The freeing of the West Memphis Three

by Hamish McKenzie / 28 January, 2012
Hamish McKenzie outlines Sir Peter Jackson's campaign for the release of three convicted American child killers.

Two months after the West Memphis Three walked free from jail on a warm summer’s day in Jonesboro, Arkansas, they sit on a stage in New York. Eighteen years earlier, Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley jr were convicted as teenagers for the murders of three eight-year-old boys whose bodies were found naked, stabbed, hog-tied and sexually mutilated in a ditch in a wooded area near the small town of West Memphis. Echols, the supposed ringleader, was sent to death row. Baldwin and Misskelley got life.

Damien Echols is dressed in black trousers, black T-shirt and black boots. His black hair is slicked back and his glasses lenses have turned dark under the bright auditorium lights after the screening of an HBO documentary on the case.

On his left arm is a new tattoo inspired by the ancient classic Chinese text I Ching: a hexagram called “Wind Over Heaven”, which connotes patience, tolerance, adaptability and detachment. “Accept that all you can do is change yourself,” is how a rough translation reads.

To Echols’s left sits Jessie Misskelley, whose now-bald head is tattooed with a picture of a clock without hands – a reference to time lost while in prison – and on his right is Jason Baldwin, a skinny, wan and bespectacled young man who bears a resemblance to David Bain.

Echols is asked about the importance of the documentaries on this case, and his response is immediate: “If they wouldn’t have been there from the beginning to get the actual trial on film, then I think there’s every chance the case would have gradually sunk into obscurity.”

Sir Peter Jackson, who helped fund a seven-year investigation into the West Memphis Three case, saying he has found it “very difficult to suppress a deep anger” at the lack of justice, is now premiering a new documentary at the Sundance Film Festival. Jackson produced it alongside Echols, and his wife, Lorri Davis. The film, West of Memphis, is directed by Amy Berg, best known for her 2006 documentary Deliver Us from Evil.

The first two films about the case – 1996’s Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills and 2000’s Paradise Lost: Revelations, made for HBO by Bruce ­Sinofsky and Joe Berlinger – were instrumental in galvanising support for the three men, arguing that they were unfairly targeted in the Bible Belt town because they listened to heavy metal music such as Metallica, wore black, and had an interest in Wicca, a nature-based religion. The prosecution charged that the murders were part of a satanic ritual.

The films pointed to testimony that Misskelley’s police station confession – which was central to the prosecution’s case – was coerced. They also cast doubt on numerous other aspects of the case, including whether the Robin Hood Hills were a crime scene or a dump site. The defence argued the murders were committed elsewhere and the bodies brought to the scene for disposal. The prosecution said the trio committed the murders in the woods.

In Purgatory, a third Sinofsky-Berlinger film, which will air here on Sky’s SoHo channel in February, the film-makers point to new findings, including DNA evidence recovered from the scene that can’t be linked to any of the three, an allegation of jury misconduct and a suggestion that wounds found on the bodies were, in fact, caused by animals after death.

It was after seeing the earlier films that such celebrities as Johnny Depp, Eddie Vedder and Jackson and his partner, Fran Walsh, joined a campaign for the men’s exoneration. A support group sprang up. Books were written, benefit concerts were held, T-shirts were made.

But there is, of course, another view of this case – one that hasn’t enjoyed as much attention as the Paradise Lost films. This argument, published on the website, among others, alleges Misskelley made multiple confessions, including two from prison after he had been convicted of the murders. Those backing the original verdicts raise questions about the men’s alibis for the night of the murders and suggest Echols’s psychological profile at the time was that of a troubled young man.

Within days of the HBO event in New York, Damien Echols went on holiday – in New Zealand. Jackson, who reportedly had a matching tattoo with Echols inked in Queenstown, is convinced of the American’s innocence, saying in a statement, “Our hope is that continuing evidence testing and further investigation will lead to the unmasking of the killer of these children and that one day Damien, Jason and Jessie will be exonerated.”

As far as the law is concerned, however, the convictions stand. The State of Arkansas released Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley from prison last August 19 by way of an unusual legal rule known as the Alford plea. Under the agreement, the three men could protest their innocence, but had to concede there was enough evidence to convict them in the first place. That way, the state could avoid the expense and difficulty of an impending appeal to the state Supreme Court, which had ruled that the men could present new evidence in an attempt to establish their innocence. And so they remain convicted killers.

It is difficult to determine the truth from the Paradise Lost films. In the second one, Revelations, John Mark Byers, stepfather to Christopher Byers, is held up as a major suspect. Byers comes across as an attention-seeking extrovert who lacks guile and anything resembling a self-filter. He appears to fake tears and raves to the camera that the convicted trio will burn in Hell. In the final scene, he sings karaoke-style alongside a tape-recording he had made to express his emotion. He is a cartoonish figure, described by director Sinofsky as perhaps “one of the most amazing characters ever to be put on film”.

