The horrific crime shocked a nation. Three young boys, cub scouts, were tied up, murdered and their naked bodies dumped in a drainage ditch.
As a Deep South community bayed for justice, attention focused on a group of misfit teenagers, heavy metal fans accused of killing the children in a Satanic ritual. The case became a sensation at a time when a ‘Satanic panic’ over cults was gripping 1990s America. All three were found guilty. Jason Baldwin, then 16, and Jessie Misskelley, 17, got life sentences. Damien Echols, 18, was put on death row, where he remains.
Now evidence, including DNA samples, has emerged to suggest the real killers are still at large and that three innocent men have been behind bars for almost 15 years. ‘No reasonable juror would convict… knowing what we know today,’ said defence lawyer Dennis Riordan.
The facts were simple enough. The victims – Christopher Byers, Steve Branch and James Moore – were last seen riding their bikes on 5 May, 1993. Their bodies, tied with shoelaces, were discovered a day later near the Arkansas town of West Memphis, close to the Mississippi river. They were only a few miles from home. Police were shocked by the terrible knife wounds and signs of torture and concluded that some sort of cult ritual had occurred. Attention quickly focused on the town misfits. Under pressure, Misskelley confessed to the killings and all three were found guilty.
Now lawyers for Echols have lodged new evidence seeking to prove his innocence. The case against the West Memphis Three appears to have been more about rushed police work and hyped-up paranoia over non-existent Satanism than evidence. The suspects were just unfortunate to be social outcasts and to like rock music.
First there was Misskelley’s confession. Despite coaching by investigators, Misskelley – who was mentally retarded and had a drug problem – described the murders incorrectly. He described sexual abuse that forensics proved had not happened. He said the murders were in the morning, when the victims were in school, and that they were tied with ropes, not shoelaces. Much of his confession seemed to be suggested by police interrogators.
The prosecution’s assertion that a Satanic ritual had taken place has also now been discredited. The key expert witness on cults, Dale Griffis, had claimed in court that the marks on the bodies were clearly Satanic. However, it was later proved that Griffis had got his ‘PhD in cult studies’ from a fake Californian university that was later closed for being a ‘diploma mill’. ‘Apart from being a travesty of justice, this is not a Satanic murder. There is no ritual,’ said John Douglas, a veteran of the FBI who is working with the defence team.
The wounds that police claimed were ritually inflicted, including sexual mutilation, have also been shown to have been caused by wild animals, probably stray dogs, clawing at the bodies after death. ‘To sell that to a jury was unconscionable. They are scratch marks from some kind of animal,’ said Dr Richard Souviron, a forensics expert in bite marks.
Defence lawyers have tested two hairs found at the scene. One was found entangled in one of the ligatures tying up one of the boys. It has been matched with DNA samples from Terry Hobbs, a stepfather of one of the victims. Another hair, found on a tree stump, has been linked by DNA sampling to David Jacoby, a friend of Hobbs who was with him on the day of the murder and provided him with an alibi. No DNA evidence of any kind has been found at the scene to match any of the West Memphis Three. Douglas, who pioneered the profiling of serial killers at the FBI, also believes they do not match the psychological profile of whoever carried out the crime. He said the way the boys were killed, and their bikes, clothes and bodies hidden, suggested a sophisticated adult who knew the victims.
Sympathy for the Three is growing across America. Marilyn Manson and Eddie Vedder of the band Pearl Jam have joined the campaign to overturn the verdicts. A film is also being made about the case. Called Devil’s Knot, it is being co-produced by Clark Peterson, who made Monster, starring Charlize Theron. ‘This is one of the great crime stories of modern history, and the new evidence makes it all the more compelling,’ Peterson said.
But for the moment the fate of the West Memphis Three still lies with the Arkansas attorney-general’s office. It was last week examining the evidence and appeared in no rush to make a judgment. ‘This process will likely take months, and possibly years,’ said a spokesman.
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