Published On: Tue, Aug 23rd, 2011

Justice Is Served?

The West Memphis Three were tried and convicted in 1994 of the 1993 murders of three boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. Damien Echols was sentenced to death, Jessie Misskelley, Jr. was sentenced to life imprisonment plus two 20-year sentences, and Jason Baldwin was sentenced to life imprisonment. During the trial, the prosecution asserted that the children were killed as part of a satanic ritual. A number of documentaries have been based on the case, including being the subject of Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky‘s documentary Paradise Lost in 1996. That film told of how the three young men had been tried and convicted for the murders of three 8-year old boys in 1993, despite a lack of any physical evidence.

Three eight-year-old boys — Stevie Branch, Michael Moore, and Christopher Byers — were reported missing on May 5, 1993. The first report to the police was made by Byers’ adoptive father, John Mark Byers, around 7:00 p.m. The boys were last seen together by a neighbor, who reported having been called by Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of Stevie Branch, around 6:00 p.m. Hobbs later denied seeing the boys at all on May 5. Initial police searches made that night were limited. Friends and neighbors also conducted a search that night, which included a cursory visit to the location where the bodies were later found.

A more thorough police search for the children began around 8:00 a.m. on the morning of May 6, led by the Crittenden County Search and Rescue personnel. Searchers canvassed all of West Memphis, but focused primarily on Robin Hood Hills, where the boys were reported last seen. Despite a human chain making a shoulder-to-shoulder search of the area, searchers found no sign of the missing boys.

Around 1:45 p.m., Juvenile Parole Officer Steve Jones spotted a boy’s black shoe floating in a muddy creek that led to a major drainage canal in Robin Hood Hills. A subsequent search of the ditch revealed the bodies of three boys. They were stripped naked and had been hogtied with their own shoelaces: their right ankles tied to their right wrists behind their backs, the same with their left arms and legs. Their clothing was found in the creek, some of it twisted around sticks that had been thrust into the muddy ditch bed. The clothing was mostly turned inside-out; two pairs of the boys’ underwear were never recovered. Christopher Byers also had deep lacerations and injuries to his scrotum and penis.

The original autopsies were inconclusive as to time of death, but the Arkansas medical examiner determined that Byers died of blood loss, and Moore and Branch drowned. A later review of the case by a medical examiner for the defense determined that the boys had been killed between 1:00 a.m. and 5:00 a.m. on May 6, 1993.

The official interpretation of the crime scene forensics for the case remains controversial. Prosecution experts claim Byers’ wounds were the results of a knife attack and that he had been purposely castrated by the murderer; defense experts claim the injuries were more probably the result of post-mortem animal predation. Police suspected the boys had been raped; however, later expert testimony disputed this findingdespite trace amounts of sperm DNA found on a pair of pants recovered from the scene. Police believed the boys were assaulted and killed at the location where they were found; critics argued that the assault, at least, was unlikely to have occurred at the creek.

In July 2007, new forensic evidence was presented in the case, including evidence that none of the DNA collected at the crime scene matched the defendants, but did match Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of one of the victims, as well as a friend of Hobbs’ whom he had been with on the day of the murders. The status report jointly issued by the State and the Defense team on July 17, 2007 states, “Although most of the genetic material recovered from the scene was attributable to the victims of the offenses, some of it cannot be attributed to either the victims or the defendants.” On October 29, 2007, the defense filed a Second Amended Writ of Habeas Corpus, outlining the new evidence.

After a series of appeals regarding the DNA evidence, including an argument before the Arkansas Supreme Court in 2010, the West Memphis Three reached a deal with prosecutors. On August 19, 2011, they entered Alford pleas, which allow them to assert their innocence while acknowledging that prosecutors have enough evidence to convict them. Judge David Laser accepted the pleas and sentenced the three to time served. They were released with ten year suspended sentences, having served 18 years and 78 days in prison. While they are technically exonerated based on the DNA results, their convictions remain on their records and police refuse to pursue for any additional suspects.

Berlinger and Sinofsky were almost finished with their third documentary about the case, and are talking about how the end of the case will be reflected in their film. And Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan has announced his plan to make a dramatic feature based on the case.

The question remains is any of this valid? Six lives have been destroyed by this case. It seems to be the unfortunate blend of an over active prosecution, bad lawyering and an upset community.

Hopefully time will tell if after essentially pleading guilty, the West Memphis Three can put their past behind them, and try to reclaim a sense of a normal life. The final question remains: Since these  three were involved in the occult (allegedly) and listened to rock music, was it too easy to put the blame on them?

About the Author

- "We all make choices. But in the end, our choices make us." Andrew comes to us after an eventful 26 years in Upstate New York. After being raised by wolves, he graduated College with a BA in Political Science, and eventually graduated law school.