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On August 19, 2011, three men, Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, who were convicted as teenagers in 1994 of the murders of three boys in Arkansas, are released from prison in a special legal deal allowing them to maintain their innocence while acknowledging that prosecutors had sufficient evidence to convict them. Echols, 36, had been on death row, while Baldwin, 34, and Misskelley, 36, were serving life sentences. Collectively known as the “West Memphis Three,” the men had always maintained their innocence, and questions about the evidence used to convict them had persisted for years. Their case attracted widespread attention and the support of a number of celebrities.
In May 1993, the bodies of three 8-year-old boys, Christopher Byers, Steve Branch and Michael Moore, were found naked and hog-tied in a drainage ditch in a wooded section of West Memphis, Arkansas. Investigators initially had few solid leads; however, because the bodies appeared to have been mutilated, rumors circulated about a possible connection to satanic cult activities. A tip eventually led investigators to focus on the teenage Echols, a high school dropout who grew up poor, was interested in witchcraft and regularly wore black clothing. Then, Misskelley, an acquaintance of Echols, confessed to the murders following a lengthy interrogation by authorities, and implicated Echols and Baldwin. Described as having a below-average IQ, Misskelley provided information about the crime that conflicted in key ways from details known to the police, and he soon recanted his confession. Nevertheless, in February 1994, he was convicted of first- and second-degree murder, and sentenced to life in prison plus 40 years.
In a separate trial in March 1994, Echols and Baldwin were convicted of capital murder. During the trial, Misskelley refused to testify against the two, and prosecutors had no eyewitnesses or physical evidence linking Echols and Baldwin to the crime. Instead, the prosecution presented evidence that Echols, the alleged ringleader, read books about witchcraft as well as novels by Stephen King and Anne Rice, and said he was motivated to murder the boys as part of an occult ritual.
The case gained national attention with the release of the 1996 documentary “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills,” which cast doubt on the men’s guilt. A movement grew to free the West Memphis Three, and celebrities including Pearl Jam front man Eddie Vedder, Dixie Chicks singer Natalie Maines and film director Peter Jackson (“The Lord of the Rings” trilogy) spoke out in support of the three men and helped fund a legal team to fight the convictions. In 2007, lawyers for the West Memphis Three said new forensic tests showed there was no DNA evidence to link the men to the crime.
In the fall of 2010, the Arkansas Supreme Court ordered a hearing for Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley to determine if they deserved new trials. However, before the hearing took place, the trio’s lawyers and prosecutors in Arkansas reached a deal allowing the men to enter an Alford plea and go free. With this little-used legal tool, a defendant is allowed to maintain his or her innocence but plead guilty because it is considered in his or her best interest to do so.
In a statement following his release from custody on August 19, 2011, Echols said, in part, of the plea deal: “I have now spent half my life on death row. It is a torturous environment that no human being should have to endure, and it needed to end. I am innocent, as are Jason and Jessie, but I made this decision because I did not want to spend another day of my life behind those bars.”
One of the West Memphis Three: From prison to Oscars
As "Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory" director Joe Berlinger phrased it on the red carpet for the Academy Awards Sunday, it certainly wasn't "a typical day for a documentary maker, or a guy who was in prison seven months ago."
The guy Berlinger's referring to is Jason Baldwin, one of the West Memphis Three who was released from prison after 18 years last August, and the subject of Berlinger's "Paradise Lost 3" documentary with Bruce Sinofsky.
All three arrived at the Oscars on Sunday, with Baldwin especially taken aback by the transition his life has taken.
"Every day I wake up and I thank God for the community that came together," Baldwin told us on the red carpet. "Everybody came together and made it possible for us to be free now."
And not just out of prison, but also at the Oscars: "I just told Bruce [Sinofsky]," Baldwin said, "do not pinch me because I don’t want to wake up."
"Paradise Lost 3" is nominated for a best documentary feature Oscar at tonight's show.
Soundoff (4 Responses)
The state probably accepted the Alford plea offered by the defense because they would have been up against an OJ style defense. It would have cost them millions to prosecute and if they lost, more money.
The 3 were convicted on solid evidence. Misskelley knew what he was doing when he confessed. He had been in legal trouble before and was a street smart kid. He confessed THREE times, once in front of his lawyer.
The DNA found at the scene of the crime of the three murdered boys that was supposedly from Hobbs was from a hair that could have come from simple contact with one of the victims. The hair could have belonged to 1.5 percent of the population (or several million people). The so called new witnesses are fourth hand statements against Hobbs. The evidence against Hobbs is very weak. The evidence and the many confessions against the WM3 is much stronger.
