Free The Three (West Memphis Case) (2024)

The Robin Hood Hills Murders
May 5th, 1993 was a Wednesday, and when the Weaver Elementary school bell rang, three 8 year old boys headed home to their nearby West Memphis, Arkansas neighborhood. Only a few hours later they would be reported missing and an informal search by their parents would be under way.

The next afternoon at 1:45 PM, a child's body was pulled from a creek in an area known as Robin Hood Hills. Eventually the bodies of the other two missing children were found nearby. All three of them were naked and they had been tied ankle to wrist with their own shoe laces. The children had been severely beaten, and one child, Christopher Byers, appears to have been the focus of the attack; he had been stabbed repeatedly in the groin area and castrated.

A triple homicide is extremely unusual, and particularly when the victims are children and unrelated to one another. So far, two documentary films have been made about this case, and interest in it shows no sign of fading. The facts surrounding the Robin Hood Hills murders, the events which they triggered, the aftermath, the trials, the verdicts and the hearings have been the focus of an ongoing research project for the past several years and we have reached many surprising conclusions.

Having had no previous experience with this type of murder, the West Memphis Police Department allowed potential evidence to be destroyed at the site where the bodies of Steve Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore were located. Officers who were present made very little apparent effort to preserve or properly document the scene or to make accurate notes. Perhaps this was due to negligence or perhaps it was due to the fact that they were inadequately trained and inexperienced in handling such a crime and the events that naturally follow. Many unidentified people can be seen milling around the bodies in the brief crime scene video, and the Chief Investigator, Gary Gitchell can be seen smoking a cigarette well within the perimeter of the area.

Strangely, a juvenile probation officer was present when the horrible discovery was made and he indulged in speculation with a police officer about who might be responsible for such an unspeakable act. The probation officer had been following the activities of a local teenager named Damien Echols for years, and his first instinct what that the moody, dark haired teen was responsible. In fact, he and the police officer agreed that Damien was the only person they felt was "capable" of such a thing. Both men decided that the triple homicide had actually been a bizarre Satanic ritual sacrifice performed by a "cult" which they imagined Damien was the leader of.

Of course, there was no evidence of any "cult" activity in the woods, and the investigating officers found nothing incriminating the next day when they visited Damien Echols in his trailer in the nearby town of Marion. The juvenile officer had questioned Echols before whenever something happened for which he could find no explanation. When a piece of guidance equipment disappeared from a train that had passed through West Memphis, Damien was questioned even though the train didn't even slow down when it passed though the small truck stop town. When a girl was killed 100 miles away, Damien was questioned. It seems that this juvenile officer was looking for a crime that he could pin on what he saw as a "sinister" teenager, and the homicides of Steve Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore were good enough. Though there wasn't any evidence to connect Damien to the victims or to the murders, the rumors, irresponsible police work and the media created an environment where it was decided, well before the trials, that the three teenagers were devil worshippers who were guilty of the murders.

A local woman who was in trouble for writing bad checks agreed to assist the police in their efforts to investigate Damien by trying to record something incriminating with a hidden tape recorder. Her motive may have been to help catch a killer, but it might have also been the $30,000 reward that was being offered. She invited Damien to her house, but recorded nothing unusual. This same woman later urged her young son to tell police that he'd seen what had happened in the woods on May 5th. The boy told the police a series of strange tales about people speaking Spanish, riding motorcycles and his eventual escape from these bizarre characters by kicking them and running. The boy's stories became more and more exaggerated, and although after being asked, he agreed with police that Damien Echols had killed his friends, they eventually gave up on the boy providing them with anything reliable that could used against Echols. Apparently the boy's drawings of Damien with glowing eyes and armor holding up a bloody sword were not convincing enough for an arrest just yet. What they needed was something solid, and since they had destroyed or lost most of the evidence that might have been collected, their only option was hearsay.

Finally, the boy's mother had yet another idea. She urged a mentally handicapped 17 year old named Jessie Misskelley to go to the police with another eyewitness account of having seen Echols kill the children. Jessie was with the police for twelve hours, yet only a small fragment of this lengthy day of questioning was recorded. Nobody can ever know for sure what transpired before the recording started, but according to the taped fragment, Jessie had finally agreed to give the police the story they were clearly looking for. Despite an obvious unfamiliarity with many of the facts of the murders, Jessie was guided carefully through the questioning by Inspector Gary Gitchell and Detective Bryn Ridge. During the interrogation, Jessie managed to not only corroborate the unfounded suspicions that the West Memphis police had of Damien Echols, but he managed to incriminate Damien's friend Jason Baldwin, and himself.

