Guest Author - Carla Cano
This case has had some usual twists and turns. On August 19, 2011 three men that had been imprisoned for more than 18 years were released after entering an “Alford Plea”. Damien Echols was on death row just a few days ago, he is now a free man. Jessie Misskelley, Jr. who had was sentenced to life plus another two twenty year sentence, released. Jason Baldwin imprisoned with a life sentenced, set free. While they have been set free, parties on both sides say justice has not been carried out satisfactorily.
The facts of the case are horrific. Three small eight year old boys were brutally murdered. They were left in a creek, hog tied with their own shoe laces in May 1993. Stevie Branch, Michael Moore and Christopher Byers were out riding their bikes in their community, a place that should have been their safe haven. Instead they were visiciously attacked and killed. Three other young men were tried and convicted for the crimes. Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, Jr., and Jason Baldwin were in their late teens when police charged them with murder.
The prosecution had a confession and other evidence that these were the criminals that destroyed the very fabric of this small community. Jessie Misskelley, Jr. confessed to the crime and gave a confession that implicated both Echols and Baldwin. Both Echols and Baldwin claimed innocence throughout the trials in which they were tried together. The police had fibers that connected both Echols and Baldwin to the scene. They found a knife behind Jason Baldwin’s home in a lake that had a serrated blade. All three were found guilty. Jessie Misskelley, Jr. received a sentence of life plus forty years. Jason Baldwin received a sentence of life. Damien Echols received the death penalty. Justice served.
The question remains was justice really served. Many claim that it has not been served that not only did three eight year old little boys lose their life but that three innocent young men lost theirs as well. Supporters of the West Memphis Three as Baldwin, Echols and Misskelley are known, believe that the community tried and convicted these young men solely on the way they dressed, the music they played and the people they associated with and even their religious beliefs. Police and prosecutors insisted that the murders were done for a satanic ritual. The boys, especially Echols, wore black and listened to heavy metal bands such as Metallica and Megadeath. Echols studied Wicca and it was correlated with Satanism by the prosecution.
At the time of the murders there were several theories by those that did not believe it to be done by satanic teenagers. One included a man referred to as Mr. Bojangles was responsible for the deaths of the eight year old boys. He was covered in blood and mud and was found in a women’s restroom of the Bojangles restaurant. Police did not fully investigate the incident until the next day and then lost the evidence gathered. Another was that it was the step-father of one of the boys, Christopher Byers, because there was DNA evidence of his on one of the other boys. There was evidence at the scene that belonged to a friend of John Mark Byers, the step-father. This lead was not followed up. It seemed that the authorities wanted to close the case as quickly as possible and had found their men.
HBO produced a documentary Paradise Lost: Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills. It brought a lot of scrutiny from the public. Several celebrities got involved and began raising funds for the defense of these young men. Many of the celebrities spoke out in their defense including Johnny Depp, Winona Ryder, Natalie Maines, and Eddie Vedder all took a stand. Some believe that because of the celebrity involvment that the state decided that a deal was a better plan than an appeals trial. That the prosecution believed they would not be able to win the case again.
The West Memphis Three were trying to get it back into the courtroom after DNA evidence was retested with new processes available now that wasn’t available in 1994. The evidence showed that there was no DNA from these three boys and pointed in another direction. The “Alford Plea” allowed them to maintain their innocence while pleading guilty because the prosecution had enough evidence to convict. It is very rare for a death row inmate to be released with an “Alford Plea”, but Damien Echols was released along with Jessie Misskelley and Jason Baldwin after serving 18 years and 78 days in prison. The prosecution would not accept the plea unless all three accepted it; Jason was reluctant but did on behalf of Damien who was in solitary confinement. The agreement stops the three men from suing the state and any of the people involved for their incarceration.
So these men are free at last. The states acceptance of the plea agreement seems to say that they were wrong about the teenagers all those years ago but refuse to admit it. Some are saying it is because of the celebrity attention that they would be acquitted in the long run. Some are asking why these men didn’t wait for the trial; perhaps they were truly guilty and decided to get out while the getting was good. Any way you look at it there seems to be a lot missing from this story and there are many saying they won’t stop looking for the truth.