Misskelley also told two other people about the crime before he was arrested. Baldwin told someone else he committed the crimes. Echols was seen in muddy clothes near the crime scene. Echols is reported to have either told or bragged about the crime to four people before he was arrested.
Echols had a history of psychiatric treatment and psychotic behavior. His reported actions included brutally killing a dog, starting fires at his school, threatening to kill his teachers and parents and stating he liked to drink blood.
The one sided movies and websites about this case leave out the evidence showing why they were found guilty. Yet they were found guilty once and plead guilty a second time.
Problem is, Gena. They did do it, were convicted of doing it, and then plead guilty to doing it.
Explain this then, truther.. Why would the state of Arkansas let them go free if they really thought they did it? Do you really think that if the state believed they brutally murdered those three boys that they would have set them free, Alford plea or not? Do you really believe they would have let them maintain their innocence? The answer is NO to all of the above. These young men had nothing to do with the murders and all the evidence proves this. They were convicted on lies and propaganda. The "witnesses" came forward and admitted they lied. Terry Hobbs was proven to be lying about not seeing the boys that day. His DNA was found at the crime scene as was that of his friend he was with that day. What evidence do you have that Damien, Jason, and Jessie did it? If it was the so-called confession Jessie gave, you really need to rethink it. First of all, he was a minor and there was no parent present. Secondly, he has an IQ that would qualify him as mentally deficient. Thirdly, they coaxed him providing him the correct answers to the questions promising him he could go home. (Example: When asked what time they abducted the boys, he said it was that morning. This was not true as the boys were in school that day. So they next asked, that evening, when did you abduct the boys?) Look at the transcripts of the interview. They kept asking until he got the right answer. They railroaded these three young men because they were different. It is a shame people like you are so blinded by the idiocy that you cannot see the truth..
I wish him all the best in life and hope that someday the 3 of them will get their names cleared. They deserve the best that life has to offer. Best of luck in whatever you do in the future because Lord knows they have paid enough while they were in jail for something they didn't do.
John Mark Byers: Outspoken stepdad in ‘West Memphis Three’ case has died
John Mark Byers, the stepfather of one of the children killed in the West Memphis Three case, has died.
Byers, 63, was once considered a person of interest in the 1993 killings of Christopher Byers, Michael Moore, and Steve Branch, all 8. Byers was the stepfather of Christopher. He was never charged in connection with the deaths.
Arkansas Times reports that Byers was in a single-car crash on Chambers Road near Memphis, Tennessee, on Thursday. He passed away from his injuries.
SCSO is on the scene of a single-vehicle crash at Chambers Road and Shakerag Road. One person has been pronounced deceased at ROH. The area near the crash scene is blocked. Investigators are working to learn the cause of this crash. pic.twitter.com/6GM88cJU4U
&mdash ShelbyTNSheriff (@ShelbyTNSheriff) June 19, 2020
In 1994, Damian Echols, Jessie Misskelley Jr., and Jason Baldwin, all teens at the time, were convicted for the children’s murders. They were later dubbed “The West Memphis Three.”
The children’s remains were found at the Robin Hood Hills in West Memphis, Arkansas. They were bound up with their own shoelaces and found naked near a creek. All three boys had lacerations on their bodies, and found covered in dried mud and leaves, according to an autopsy report.
Damien Echols, center, a producer of the film “West of Memphis,” mingles with Pam Hobbs, left, and Mark Byers at the premiere of the documentary film at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, Friday, Jan. 20, 2012. Echols spent 18 years on death row in Arkansas after being accused, along with Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr., of the murders of three eight-year-old boys including Byers’ son Christopher and Hobbs’ son Stevie. In August 2011 the three men were released from prison after entering a plea that allowed them to maintain their innocence, while acknowleding that prosecutors had enough evidence to convict them. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)
In 2011, the West Memphis Three took an Alford Plea, meaning they maintained their innocence, although the charges against them were never officially dropped. All three were released from prison, including Echols, who spent years on death row.
Although Byers was a staunch protester against the accused West Memphis Three, he later changed his mind, apologized, and named Terry Wayne Hobbs as the alleged killer. Hobbs was the stepfather of Steve Branch.
Hobbs has not been charged in connection with the children’s deaths.
Byers gained notoriety for his candid remarks and brazen actions in the HBO trilogy documentaries about the case.
For the latest true crime and justice news, subscribe to the ‘Crime Stories with Nancy Grace’ podcast. Here is our latest episode.