During Jessie's trial, Dr. Richard Ofshe, a Pulitzer Prize winning expert on false confessions and police coercion testified that the brief recording was a "classic example" of police coercion. He pointed out how the officers heard Jessie state that the murders had taken place in the morning - but since they knew that the victims had been in school all day, they "suggested" to Jessie that it "must" have been later when he was in the woods. Jessie obligingly agreed. Oddly, the testimony of this expert witness for Jessie's defense was not heard in its entirety by the jury.

Photographs taken of the room where Jessie was given a polygraph test (he "passed" the test, but was told that he had "failed" it) show a baseball bat leaning in the corner, and depending on how West Memphis Police officers normally use this unlikely tool in their questioning, it could have certainly provided serious motivation to a young man with an I.Q of 72. Since very little of this 12 hour ordeal was recorded, we can't know what Jessie was subjected to.

Without hesitation, Jessie Misskelley was arrested, and soon after, so were Jason Baldwin, along with the exclusive focus of the West Memphis Police Department's investigation, Damien Echols.

Portions of Jessie's statements to the police were leaked to the press and reported on the front page of the Memphis Commercial Appeal newspaper before any of the trials began, and Chief Inspector Gary Gitchell, was so sure of his police work that when asked by the local media on a scale of one to ten, how sure he was that he had the correct suspects in custody, he replied "Eleven."

Later, Gitchell would state on camera: ""There's never been a moment that I've ever doubted that we did not arrest the right individuals. Never in my mind. There's never been a doubt." If you overlook his obvious Freudian slip, it's clear that Gitchell believes there is no room for doubt, and that his initial hunch was correct beyond question.

Crowds of angry locals, driven by the hysterical rumors of Satanic human sacrifice and mysterious murdering "cults," waited outside of the courthouses and threw rocks at the defendants, shouted obscenities and told their own tall tales to the media and to each other. Many people came forward with incredible yarns about the mysterious teenager Damien Echols. Rumors were running rampant.

John Mark Byers, the stepfather of one of the victims told the media that his step son's testicl*s had been found in a jar of alcohol under Damien's bed. This, of course, was a complete fabrication, but the local people heard it, and soon had their own vivid memories of that jar. Byers later claimed to have heard the jar of alcohol rumor on his police radio. There were many more rumors, but this one seems to represent them best.

Satanic Panic is a term used to describe a phenomenon which occurs with alarming regularity in areas with deeply rooted Christian traditions. Various forms of Satanic Panic have been observed since the beginning of time, and although the specific details may change with the times, the roots and results are the same as they have been throughout history. Satanic Panics occur when superstitious people in power choose to explain events that are difficult for them to comprehend by blaming demons and witches. Instead of trying to honestly and rationally understand the complexities of criminal behavior, sickness or mental illness they choose instead to simplify things by imagining a character named Satan who is responsible.

The aftermath of the Robin Hood Hills Murders were obviously a Satanic Panic, and the verdicts of the two trials (Damien and Jason were tried together) bear this out. Jason and Jessie were each sentenced to life in prison, with no possibility of parole, and Damien was sentenced to die by lethal injection. Judge David Burnett later said that he was "not surprised" by the verdicts.

Books written by best-selling author Stephen King were used as evidence against Damien when no real evidence could be found. Black concert T-shirts were held up as evidence in an American courtroom in the 1990s as "proof" that Jason Baldwin was capable of murdering three 8 year olds. Lyrics to songs by BLUE OYSTER CULT and PINK FLOYD were shown to the jury, apparently in an effort to suggest to them that they were relevant to the murders, and somehow showed that the defendants were guilty.

The inconsistent testimony of a jail house snitch and a couple of little girls who claim to have overheard Damien "confessing" at a girl's softball game were taken seriously even after the sources were shown to be less than solid. There was no physical evidence that pointed to Damien, Jason or Jessie. There was nothing to suggest that they had killed the three children except the superstitious suspicions that were being fueled by the local media who seemed reluctant to publish a story unless it contained the word "Satan" or at least "cult."

As with any murder, there was certainly evidence. There had to be. Nobody can commit such a violent act and leave absolutely nothing behind. It seems that the West Memphis Police managed to destroy or lose much of what might have been useful. On the night that the children were reported missing Officer Regina Meek received a call to investigate a man in the ladies restroom of a nearby Bojangles restaurant. According to the manager of the restaurant, the black man was muddy, bleeding and mumbling, but Meek simply drove through the restaurant's drive-through window without getting out to even take a look. Twenty four hours later, long after the bodies had been found, officers returned to the Bojangles restaurant, which

was only a few blocks from Robin Hood Hills woods.

