imprisoned. Thirty-six, thirty-five, thirty-four.
It's difficult to say what really happened. I don't think any