The West Memphis Three Have Been Freed After 18 Years in Prison
Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, Jr., collectively known as the West Memphis Three, have been released from prison today, ending 18 years of incarceration for an Arkansas triple murder the three men insist they did not commit. The men were convicted in 1994 of murdering three eight year old boys in a satanic ritual the year prior, based on controversial evidence and confessions–DNA tests would later fail to link the trio to the murders. Today, in a plea deal, the three have been released based on time already served (Baldwin and Misskelley had been sentenced to life in prison, and Echols was on death row).
UPDATE 1: CNN explains the unique Alford plea that led the release of The West Memphis Three.
UPDATE 2: MSNBC has posted video of the press conference with Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, Jr. just after their release.
UPDATE 3: Here’s video of the public hearing for The West Memphis on August 19, 2011.
We’ve written about the West Memphis Three since the early days of the Laughing Squid blog:
Damien Echols On Life After Death Row
Damien Echols spent 18 years in prison because of the West Memphis Three case before being released. He describes acclimating to new technology, if he’s ever returned to West Memphis, and what he thinks is the modern day satanic panic.
Imagine this: You're locked away in a tiny bare cell, far away from your friends, your family, your home. You're deprived of sunlight to the point where you never know what time it is you barely interact with other other humans you're constantly in some kind of physical pain. Every day brings you that much closer to your death sentence, one that's been handed down for a crime you know you didn't commit.
That existence was Damien Echols' reality on death row for 18 years. And somehow, he survived the experience and came out stronger and more fulfilled than ever — and he credits it all to what he calls "high magick."
Echols was originally sentenced to death in 1994 as part of the infamous West Memphis Three case. Three 8-year-old boys — Christopher Byers, Steve Branch, and Michael Moore — were murdered, their bodies found hogtied, naked, and and abandoned in a West Memphis, Arkansas creek in May 1993.
Echols, then 18, was soon charged with the crime, with police insisting it was a satanic ritual murder. His close friend, 16-year-old Jason Baldwin, and a 17-year-old acquaintance, Jessie Misskelley, were charged as well. On the basis of Misskelley's confession (which he later claimed was coerced) and not much else, the three were found guilty of murder. Misskelley and Baldwin were sentenced to life in prison, Echols was sent to death row.
Of course, their story had a somewhat happy ending: All three were released in 2011 after the discovery of new forensic evidence while they were not exonerated, they entered Alford pleas, which means they maintained their innocence but acknowledged there was enough evidence against them to convict. But while Echols survived death row long enough to walk out a free man, it wasn't, as he admitted during a talk Thursday at the NYC true crime festival Death Becomes Us, an easy task.
As Echols described it, life on death row consists of one 8-by-10 room, 24/7. For the first 10 years he had access to other people, he claimed, but as the years went by, the inmates were separated more and more until he ended up in his solitary cell, which had just one window. Barely any light came through, as there was a brick wall just a few feet in front of it. "You have to make time," he explained of the endless, lonely, indistinguishable hours in the cell.
"People go stark raving insane in there all the time," Echols said. He told tragic stories stories of fellow inmates, like a man who cut his throat with a shaving razor and curled up in a blanket so it would hide the blood and allow him enough time to die before the guards noticed, and of someone who broke his fists pounding on his cell, screaming the devil was in there, only to get out, have his hands bandaged, and be thrown back in.
And it wasn't just the bad food, the omnipresent specter of death, and the solitary confinement that made death row so hellish. Echols recalled vicious guard beatings that left him "pissing blood."
"[The guards] will take your books, your letters. I was beaten [because] of the new evidentiary hearing, less than an hour after the announcement, they destroyed and took everything in my cell because I was going back to court."
But Echols said he was able to make it through all these hardships because he started practicing magick, which made conditions bearable and kept him sane.
Comedian Dave Hill, who interviewed Echols Thursday, joked a bit about magick, knowing many aren't super-familiar with the topic.
"Magic is for nerds," Hill said. "But magick with a 'k' sounds like there are goats involved."
Magick, as Echols puts it, "is the western path to enlightenment." It's similar to things like the Law of Attraction or The Secret, in that it all has to do with manifesting in some way, according to Echols.
"[We're] wandering aimlessly, that's what we do through life. We don't remember where we come from, where we're going, or why we're supposed to be going there. Magick causes you to remember some of these things and gives you a sense of purpose," he explained.
Practicing magick for Echols consists of a variety of different meditation, visualization and breathing techniques, as well as ceremonies and rituals, all for the purpose of spiritual growth. This kept him balanced and helped him manage the physical and emotional stress and pain of imprisonment.
