October 30, 2007
By Shaila Dewan, New York Times
In 1994, three teenagers in the small city of West Memphis, Ark., were convicted of killing three 8-year-old boys in what prosecutors portrayed as a satanic sacrifice involving sexual abuse and genital mutilation. So shocking were the crimes that when the teenagers were led from the courthouse after their arrest, they were met by 200 local residents yelling, “Burn in hell.”
But according to long-awaited new evidence filed by the defense in federal court on Monday, there was no DNA from the three defendants found at the scene, the mutilation was actually the work of animals and at least one person other than the defendants may have been present at the crime scene.
Supporters of the defendants hope the legal filing will provide the defense with a breakthrough. Two of the men, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, are serving life in prison, while one, Damien W. Echols, is on death row. There was no physical evidence linking the teenagers, now known as the West Memphis 3, to the crime.
“This is the first time that the evidence has ever really been tested,” said Gerald Skahan, a member of the defense team. “The first trial was pretty much a witch hunt.”
Brent Davis, the local prosecutor, did not respond to requests for comment about the new evidence and the case, but in general prosecutors and investigators have continued to express confidence in their investigation.
The story the defendants’ supporters have presented — of three misfits whose fondness for heavy-metal music made them police targets — has won the men the support of celebrities like Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, Marilyn Manson and the creators of “South Park.” Many learned of the case through an HBO documentary, “Paradise Lost,” and a sequel.
The prosecution hinged on a confession riddled with factual errors and a Satanic cult expert with a mail-order degree. Mr. Echols’s own lawyer called him “weird” and “not the all-American boy.”
Many viewers who watched the sequel, in fact, concluded that the police should have been investigating John Mark Byers, the stepfather of one of the children, who made seemingly drug-addled, messianic speeches on camera, gave the filmmakers a blood-stained knife, and had a history of violence and run-ins with the police. His child, Christopher Byers, was the most badly mutilated of the three.
But there was a surprise in the new forensic report filed by Mr. Echols’s lawyers: a hair found in one of the knots binding the children belonged most likely to the stepfather of another of the victims, not to Mr. Byers.
The three victims — Christopher, Steve Branch and James Michael Moore — were last seen riding their bikes on May 5, 1993. They were found the next day in a drainage ditch in Robin Hood Hills, near West Memphis, a low-rent town across the Mississippi River from Memphis. The boys were naked and hogtied with shoelaces.
The police quickly zeroed in on Mr. Echols, then 18, who was familiar to them because he was on probation for trying to run away with his girlfriend. They also believed he was involved in cult activities.
But they could find little evidence against him until Mr. Misskelley, mildly retarded and with a history of substance abuse, came in to speak with them. At the time there was a $30,000 reward.
After hours of questioning, Mr. Misskelley, 17, gave the police a taped statement that implicated himself, Mr. Baldwin, then 16, and Mr. Echols, then 19. Despite coaching by the investigators, Mr. Misskelley was incorrect in several significant details, including the time of the crime, the way the victims were tied and the manner of death. He said the children had been sodomized, an assertion that even the state medical examiner’s testimony appears to refute.
The team of forensic experts assembled by Mr. Echols’s lawyers, which included Dr. Michael Baden, the former medical examiner of New York City, also said there was no evidence of sexual abuse. Many of the wounds sustained by the victims were caused by animals, they said, including the castration of Christopher.
As for the stray hair, the West Memphis Police Department and the stepfather it appears to belong to, Terry Hobbs, have discounted the finding, saying it could easily have been picked up at home by his stepson, Steve Branch. But Dennis P. Riordan, a lawyer for Mr. Echols, said the hair was found in the shoelaces tying Michael Moore, not Steve Branch.
Further, Mr. Riordan said, a hair was found at the scene that most likely belongs to a friend of Mr. Hobbs who was with him for part of the evening.
The court filing also argues that jurors relied on the statement Mr. Misskelley gave the police to convict Mr. Echols and Mr. Baldwin, even though it was deemed inadmissible except in Mr. Misskelley’s trial. Several jurors have acknowledged that they knew about the confession before the trial, though they did not say so during jury selection.
The passing of time has not only allowed the defense to gather new information, but has also softened the public’s belief in the guilt of the convicted men, said Mara Leveritt, the author of “Devil’s Knot: The True Story of the West Memphis Three.”
“What I’ve seen in the past 14 years has been not quite a 180-degree, but maybe a 170-degree turn,” Ms. Leveritt said. “It all comes down to, ‘Where’s the evidence?’”