This time the officers actually got out of their vehicle and entered the building, but unfortunately they were still wearing the clothes in which they had searched the woods and handled the bodies earlier that day. Whatever evidence might have been collected at the Bojangles restaurant was now contaminated by whatever material the police officers brought in with them on their shoes and clothing.

Blood scrapings were allegedly taken from the walls and tiles in the restaurant, but Detective Bryn Ridge apparently didn't feel that this potential evidence was very important, because he later testified that he lost it.

A scrap of what appears to be dark cloth can be seen in the photographs taken at the site where the bodies were found, held tightly in the hand of one of the young victims. This "fabric like" material is mentioned in the autopsy report filed by Frank Peretti, but was apparently lost during his examination of the victims. This scrap does not appear in any later photographs or reports. We can only guess what happened to it.

Adult human bite marks, which were found on at least one of the victims were also overlooked during the original investigation. This is very likely due to the fact that these bodies were never examined by a Board Certified Medical Examiner. They were buried without ever having been subjected to an autopsy by a qualified forensic pathologist.

Almost five years after the murders, the first board certified medical examiner, forensic pathologist and forensic odontologist to ever examine the victims did so by looking at the autopsy photographs. They testified during Damien Echols' Rule 37 hearing that the bite marks were in fact of human origin, and after obtaining dental impressions from Jason, Jessie and Damien, concluded that the three young men who are currently serving prison sentences for this murder could not possibly be responsible for the bite marks seen in the victim photographs.

More evidence that might have been useful came in the form of human blood found on a serrated knife. This knife had been given to documentary film makers as a gift, but when the film maker noticed what appeared to be blood in the mechanism of the folding blade, he gave it to West Memphis police. The blood was given a cursory test which only determined the blood type, and once this test was done, the blood was ruined for further testing. It was shown that the blood matched the blood type of one of the victims as well as the knife's original owner, but this information was ruled inconclusive by the court. The owner of the knife was John Mark Byers, the stepfather of victim Christopher Byers. Christopher is the victim whose blood type also matched the blood type found on the knife, and he was the one victim who was castrated and repeatedly stabbed and seemed to be focus of the attack. Why did they even bother to do that kind of blood test, when they knew that the results of the test would be inconclusive, and that the evidence would be ruined for further testing?

Many investigators have also noticed a conspicuous lack of blood in Robin Hood Hills where the bodies were found. This strongly suggests to experienced investigators that the murders took place elsewhere and that the wooded area was simply the dump site.

With so much evidence lost, destroyed or overlooked, it's strange how confident Inspector Gary Gitchell remains to this day about his work.

The verdicts and police work have come under serious scrutiny in the two documentary films by HBO (directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky), various articles and TV programs as well as this web site, but Jason Baldwin, Damien Echols and Jessie Misskelley remain behind bars.

A Rule 37 hearing to prove ineffective counsel was held in Arkansas several years ago for Damien Echols, and as expected, Judge David Burnett, the same judge who presided over the original trials, denied the appeal. Despite testimony from several noted experts on forensic odontology and pathology, Burnett decided that the wounds identified by the experts as adult human bite marks were not bite marks. Burnett remarked at one point during the hearings that he'd never even heard of forensic odontology before, and yet he refused to acknowledge their expert testimony. In April of 2001, his decision was reversed and remanded in part by the Arkansas Supreme Court.

The fact that this case is still alive in the minds of thousands of people who aren't happy with what they saw happen in those Arkansas courtrooms is a testament to the possibility that justice may yet be seen. The release of

REVELATIONS: PARADISE LOST REVISITED, the second film about the case by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky shows that the many unresolved mysteries of this complicated case won't just go away. The film is a sequel to their critically successful PARADISE LOST, which launched many people on their own crusades to find the truth behind the superstition, rumors and urban legends surrounding this story.

The police not only betrayed the memory of Steve Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore by not investigating their deaths more effectively, they betrayed Jason Baldwin, Damien Echols and Jessie Misskelley by using them as scapegoats to take the fall for their shoddy work.

This betrayal, the solemn photographs of those three murdered 8 year olds and the three young men in prison for something they did not do, are the things that drive people toward a better understanding of the specifics surrounding this phenomenon. If we refuse to turn our backs on this case, and the forces that cause these kinds of things to happen, then maybe, if we really care about things like truth and justice, we can help to keep this type of witch hunt from happening again. - Burk Sauls, May, 2000

Free The Three (West Memphis Case) (2024)
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