This is not a timely blog. It’s about 3 weeks late from all the final wrap up. However, I was a big follower of this case and I’ve wanted to write about it. So, if you are not terribly interested, I will get back to the current stuff next time.
Imagine for a moment that you are a teenage boy. You and your best friend are sitting around watching some TV and shooting the breeze when out of the darkness, the police kick in the door. The arrest you and your friend telling you that you are facing capital murder charges in the deaths of three young children. That was how Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin began their ordeal.
At the Sheriff’s office they found out another teenage boy had also been arrested. A very frightened Jesse Misskelley Jr. (16 years old) was already in custody and being interrogated with out his parents. By this time, Misskelley had been interrogated for hours. Interestingly, the Detective had not taped the first few hours of the interrogation but only the last 45 minutes. Evidence at the trial would show that Detective Bryn Ridge had coerced the confession out of the frightened and mentally challenged boy.
The night before the arrests, 3 young boys all 8 years old, were found dead in a ditch. Stevie Branch, Michael Moore and Christopher Byers had been stripped naked, hogtied with their own shoelaces and one boy, Christopher, had been genitally mutilated. There was no blood found at the scene despite the coroner ruling blood loss on Christopher and drowning on Stevie and Michael. As far as evidence found at the scene, there was precious little. This occurred in 1993, so forensics and DNA were not as advanced as it is today.
In a strange twist, the manager of a drive-thru restaurant, Mr. Bojangles, called the police and informed them of a disheveled black man was locked in the ladies room. The man was confused, dazed and covered in blood and mud. The restaurant was about a mile from the crime scene and this took place the night of the murders. The responding Officer, Regina Meeks, came to the drive-thru window 45 minutes after the call was made. The individual had already left the facility. She saw no need to enter the ladies room to collect blood samples. It wasn’t until the next day, after the story broke that the manager thought maybe that stranger had something to do with the murders. In order to get the police to take him seriously he had to call them twice. Det. Ridge took blood samples and hair samples. Unfortunately, he lost the blood samples so they were never analyzed. At the crime scene however, a hair belonging to a black male was found.
Back at interrogation, Jesse Misskelley was tired, confused and wanted to go home. In his mind, if he just cooperated they would leave him alone and he could leave. Sensing his broken will and realizing that he had a low IQ (70) Det. Ridge began to feed information to Misskelley. So, Misskelley began to elaborate on a story that was completely inconsistent with the known facts of the case. For example, Misskelley stated they used rope to tie up the boys, when it was their own shoelaces. He elaborated that Echols had hit Stevie a number of times in the head while the autopsy didn’t support that fact. He also suggested that the boys had been sexually assaulted and that was ruled out during autopsy. But, at the end of the day, it didn’t change the fact that the three boys were facing capital murder.
Because Misskelley was the one who “confessed” to the crimes, the prosecution decided to try him separately. His trial began and his attorneys brought in all kinds of expert witnesses to show that the “confession” he gave was literally fed to him. They established that Misskelley had been interviewed for hours before the tape recorder was turned on for his confession. The defense dismantled his statement and had forensic psychologists come in to explain how Misskelley had been led. In spite of the fact that there was no evidence of Misskelley’s involvement in the boys murder and in spite of the fact that the confession had clearly been coerced, Jesse Misskelley was found guilty of one count of 1st -degree murder and 2 counts of 2nd-degree murder. He was given life plus 40 years in prison.
Damien Echols and James Baldwin were going to be tried together. The prosecution knew that there was no evidence of these boys being involved so he was counting on getting Jesse Misskelley to testify at their hearings. Misskelley was offered the sweetest deal on the planet: 10 years. He would be out in 8 minus the time he had already served in custody. All he had to do was get on the stand and tell his confession and all would be golden. Jesse Misskelley said NO. He told his attorneys and the prosecution that the three of them did not do this crime and there was no way he would get on the stand and lie. He clearly understood the consequences of his actions meaning he would be in prison until he died. But the principle was more important to him.
