It is an ignoble truth that in many parts of this country, witch-hunts still exist. A person can be persecuted, tried, convicted and even executed for being of a different race, sexual orientation, or merely for just looking “different”.
Three Arkansas teenagers were convicted of murder, on the flimsiest of evidence — because one wore black and studied Wicca.
Such is the case with the West Memphis Three. Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, and Jason Baldwin (known as the West Memphis Three, or WM3 for short), were convicted on April 18, 1994 in West Memphis, Arkansas for the murder of three 8 year old boys, Cristopher Byers, James Michael Moore, and Steve Branch. I refer to their trial and conviction as an inquisition because none of the standard intelligence and procedures that generally define the justice system were applied. Confessions were forced, forensic and expert evidence ignored, and the three teenagers convicted of the crime were done so almost solely on public opinion. And why was this miscarriage of justice so easily perpetrated? Because Damien Echols wore black, listened to heavy metal, and studied Wicca in a small, close-minded community where such things were considered “Satanic”.
On May 5th, 1993, the three young boys were last seen around 6 PM by Moore’s mother, Melissa Byers. They were reported missing at 8 PM by Cristopher’s stepfather, John Mark Byers, who had beaten Cristopher earlier in the afternoon in the presence of Ms. Byers.
The boys’ bodies were discovered on May 6th at 1 PM, brutally murdered, with signs of sexual molestation. The next day Damien Echols, a local resident who had experienced prior suspicion by locals in the evangelical Christian community and local police for his appearance and spiritual beliefs, was brought in for questioning. There was no actual evidence, forensic or otherwise, to implicate Echols, and so he was released.
On June 3rd Jessie Misskelley, a 17-year-old friend of Echols, who is mentally challenged, was held for at least five hours of undocumented questioning, at the conclusion of which he confessed. Echols was implicated in the confession, as well as 16 year old Jason Baldwin, who was a mutual friend of the two other young men. Echols and Baldwin were arrested that day.
Their trial began February 4th, 1994, separately from Misskelley, as his confession had led to their arrest and trial. Echols was sentenced to death by lethal injection, Baldwin and Misskelley to life imprisonment without parole. What happened to Echols following his imprisonment is no less an atrocity than the crimes themselves.
There is no argument that the perpetrator(s) of the murders of those little boys should be caught and punished. However, in almost 10 years, there has been no physical evidence that implicates any of the Memphis Three, beyond the bigotry and prejudice of an ignorant community. Moreover there is evidence pointing toward a different suspect, as well as multiple instances of concrete forensic evidence being ignored, and possibly buried. In fact, the only evidence that was presented, aside from the “confession” was an implication based on Echols’ troubled psychiatric history, interest in Paganism, and heavy metal. Soon, Misskelley retracted his confession, which was filled with inconsistencies. Among these inconsistencies were: the times stated for the boys’ kidnapping and murder, the means by which the boys were bound, and the statement that one of the boys was choked, when no evidence of strangulation was revealed.
In addition, Misskelley’s confession was extracted without an attorney present, and without a waiver for his Miranda rights; a lie detector test indicated an 85% probability that Misskelley was innocent. However, expert testimony supporting these facts was not allowed at the trial, as it would contradict the court’s earlier ruling which specifically allowed that the confession could be entered as evidence.
On May 5th, the night of the victims’ disappearance, police were called to Bojangles restaurant, located near the crime scene, to investigate reports of a transient, who went into the women’s room for an hour, covered in blood and mud. Police collected samples the next day, but the samples were lost.
Witnesses who came forth after hearing of offers for a reward, and claimed to have seen the murders, or said they heard Echols bragging about the murders, recanted their stories or were proven to have been lying after the trial.
A tennis shoe footprint was found near the crime site. The print did not match any of the boys who were convicted of the crime. Additionally, no paraphernalia that is generally linked to “Satanic rites”, such as candle wax, altars, or symbols, was found anywhere near the site.
Physical and forensic evidence points to another possible suspect, though, that evidence has been ignored. Mark John Byers, Cristopher’s stepfather, owned a knife that had bloodstains that could have been Cristopher’s. He was also taking, among other pharmaceuticals, a drug called Carbamazepine which was found in “non-therapeutic” volumes in Cristopher’s blood at the time of his death. Yet, because of his “friendly” relationship with local police as an informant, Byers was never considered as a suspect.
Efforts were made by the defense to obtain a forensics expert to analyze the evidence that was presented by the medical and coroner’s offices. At the time of the trial, Dan Stidham, Misskelley’s defense attorney, had been told no criminal profile of the killer or evidence had been made. This was later revealed to be untrue, that the FBI had made a cursory profile, and instructed West Memphis police to trace Vietnam veterans in the area at the time of the murders. After the trial’s conclusion, Brent Turvey, a criminal profiler and forensics expert who agreed to take the case pro bono, approached Stidham. Turvey’s report revealed a wealth of information that had been overlooked, ignored, or misinterpreted by previous examinations.
Among the findings, which would surely have resulted in an “innocent” verdict, had they been submitted at the trials as evidence:
And yet, all attempts to have a retrial have been refused, all petitions for parole have been denied. Furthermore, the Arkansas courts and the governor’s office itself have refused to consider any evidence of wrong-doing on the part of the justice system in any capacity, despite the obviously careless handling and ignoring of evidence.
The community wanted a culprit and a scapegoat, and it was given three. The bureaucracy washed its hands — Arkansas Governer Huckabee refused to reopen or discuss the case, and the judicial system was unwilling to admit the possibility of failure. Meanwhile, the real killer goes free, and three innocent young men face a life of imprisonment, and in the case of Damien Echols, death.
There are a number of resources for more information on the West Memphis Three, and what you can do to help, and protect your own rights.
Aldyth Beltane is a red-haired glam-rock sex magician from the future, who often writes articles and reviews for Well Red Press.