Echols was able to learn so much about magick through all his time reading in prison. He got his hands on whatever he could find to read during those endless days, and started from there.
Echols would look in the indexes of books he enjoyed to find other titles then, when people wrote to him asking if he wanted them to send him books, he could suggest exactly what titles he wanted. A true passion was born.
In fact, Echols is still committed to magick to this day. After all, it wasn't easy adjusting to life after prison.
"I didn't realize I had lost things like facial recognition ability, voice recognition ability, destroyed my eyesight. It takes a very heavy toll on you mentally, physically, emotionally," he explained. He even claimed that he had barely any memories of his first two years out of prison, as he was just so traumatized.
But through his commitment to magick, Echols has more than just perservered. He currently lives in New York City with his wife, Lorri Davis, who he met when she wrote to him while he was in prison. He's written three books, including one that describes the magick practices that got him through those 18 years: "High Magick: A Guide to the Spiritual Practices That Saved My Life On Death Row." He's running a retreat in Joshua Tree later this year. And he continues to spread the message of magick however he can.
As Echols put it, magick got him through not just a "physical prison" but also a "mental prison." And if he had to back and do it all over again, he would: "I am thankful for what I went through."
To attend other panels this weekend, including the Martinis & Murder Live show, visit Death Becomes Us.
The 'West Memphis Three' Are Freed, Giving A Documentary A New Ending
Updated again, 4:30 p.m.:HBO has announced that the first two Paradise Lost documentaries will be available on the network's mobile app, HBO GO, beginning Tuesday, August 23rd, and HBO On Demand beginning Wednesday, August 24th. They will then air on HBO — the first one on Monday, August 29th and the second one on Tuesday, August 30th.
Updated, 1:00 p.m.:The parties have announced that under a plea agreement, the "West Memphis Three" are being released from custody today.
This morning in Jonesboro, Ark., Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, known as the "West Memphis Three," are being released today after spending 18 years in prison for the 1993 murders of three young boys. Echols had been sentenced to death.
Under the arrangement worked out with prosecutors, the existing convictions were set aside in return for the agreement of all three to be charged again, to plead guilty, and to be sentenced to the time they had already served. In other words, they were not exonerated they were convicted again, but under the new convictions, they serve no additional time in prison and get to go home. Among other things, according to prosecutor Scott Ellington, it protects the state from being sued for wrongful imprisonment in the event they were retried and acquitted. They remain, in the eyes of the law, guilty, despite the fact that they maintain that, in fact, they are innocent. (This particular kind of guilty plea is called an Alford plea after the case where it was established lots of information about Alford pleas is linked from here.)
The original convictions, based on a theory that Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley killed the three children as part of a Satanic ritual, were the subject of the 1996 HBO documentary Paradise Lost: The Child Murders At Robin Hood Hills and the 2000 follow-up Paradise Lost 2: Revelations. Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory is set to premiere at this year's Toronto International Film Festival. All three come from filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky.
The case is also the subject of the 2002 book Devil's Knot.
The first two documentaries — and presumably the third — argue that the three were wrongfully convicted primarily because they were, in a word, weird, and because of fears whipped up in the community by mentions of Satanism.
As the films tell the story, they were misfits in West Memphis, teenagers who listened to the wrong music and dressed the wrong way and made people intensely uncomfortable. Misskelley, a 17-year-old with a reported I.Q. of 72 when he was arrested, confessed to the police after a lengthy interrogation, only to almost immediately recant. The Supreme Court of Arkansas later called the confession, in which he admitted being present but primarily incriminated Echols and Baldwin, "virtually the only evidence" against Misskelley, and noted that it contained "a confusing amalgam of times and events" and "numerous inconsistencies," both internally and with the actual physical evidence in the case. The court nevertheless upheld his conviction.
The case has attracted widespread attention over the last 15 years or so, including high-profile support from celebrities including Eddie Vedder, Johnny Depp and Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks. Efforts to get a new trial had been unsuccessful, but the case has continued to churn along with the growth of DNA evidence.
This morning, Berlinger and Sinofsky were at the courthouse in Jonesboro awaiting the release of the three, because that documentary that's about to premiere is going to need a new ending, and a black screen with white letters giving the update is not going to do it. In an interview, they credited HBO's Sheila Nevins with spotting the story that eventually led to the documentaries being produced and shown on the network.