The trial of Echols and Baldwin began with the media salivating for any morsel they could find. Rumour, innuendo and disinformation ran rampant over the community. The prevailing theme was that Damien Echols was a Satan worshipper and James Baldwin his minion. The police did everything they could to egg that on. They leaked to the press that the genitals of Christopher Byers were found in Echols bedroom. That never happened. The prosecution pointed to Echols love of heavy metal music as more evidence of Satanic worship. His interest in spirituality and in the occult further gave the prosecution something to exploit. Baldwin was just painted with the same brush and marginalized by the prosecution.
As for the defense, the attorney for Echols dubbed it Satanic Panic. He brought forth a team of experts to dispell everything the prosecution used. Most importantly, he shot holes in the prosecution’s arguments and introduced a wealth of probable doubt. But, it was to no avail. Satanic Panic was clearly set in and on March 19, 1994 Damien Echols was sentenced to death for the murders of the three boys. James Baldwin received life in prison.
Now, before the trial started, the movie channel HBO had heard of charges against the boys. They gave the green light to a documentary of the murder, the boys and the trial. HBO called the documentary “Paradise Lost.” It was a brilliant piece of work and showed the unvarnished truth of what happened in that small Arkansas town.
The popularity of the documentary began to fuel a fire that blazed through the music community of California. The Dixie Chicks, Natalie Maines, Henry Rollins and Metallica began fund-raising for the boy’s appeals. The clamoring was becoming deafening. Each case went to appeals, but given that the SAME judge presided over the appeals trials, they were all dispensed the same way.
Days turned into months, months turned into years and young teens gave way to men. But, not before they each were subjected to untold indignities. They were brutally beaten, raped and tortured along the way. Even Damien Echols was not safe on Death Row, he experienced the same treatment. But the boys were never forgotten. Free the West Memphis 3 organizations sprang up to shine a light upon the injustices done to these boys.
Fast forward to 2007 when DNA testing became a definitive standard for crime scenes and the truth became much clearer. No DNA evidence pointed to any of the boys. There was a hair tied into the knot binding one of the boys that was did not belong to any of the 3. Additionally, there was DNA evidence linking Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of Stevie Branch, to the crime scene. Further, the supposed knife marks on the bodies and the genital mutilation were identified to be animal predation. Despite all these new revelations, the Circuit Court of appeals once again the request of a retrial. The next appeal went to the Arkansas Supreme Court. In July 2008, it was revealed that Kent Arnold, the jury foreman on the Echols/Baldwin trial, discussed the case with an attorney prior to the beginning of deliberations and advocated for the guilt of the West Memphis Three. That admission is enough to create a reversal.
In November of 2010, the Arkansas Supreme Court admonished that the lower court must examine the claims of misconduct and review the newly discovered DNA evidence to see if it would exonerate the 3.
The Judge who had previously been the Judge for trials and appeals was finally gone. However, in August of this year the men once again found themselves jammed into a corner. The new trial was set for December off 2011. However, even though trial had been set it didn’t mean that Damien Echols could not be executed before that time. And in fact, there were rumblings that his execution was coming up very fast and he would not be alive come December 2011. The prosecution, realizing that they would most likely lose at the December trial, decided to give the men a deal. It’s called an Alford Plea. In a nutshell, it says that you are guilty of the crime committed but we are releasing you with time served. The men were still allowed to maintain their innocence.
James Baldwin was not happy with the Alford Plea. He wanted to take the fight to Supreme Court and push for justice. But the deal had to be accepted by each man. If any one of them did not sign off on the plea, the deal was off. When James Baldwin had time to think about it, he realized that if he didn’t agree that Echols may not live to see the day. So, he made the sacrifice of his own desires to save Damien Echols. Jesse Misskelley, Damien Echols and James Baldwin served 18 years and 78 days behind bars. They walked out of prison on August 19, 2011 finally free men.
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