The Story Of The West Memphis Teens Wrongfully Imprisoned 18 Years For “Satanic” Murder (2024)

The West Memphis Three were charged with the murder of three boys in 1994. It took them 18 years to clear their names.

In May 1993, three young boys in West Memphis, Arkansas were found dead, naked, and hogtied in a ditch. The gruesome tragedy sparked an immediate search for their killer — or killers. And it seemed the police had quickly found the culprits: Jessie Misskelley Jr., Jason Baldwin, and Damien Echols, teenagers who would come to be known as the West Memphis Three.

Misskelley and Echols were high school dropouts, and Baldwin, while he showed promise, had a track record for getting into trouble. Echols and Baldwin were friends who knew Misskelley from school, but before the three were accused of these heinous killings, they weren’t close friends. Despite this, investigators were quick to blame the trio for the murders.

But what was their alleged motivation? During the trial, prosecutors accused the West Memphis Three of committing the murders as some sort of Satanic ritual, even calling on so-called occult experts to “confirm” that the teens had been worshipping Satan. Misskelley was tried individually, while Echols and Baldwin were tried together, and in the end, all three were found guilty of murder.

The story didn’t end there, however. In the aftermath of the trial, more information came to light, and it cast some doubt on the investigation. Police records were “a mess,” jurors were made aware of information they shouldn’t have been privy to by the foreman, and later, DNA evidence failed to link any of the West Memphis Three to the murders.

To this day, people remain divided about the West Memphis Three. Numerous books and documentaries have discussed the case, as have many songs, many of which have stood by the innocence of the West Memphis Three. And it also begs the question: if Misskelley, Echols, and Baldwin didn’t commit the murders, who did?

The Gruesome Murders Of Steve Branch, Christopher Byers, And Michael Moore

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Court DocumentsThe three victims: Steve Branch, Chris Byers, and Michael Moore.

On May 5, 1993, eight-year-olds Steve Branch, Christopher Byers, and Michael Moore went out to play and never returned home. Their families quickly reported the boys as missing, and a search party was put together to go and look for them. A day later, a gruesome discovery was made.

In a wooded area known as Robin Hood Hills, the boys’ bodies were found in a drainage ditch — and the scene was as chilling as it was macabre.

The boys were found naked, their clothing scattered about the area. Some pieces of their clothing were partially buried, and the boys’ hands and feet had been hogtied together with their own shoelaces. They each suffered various injuries. Michael Moore and Steve Branch had multiple cuts and bruises. Christopher Byers’ injuries were even worse, including lacerations and mutilations of his genital area.

It would later be determined that all three had died by drowning, not due to their injuries.

But the bizarre nature of the killings raised dozens of new questions. Had they been sexually assaulted before their deaths? Or, as would become the leading theory, had they been killed as part of some sad*stic ritual?

If there were answers to these questions, they weren’t going to be found at the scene of the crime itself. Oddly, there was no blood at the scene, leading to speculation that they had been killed elsewhere, then dumped in the ditch. Some of their injuries would also eventually be tied to possible postmortem animal activity, throwing a wrench in the “sad*stic ritual” angle, and a lack of any clear forensic evidence meant it was going to be difficult to identify their killer or killers.

Despite this, police quickly honed in on their suspects: the West Memphis Three.

How The West Memphis Three Became Linked To The Killings

While little evidence, if any, initially pointed to Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley Jr., there were a number of external factors that caused police to focus their investigation on the teens. Baldwin and Echols were friends, and each had previously had run-ins with the law. Both Misskelley and Echols were also high school dropouts.

But perhaps the more important determining factor — to investigators, anyway — was the Satanic Panic of the 1980s and 1990s. The West Memphis Three didn’t fit in with the conservative nature of the West Memphis community. They wore black clothing, listened to heavy metal, and expressed interest in the occult.

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West Memphis Police DepartmentBooking photograph of Jason Baldwin.

Echols, for example, read books on Wicca, seemed to practice some form of paganism, and developed a fascination with the paranormal. He also had a history of mental health issues, and some officers were quick to remark that he seemed like the type who would commit murder.

Baldwin was more of a model student, notably smart and seemingly with a bright future, but his friendship with Echols put a target on his back as well. And Jessie Misskelley Jr., while not necessarily friends with Baldwin and Echols, had similar interests and was at the very least acquainted with them from school. Misskelley also had an IQ of 70, meaning he technically had a learning disability — and this would prove to be consequential when it came to his police interview.

Controversies Surrounding The Investigation And Jessie Misskelley’s Confession

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West Memphis Police DepartmentJessie Misskelley’s booking photo.

During their investigation, police made a number of controversial decisions, ranging from the mishandling of evidence and rampant disorganization to improperly securing the crime scene, allowing it to become contaminated. However, the most controversial element of the case was Jessie Misskelley’s interrogation on June 3, 1993, and the confession that came as a result of it.

Despite the severity of the case, Misskelley was just 17 years old at the time. Yet, during his interrogation — which lasted for a staggering 12 hours — he did not have his parents or a lawyer present. Given his intellectual disability, this made him especially vulnerable to coercive lines of questioning. And although the interview lasted for hours, only the last 46 minutes of it were actually recorded.

Still, in just those 46 minutes alone, it’s clear that Misskelley’s confession was rife with inconsistencies and inaccuracies. For example, Misskelley said during the police interview that the boys had been murdered in the morning, but the boys would have been in school during that time. He said he arrived the morning of the murders around noon, but then investigators pointed out that Misskelley wasn’t wearing a watch.

“So, your time period might not be exactly right, what you’re saying?” detectives asked him. “Right,” he replied.