The activist documentary has a long history — the most famous true-crime example before now that's actually been credited for anyone being released from prison is probably Errol Morris' 1988 film The Thin Blue Line, which is frequently cited as contributing to the release of Randall Adams in 1989. But that case was widely discussed over the course of that year this one has been the subject of benefit concerts, special reports, and massive online discussions for at least the last 15 years. There are still documentaries made about criminal defendants there were several at Silverdocs this summer.
And with these defendants leaving custody after nearly 20 years, there will likely be even more.
'West Memphis 3' freed in child killings after 18 years
Jonesboro, Arkansas (CNN) -- Three men who served 18 years in prison following their convictions in a 1993 triple-slaying in West Memphis, Arkansas, walked free Friday to cheers from a supportive crowd after entering new pleas in the case.
"I want to be out. I deserve to be out," said Jason Baldwin, who along with Damien Echols and Jessie Misskelley Jr., was freed after entering rarely used pleas in which they maintained their innocence but acknowledged that prosecutors have evidence to convict them.
Echols and Baldwin entered what is known as an Alford plea on three counts of first degree murder. Misskelley entered similar pleas to one count of first degree murder and two counts of second degree murder.
Craighead County Circuit Judge David Laser sentenced the three to the 18 years already served and imposed a 10-year suspended sentence -- meaning they could be returned to jail if they violate the law.
"I don't think that it will make the pain go away to the victim families. I don't think it will make the pain go away to the defendant families," Laser said, adding it was nevertheless the best for all involved.Filmmakers: Happy to see men out of jail Presumed guilty: Murder in West Memphis Singers want 'West Memphis 3' released
Echols was previously sentenced to death and Misskelley and Baldwin were given life sentences in the May 1993 slayings of second-graders Steven Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore.
The boys' bodies were mutilated and left in a ditch, hogtied with their own shoelaces. Prosecutors argued that the men who were convicted, teenagers at the time, were driven by satanic ritual and that Echols had been the ringleader.
Critics of the case against the men argued that no direct evidence tied the three to the murders and that a knife recovered from a lake near the home of one of the men could not have caused the boys' wounds. More recent DNA testing also demonstrated no links, according to the men's supporters.
Echols said after his release that he was "very much in shock, very overwhelmed."
"I'm just tired," Echols said. "This has been going on for over 18 years, and it's been an absolute living hell."
Baldwin said he didn't initially want to accept the deal.
"This was not justice," he said, adding that he dropped his opposition to pave the way for Echols' release from death row.
"He had it so much worse than I had it," Baldwin said of Echols. "It's just insufferable to put a person through that."
While prosecuting attorney Scott Ellington said the pleas entered Friday validate the decision of jurors who sent the men to prison, it also spares Arkansas the possibility of a retrial, which would have been difficult to prosecute after so many years, or a potential civil lawsuit by the men. The trio had been on course to win the right to new trials later this year.
"This is an appropriate resolution to this case at this time," Ellington, who works in Arkansas' second judicial district, told reporters. "Only time will tell as to whether this was a right decision on my part."
Although supporters of the men, dubbed the West Memphis 3, believe the true killer remains free, Ellington said he believes the pleas resolve the case.
"I have no reason to believe there was anyone else involved in the homicide of these three children but the three defendants who pled guilty today," he said. But he said the state could file charges against others if new evidence emerges implicating someone else in the case.
Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel said his staff had been helping Ellington's staff prepare for a state Supreme Court hearing on the case scheduled for December. But he said he learned this week that Ellington had accepted a plea deal proposed by the defense.
"I continue to believe that these defendants are guilty of the crimes for which they have now been twice convicted," McDaniel said in a release. "Prosecutors know their cases better than anyone. In this case, Mr. Ellington has exercised his discretion in such a way that has led to nine murder convictions that can never be appealed."
The case has drawn national attention, with actor Johnny Depp and singers Eddie Vedder and Natalie Maines trying to rally support for the men's release. Vedder and Maines were at the courthouse on Friday.
John Mark Byers, whose stepson Christopher Byers was one of the three victims, said he believes the three men are innocent and releasing them without exonerating them of the crime is an outrage.
"They're innocent. They did not kill my son," Byers said before the hearing.
The father of another of the victims, Steven Branch, also blasted the decision, but for another reason.
"I don't know what kind of deal they worked up," Steve Branch told CNN affiliate WMC-TV before the hearing. "Now you can get some movie stars and a little bit of money behind you, and you can walk free for killing somebody."
But Jessie Misskelley Sr. said he was happy that his son would be getting out of prison.