In Purgatory, however, Byers is no longer a suspect. In fact, in a dramatic twist, he now thinks the men are innocent. Suspicion instead switches to Terry Hobbs, stepfather of one of the victims, Stevie Branch. The film shows that a hair found in one of the dead boys’ shoelaces at the scene could be linked to Hobbs – along with 1.5% of the population. Purgatory also presents new statements from witnesses who say they saw Hobbs with the three boys on the night of the killings.

In Revelations, criminal profiler Brent Turvey, whom the Free the West Memphis Three group called in to help find evidence of their innocence, insists that the ditch in which the boys’ bodies were found could not be a crime scene – a contention that became a key aspect of the trio’s post-conviction defence. However, Mike Napier, a violent crime assessor with 27 years of FBI experience, visited the site with Misskelley’s defence lawyer, Dan Stidham, a few years after Turvey’s visit. He says that, because of heavy rain around the time of the murders, it is far from clear whether the woods were a crime scene or a dump site. “By the nature of the crime scene at the time of the murders, I don’t know it’s possible to definitively say one or the other,” Napier says in a phone interview.

The films hardly touch on documents alleging one of Baldwin’s cousins told a detective that a year before the murders, Echols killed a black great dane. “The dog was already sick and he hit the dog in the back of the head. He pulled the intestines out of the dog and started stomping the dog until blood came out of his mouth,” the boy reportedly said in a statement. A psychiatrist hired by Echols’s lawyers suggested he wasn’t mentally fit to stand trial.

However, it is difficult to judge the authenticity or credibility of any of the evidence – including confessions. At Misskelley’s trial – he was tried before Baldwin and Echols – an expert testified that Misskelley’s original police station statement was a classic case of a coerced confession. Misskelley had told police that he, Echols and Baldwin beat and killed the three boys in a night of drunken misadventure. But the teen said, for example, that the victims were tied up with brown rope, when in fact they were tied up with their own shoelaces. And Misskelley appeared to be led by the police on the crucial question of what time the murders occurred. The boys were last seen alive at 6.30pm, but he initially claimed the crimes took place around noon. After repeated prompting from police, however, he changed the time to early evening: “I remember it was starting to get dark.”

That wasn’t the only confession Misskelley gave. According to case documents that weren’t considered in the trial of Echols and Baldwin, Misskelley confessed in prison on February 8, 1994, after he had been convicted. However, in a phone interview, Stidham says Misskelley had been “worked over” by police, who told him Stidham wasn’t on his side and Baldwin and Echols would get off scot-free and have sex with his girlfriend while he was stuck in prison.

That explains the February 8 confession, Stidham reasons. Regarding a further confession, Stidham said prosecutors were desperate for Misskelley’s testimony and tried to offer a deal that would result in a reduced sentence. They offered cigarettes, alcohol and a promise of sex with his girlfriend. Misskelley was prone to such persuasion, Stidham says.

Misskelley was 17 at the time and scored a low 72 in a jailhouse IQ test. According to MedlinePlus, an online service provided by the US National Library of Medicine, an IQ score of below 70 could be a sign of mental retardation. “I could get him to confess to killing John F Kennedy on the Grassy Knoll in 10 minutes,” Stidham says.

Jackson’s film, and another starring Reese Witherspoon as the mother of one of the victims, will draw fresh attention to this case. Yet Dr Art Markman, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin and author of an upcoming book on thinking, cautions that we often interpret evidence in such cases in whatever way supports our own position.

Markman, an executive editor of the journal Cognitive Science, talks about the “illusion of explanatory depth”. It’s not until you stop and try to explain the whole case to yourself, and reconcile both the positive and negative pieces of evidence, that you begin to realise there are gaps in your knowledge. Markman likens the phenomenon to the way “we don’t notice all the holes in the plot of a movie until much later when we discuss it with our friends, but in the moment you’re watching you go, ‘Yeah, yeah, that all makes sense.’”

Before the HBO screening in New York, Berlinger, who has two Emmys among many awards in a career spanning two decades, told reporters that the West Memphis case “has taught me most vividly that the modern legal system, which I’ve made movies about since my 1992 film Brother’s Keeper, is not about the search for truth but about who presents the best story”.

The West Memphis Three are free, but 18 years after the murders the families of victims Christopher Byers, Stevie Branch and Michael Moore still have no closure. This story is still in search of its ending.

West of Memphis,
directed by Amy Berg and produced by Sir Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.
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