The West Memphis Three were charged with the murder of three boys in 1994. It took them 18 years to clear their names.
It took 18 years, a deep probe into the criminal justice system, and the rallying of a town. But in 2011, the West Memphis Three walked free.
The story of the West Memphis Three traces back to 1993, set in the city of West Memphis, Arkansas. Right on the border of Tennessee, West Memphis was a bible belt city unaccustomed to much publicity.
That changed on May 5, 1993, when three second-grade boys were reported missing. The following afternoon, the bodies of Steve Branch, Michael Moore, and Christopher Byers were found by a muddy ditch. The boys were naked and tied up by their shoelaces. They were mutilated and bruised, and their clothes were in the nearby creek.
Autopsies revealed that Byers died of multiple injuries, while the other two boys died of multiple injuries with drowning.
An investigation of the murders looked into several suspects, including the stepfather of Steve Branch as well as two teenage boys who had abruptly fled to California shortly after the bodies were discovered.
Eventually, three local teenagers, Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, and Jason Baldwin, were zeroed in on as the prime suspects. They were 17, 16, and 18 years old respectively. These three would come to be known as the West Memphis Three.
Police on the case felt that there were cult-like and satanic overtones to the murders.
Authorities figured Echols as a suspect because had shown an interest in occultism. During questioning, Echols mentioned wounds to the genital that one of the victims suffered. It was a fact, leading investigators to believe he had inside knowledge of the case.
Misskelley was interrogated for 12 hours, of which less than an hour were recorded. Misskelley confessed during the interrogation but later took rescinded it, stating that he did it out our fear and intimidation.
All three were charged and accused of committing a Satanic murder. The West Memphis Three had trials in 1994, with Echols and Baldwin tried together and Misskelley tried separately.
Prosecutors argued that the three teenagers, with Echols as the lead, committed the murders as part of a satanic ritual.
Despite doubt over the way authorities handled the case, as well as a lack of substantial evidence, the West Memphis Three were found guilty.
Damien Echols was sentenced to death.
Jessie Misskelley was given two 20 year-sentences on top of life imprisonment, while Jason Baldwin also received life imprisonment.
All three pleaded innocent at the trial and maintained that innocence ever since. But it seemed the story for the West Memphis Three was over.
Until 2007, when the discovery of new forensic evidence reopened the case and a new statute permitting post-conviction testing of DNA evidence came about. Echols filed a petition, which was not granted, but then the decision was overturned by the Arkansas Supreme Court.
Echols’ lawyer stated that new DNA evidence did not place him at the scene of the crime.
In 2010, the West Memphis Three were granted to appear before the Arkansas Supreme Court based on the new DNA evidence and potential misconduct by the jury.
John Mark Byers was the stepdad of one of the victims and said before the hearing, “They’re innocent. They did not kill my son.”
Local community members also rallied in support of the three, believing that their initial trial was unfair and handled incorrectly.
Based on the new information, the three men asked for an Alford plea, in which the defendant maintains their innocence, but acknowledge that prosecutors have evidence to convict them.
The plea deal was accepted. With the addition of a 10-year suspended sentence, a probation type sentencing which meant if they did anything illegal they would be put back in jail, the West Memphis Three were sentenced to time served. After 18 years behind bars, they were freed.
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.