"I thought it might be some kind of publicity stunt. I can't believe it but it's real," he told WMC.
The three men were seeking a retrial in the case, and a hearing had been scheduled for a new trial. The state Supreme Court ruled in November that the three could present new evidence to the trial court after DNA testing between 2005 and 2007 failed to link them to the crime.
The material included hair from a ligature used to bind Moore and a hair recovered from a tree stump near where the bodies were found, Arkansas Supreme Court documents said.
The hair found in the ligature was consistent with Branch's stepfather, Terry Hobbs, while the hair found on the tree stump was consistent with the DNA of a friend of Hobbs, according to the documents.
Police have never considered Hobbs a suspect, and he maintains that he had nothing to do with the murders.
Echols and Baldwin said in a news conference after the men were released that they would continue to work to clear their names, something Baldwin said authorities aren't trying to do.
"They're not out there trying to find out who really murdered those boys," he said.
Death Row Inmate and Two Other Arkansas Teens Released After 18 Years in Prison
Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley Jr., known as the “West Memphis Three,” were 18, 16, and 17 years old, respectively, when they were arrested for killing three young boys in Robin Hood Hills, Arkansas, in 1993. Mr. Echols, a self-described Wiccan who wore all Black and listened to heavy metal, was convicted and sentenced to death. Mr. Misskelley, a mentally challenged youth from whom police obtained a confession after a 12-hour interrogation, and 16-year-old Jason Baldwin, were sentenced to life imprisonment. All three consistently asserted they were innocent. On August 19, 2011, after new forensic testing showed that DNA evidence at the crime scene did not match any of the three, they appeared in court and continued to maintain their innocence while pleading guilty in exchange for time served.
The three teens were convicted in 1994 amid a nationwide panic about satanic cult activity among teenagers. Documentaries, books, and benefit concerts brought national attention to the case, but appeals failed until last November, when the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled that new forensic test results required a hearing to determine whether to grant a new trial.
Deal Frees 'West Memphis Three' in Arkansas
The 'West Memphis Three' and Combating Cognitive Biases
Communities Nationwide Acknowledge Racial Terror Violence to Commemorate Juneteenth
Connecticut Becomes First State to Provide Free Calls from Prison
Federal Prison Officials Granted Only 36 of 31,000 Compassionate Release Requests During Pandemic
Decades Later, Discovery of Mass Graves in Tulsa and British Columbia Reinforce Need for Truth and Reconciliation
Peter Jackson's West of Memphis: the tale of three wronged men
A fter his release from prison, Damien Echols found the simplest things hardest. "For 18 years I hadn't walked without chains," he says, "so when I came out I would trip over my feet. It took time just to stop falling over the kerb." He is calling from New York, but still speaks with the accent of the American south – the place where until last year he spent his whole life, half of it jailed as a child killer.
The facts are a tangle of names and dates. On 6 May 1993, the naked, mutilated bodies of three eight-year-old boys – Stevie Branch, Michael Moore and Christopher Byers – were found in a water-filled ditch in the Bible belt town of West Memphis, Arkansas. By the following March, three local teenagers had been convicted of the crimes – Echols, then 18, his friend Jason Baldwin, 17, and Jesse Misskelley, 18, an acquaintance with an IQ of 72 who at one point confessed and implicated his co-defendants.
Then in August 2011, after a tireless campaign involving rock stars, movie actors and ordinary supporters, the three were released. Echols is now close to the end of his 30s, a fluent, compelling speaker, seen by almost all who know the case as the victim of a vast miscarriage of justice – but legally considered a murderer. Such is the background to West of Memphis, a new documentary produced by the director Peter Jackson– released as his version of The Hobbit takes over cinemas – that covers the history of the case and what is, for the moment, its conclusion. Echols is now the author of a well-received memoir, Life After Death, who wears blue-tinted sunglasses because his eyes have failed to re-adjust to natural light and is also another of the film's producers. He admits to weariness discussing the case: "Because it gets to the point where the world looks at you and just sees that. I am the case and the case is me."
This much was always true. During their trial, prosecutors claimed grotesque injuries suffered by the boys were proof the murders had been a satanic ritual – one led by Echols, a bright, troubled heavy-metal kid with an interest in Wicca who had long been cast as town misfit. Despite a lack of physical evidence to connect them to the crimes, the accused were invited to burn in hell by crowds outside court. Once found guilty, Baldwin and Misskelley were given life sentences. Echols was to be executed.