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Zuma Press, Inc./Alamy Stock PhotoJessie Lloyd Misskelley being led by police after his trial.

At one point in the interrogation, investigators suggested to Misskelley that he was in a cult, with Misskelley then saying he had been in it for three months, during which he and fellow cult members would go into the woods to kill dogs and have orgies, after which detectives returned the conversation to the day of the murders, this time saying, “Okay, the night you were in these woods, uh, had you all been in the water?”

But Misskelley had previously said he was at the woods in the morning, not at night. However, he accepts the new timeline presented to him without question.

Additionally, Misskelley gave incorrect details about the way the boys were tied up and the nature of their injuries, indicating that his confession was not based on actual knowledge of the crime but rather information he picked up during the interrogation.

“The lawyers for the Three maintained that Misskelley’s confession was false, unreliable, and included all sorts of statements totally inconsistent with how the crime happened,” law professor Brandon L. Garrett wrote in 2011 for the Harvard University Press. “The few recorded pieces of the interrogations showed police using leading questions to try to tell him what had happened, something that interrogators are trained not to do because it contaminates a confession. We do not know what threats or other techniques were used to secure that confession.”

Misskelley’s confession, however, was ultimately used to implicate Baldwin and Echols and served as a pivotal piece of evidence in the case against the Three. Once again, no other evidence found at the crime scene linked the teenagers to the crime, and in the years following the convictions, the public began to re-examine the case, casting scrutiny on the decision and the investigation.

The Aftermath Of The West Memphis Three Convictions

In 1996, the HBO documentary series Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills released, bringing national attention to the case. The docu-series highlighted the lack of evidence, the potential for wrongful conviction, and the influence of the Satanic Panic on the case.

Following this documentary, people across the nation began to advocate for the release of the West Memphis Three, including celebrities like Eddie Vedder, Johnny Depp, and Peter Jackson. The Innocence Project also took a notable interest in the case, providing legal support and working to uncover new evidence that could exonerate the Three.

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Zuma Press, Inc./Alamy Stock PhotoDamien Wayne Echols sitting as the judge reads the jury’s guilty verdict.

Then, in 2007, advancements in DNA testing offered new insight into the crime — and none of it pointed to the West Memphis Three. As CNN reported in 2009, new DNA testing of the crime scene revealed no genetic material linking Echols, Baldwin, or Misskelley to the murders. More shockingly, DNA evidence did actually link Terry Hobbs, Steve Branch’s stepfather, to the crime, as well as an unidentified individual.

Around the same time, three eye witnesses who lived next to one of the victims filed affidavits with the Arkansas Supreme Court, in which they said they saw the three victims with Terry Hobbs the night before police found their bodies — contradicting Hobbs’ own statements to police that he didn’t see his stepson on the day of the murder.

“They never really did an investigation,” said Echols’ attorney, Dennis Riordan. “They never interviewed Hobbs. The fact that the witnesses saw him, and they realized for the first time, it was very significant.”

Following the new DNA evidence in 2007, many members of the victims’ families even began to doubt that the West Memphis Three had committed the murders — even family members who vehemently declared the Three were responsible 14 years earlier.

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Zuma Press, Inc./Alamy Stock PhotoWhen asked why he should not be sentenced to life in prison, Jason Baldwin said, “Because I’m innocent.”

“The worst part about it is the three real victims that deserve justice, the three 8-year-old children have not been given justice,” Mark Byers, the father of Christopher Byers, said. “They got a hack job for a police investigation. It was a rush to find someone who they said did this.”

But the new DNA evidence didn’t immediately grant the Three their freedom. Instead, that moment came four years later.

The Alford Pleas That Saved The Lives Of The West Memphis Three

After years of legal battles and public pressure, the state of Arkansas and defense teams for the Three entered negotiations. The end result was a rare legal deal that would not fully exonerate the Three, but would allow for them to be released from prison while maintaining their innocence. This is called an Alford plea, and it essentially lets a defendant assert their innocence while acknowledging that the prosecution has enough evidence to potentially secure a conviction.

So, on August 19, 2011, Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley Jr. entered Alford pleas to lesser charges, for which they were sentenced to time served and immediately released from prison. While they weren’t technically declared innocent, from a legal standpoint, the plea deals did mark the first taste of freedom the Three had in more than a decade. And for Echols, it saved him from a death sentence.

“The evidence against us was our personal preferences in music,” Baldwin said in a 2011 interview. “I remember at one point during the trial, they lifted up a record, a Blue Oyster Cult record, and I think [prosecutor] John Fogleman said this was found in Damien’s girlfriend’s mother’s house.”

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CNNDamien Echols and Jason Baldwin shortly after their release.

In the years since, each of the West Memphis Three have done their best to adapt to the new, modern world they emerged into. Echols moved to New York City and then later to Salem, Massachusetts, becoming an advocate for prison reform and wrongful convictions, writing a memoir titled Life After Death. Baldwin also became an advocate, focusing on his education and becoming involved in legal work, co-founding the organization Proclaim Justice, which aims to help those who have been wrongfully convicted.

Misskelley returned to West Memphis and has largely stayed out of the public eye, although he occasionally participates in some advocacy efforts. To this day, the Three are seeking full exoneration with the help of legal teams and advocates. And one question, of course, still remains: Who really killed Steve Branch, Christopher Byers, and Michael Moore?

If you found this interesting, you might also want to read about the study that finds black Americans are wrongfully convicted at a far greater rate. Then read about the woman who was convicted for locking her deaf sister in a room for seven years.

The Story Of The West Memphis Teens Wrongfully Imprisoned 18 Years For “Satanic” Murder (2024)
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