No outcry resulted. But in 1996, a documentary called Paradise Lost was released – the first of three films about the case co-directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky. Its coverage of the trial's most damning flaws was enough to inspire a campaign for the release of the trio now dubbed the West Memphis Three. Singer Henry Rollins and Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder played benefit concerts, while in the first dawn of internet activism a now-defunct website wm3.org percolated word of the bias that had defined the case.
But in the Arkansas "supermax" built to house prisoners on death row, Echols says it all "felt a million miles away. You think, yeah that's all fine and good but it's not the world I live in". Soon, Echols would start to study meditation and marry an architect convinced of his innocence, Lorri Davis – yet supporters' dreams of his release came to nothing.
By 2004, the three had been in jail a decade. Then Jackson, fresh from winning 11 Oscars for his last Lord of the Rings movie, entered the story. The impetus was Paradise Lost, which Jackson happened to watch one night at his New Zealand home. Instantly, he sought involvement. But a film was never the plan – instead, he funded a souped-up, hands-on approach to forensic tests and tracing witnesses: "It's not like he just threw money at it," Echols says. "He was literally part of our legal team."
Yet for all Jackson's movie-business heft, back in Arkansas the state refused to hear new evidence. The case, where it mattered, was closed. Only then was West of Memphis born – Jackson seeing it as the best way to pressure the authorities.
The director he hired to make it was documentarian Amy Berg. On a sunny afternoon in London, she remembers first immersing herself in the case. Like so many, she discovered a toxic brew of class and religious prejudice, self-interested police and politically ambitious lawyers and judges: "It became clear the basic principle of innocent until proven guilty had been done a huge disservice."
So while West of Memphis retells the story of the case, it also becomes part of it – the legal work Jackson financed unpicking the threadbare convictions. Even in a world grown blase about miscarriages of justice, the scale is stunning. Misskelley's original confession proves a ragbag of police coaching prosecution witnesses tearfully recant animal experts insist the boys' "Satanic" wounds were caused by turtles after their deaths a belated DNA test finds no sign of Echols, Baldwin or Misskelley. A full retrial looks irresistible.
Yet events overtook the end the case seemed destined for. Ultimately, that came not with cinematic gavel-bashing, but a muted moment of legal sleight-of-hand. After negotiations between Echols' lawyers and the authorities, the three men agreed to enter an Alford plea – an arcane guilty plea in which a defendant maintains his innocence while accepting enough evidence exists to convict him. The deal insured the state of Arkansas against expensive lawsuits from the three, with the bait for them a quick release – albeit one with a terrible catch. Sentenced to the 18 years and 78 days they had already served, they walked free – but remained convicted child murderers.
Watching West of Memphis, the sight of the men stepping into the daylight has a huge emotional charge. But freedom proved gruelling. Echols, re-entering a world he last saw in 1994, headed for New York to be with Davis. There, he says he was "in profound shock. People expect you to be jubilant, and part of you is, but there's also a crippling anxiety at being injected back into the world. Computers everywhere. I hadn't seen a computer since they were giant typewriters for rich people." Back in Arkansas, at least one of the dead boys' fathers was vocally outraged. While some officials involved in the case assumed a low profile, others did not – original trial judge David Burnett derided the release as "Hollywood comedy".
For the three, there was little comic about almost two decades of prison. Troubling, too, is the thought that without their celebrity supporters, Echols would be dead by now, Baldwin and Misskelley forgotten. Echols, who grew up in poverty like the others, says not only would legal costs have been beyond him, but "you can have all the evidence of your innocence in the world, but if you can't get that information out, the state will execute you and sweep it under the rug. Eddie, Peter, Johnny [Depp – another supporter, with whom Echols now shares a matching tattoo], they all helped bring our case to people's attention."
Damien Echols with West Memphis Three supporter Johnny Depp. Photograph: Rex Features/Startraks Photo
But the question of who helped who in securing the three's release is an awkward one. As co-director of the Paradise Lost trilogy, the third of which was last year nominated for an Oscar, Joe Berlinger has been involved with the case since his early 30s. Now 51, he is a pillar of the documentary community. Asked to comment on reports of his unhappiness at West of Memphis, he replies with a 5,000 word email, filled with praise for Berg's film-making, the "heroic" role of Peter Jackson, and assertions that the more films make people aware of the case the better.
It also reveals his unease at a number of details on-screen and events off it. For instance, he notes the film's lack of acknowledgement of a number of parties including Jason Baldwin's lawyers and the groundbreaking online community at wm3.org – and his own films too, towards which he calls West of Memphis's attitude "ungracious" and "manipulative".
But his biggest grievance involves Pam Hicks, formerly Hobbs, mother of one of the dead boys, Stevie Branch, and now a supporter of the three. She was, he says, keen to appear in the third Paradise Lost. Yet once recruited by West of Memphis, she was persuaded to sign a deal forbidding contact with any other documentary. Berlinger's request for "a co-operative spirit" was, he says, met with a lawyer's letter both "overly aggressive and hugely disappointing".
Other conflicts have involved the three themselves. Inevitably, a feature film has been made. Adapted from the well-regarded non-fiction book The Devil's Knot, the movie has been directed by film-maker Atom Egoyan, with Reese Witherspoon cast as Pam Hobbs and Colin Firth playing Ron Lax, a private investigator who worked pro bono for all three men. Even before its release, Echols has been openly hostile.
"The script is absolute garbage," he says. "It's not remotely accurate or truthful." In the past, he has objected to its portrait of his teenage self as a blood-drinking occultist. Now, he complains about the lack of credit given to his wife, and the focus on Lax – "a fringe character" – simply because "he's the one who sold them the rights to his life". He pauses: "And it's incredibly sensationalist. The writing is horrible. Atrocious."
As Echols is with West of Memphis, Baldwin is credited as a producer on the film. Before their release, he originally refused to agree to the Alford plea, unwilling to make any admission of guilt. In the end, with all three men needing to make the deal for any to go free, he acceded through concern for an ailing Echols. Yet once they were out, The Devil's Knot caused a breach between them. For a time this year, the two stopped speaking.
They have reconciled since – though Echols still insists that "Jason is being taken advantage of." Baldwin lives in Seattle, attends college andplans to train as a lawyer and represent victims of wrongful convictions – a goal his own conviction for now makes impossible. Jesse Misskelley – the only one of the three to return to Arkansas – has become agoraphobic, Echols says. "You load all this trauma on someone with an IQ of 72 and it's messed him up. He never leaves his house. Doesn't talk to anyone. Who knows what's going to become of him?"
In recent weeks, free screenings of West of Memphis have taken place across the south. The aim of the campaign now is to push for the men to be exonerated. All parties know that may never happen – realistically, for them to be absolved, someone else has to be found guilty. For Echols, more of the same awaits: "I'm so damn tired. But if we stop ripping the wound open, the people who did this to us will never be held responsible, and the person who belonged in prison in the first place will never be in prison."
Eventually, he says, he wants to open a meditation centre. For now he's busy with another memoir. I ask if he wants to move into fiction, but he says no, that he hates writing dialogue. Besides, fiction somehow doesn't work for him.
"If it didn't really happen," he says, "then how do you know what happens next?"
August 19, 2011, 7:08 pm CDT
Three men convicted in a controversial Arkansas child-murder case were released from prison today after taking Alford pleas during a court hearing in Jonesboro.
Jason Baldwin, Damien Echols and Jessie Misskelley Jr. were sentenced to 18 years in prison, with credit for time served, in the 1993 slayings of Steven Branch, Christopher Byers and fellow second-grader Michael Moore, CNN reports. Baldwin and Misskelley had previously been sentenced to life, and Echols got the death penalty.
No direct evidence connects the three defendants, who are now in their mid-30s, to the West Memphis murders, and they maintain their innocence. Meanwhile, DNA tests on strands of hair found on or near the bodies matched a family member of one of the victims and a friend of that family member, the article says. However, the family member has never been considered a suspect and says he is innocent.
A state supreme court decision last year had granted the three an opportunity to present evidence at a hearing to seek new trials, based on the DNA test findings. It isn’t clear whether the Alford plea deal will put an end to the defendants’ efforts to prove their innocence in the Craighead County Circuit Court case.
Prosecutor Scott Ellington says he has no reason to think anyone else is guilty of the crime but will pursue other defendants if additional evidence comes to light, CNN reports. He said the unusual Alford plea deal, in which the defendants maintain their innocence but admit the government has enough evidence to prove them guilty, was best for all involved.
A written statement by Ellington is posted on the Arkansas Blog of the Arkansas Times.
Baldwin said he was reluctant to accept the deal, which he described as “not justice,” but did so to allow Echols, who he said “had it so much worse than I had it,” to get off death row, CNN reports.
The father of one victim expressed outrage that the three defendants have not been exonerated and the father of another victim expressed outrage that the three men are being freed.
A series of documentaries by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky helped focus public attention on the case.
National Public Radio: “The ‘West Memphis Three’ Are Freed, Giving A Documentary A New Ending”