Nearly 15 years ago, the brutal murder of three Arkansas Cub Scouts in an alleged satanic rite sickened a nation and strengthened the hand of death penalty champions across the United States.
Now the same ghastly crime may be the final nail in the coffin of capital punishment in an America that is manifesting a crisis of conscience over the morality of executions.
Over the next few weeks the grim saga of the so-called West Memphis Three, teenagers who were convicted of slaughtering three small boys for kicks, is expected to reach a conclusion as a new suspect is tested and fresh DNA evidence is presented in the highest court in Arkansas.
Legal experts predict that the alleged ringleader, Damien Echols, who in other more “efficient” states such as Texas would have been executed years ago, could be freed from death row by spring.
Opponents of capital punishment are poised to adopt Echols, who has grown from an angry youth into a charismatic Buddhist preacher, as a poster child for a national moratorium on “state-sponsored killing”.
It is already happening: since September last year dozens of executions have been postponed in the face of a legal challenge as to whether the supposedly pain-free lethal injection amounts to “cruel and unusual punishment”. The US Supreme Court will hear evidence next month.
Even before the de facto moratorium, the number of state executions had fallen to its lowest level for a decade. The federal government, which used to hang or electrocute dozens of people each year, has not executed anyone since Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber responsible for 168 deaths, who was dispatched with a lethal injection in 2001.
Four years ago George Ryan startled fellow law-and-order Republicans when, on his retirement as governor of Illinois, he commuted all state death sentences to life sentences. Ryan said DNA testing had shaken his faith by suggesting that as many as 70 of the 1,099 Americans executed since capital punishment was revived in 1976 may have been innocent.
Ryan started a trend. Earlier this month New Jersey became the first state for 42 years to abolish the death penalty and neigh-bouring Maryland is set to follow suit. Texas, a culture all of its own, carries out 60% of all executions in the United States.
A clutch of opinion polls suggest that while most Americans still favour the death penalty, many are expressing reservations about its inherent unfairness. That doubt is at the heart of the case of the West Memphis Three, which keeps throwing up fresh surprises and attracting the attention of Hollywood stars and pop musicians.
The case dates back to a warm summer night in May 1993 when the bodies of three eight-year-old boys — James Moore, Steven Branch and Christopher Byers — were found in a creek near their home.
The quiet city of West Memphis went crazy with grief, with mobs pulling suspicious strangers from cars. Locals started carrying Bibles to declare themselves “normal”.
At the murder scene police asked Jerry Driver, a born-again Christian probation officer, if he had any suspects. He named Echols, a bipolar 18-year-old who, Driver believed, was a satanist because he wore a black leather coat in all weathers and listened to “devil music” such as Pink Floyd and Metallica.
With public pressure growing, police questioned Echols’s friend Jessie Misskelley, a retarded 17-year-old. During 14 hours of interrogation, unprotected by parent or lawyer, the boy confessed that he, Echols and a third friend, Jason Baldwin, had met the children in the woods by accident and then stabbed and raped them for satanic purposes.
Lacking DNA evidence, weapons or a deeper motive, this statement was the cornerstone of the prosecution — even as it emerged during the trial that police had coached Misskelley with lurid details and the victims had not been stabbed but beaten and had not been sexually assaulted.
The mutilations, which had inspired local newspaper stories of devil worship, were caused by snapping turtles.
The jury, gripped by the “devil curses” found in Echols’s diaries, which had been lifted from the works of the author Stephen King, took an hour to find all three guilty. Echols was sentenced to death and his two friends to life imprisonment.
At first the distraught parents were relieved, but then the case started falling to pieces — Driver was unmasked as a fraudster and a key witness admitted that she had invented everything in a deal with police for a cash reward.
The West Memphis Three case has since become a cause ce’le`bre. Two films have been made about it, Tom Waits, the rock star, and other music figures contributed to a fundraising album and Winona Ryder, the Hollywood actress, joined the campaign to free them.
Just before Christmas, Natalie Maines, outspoken leader of the Dixie Chicks, the country band, addressed a 500-strong protest meeting in Little Rock, Arkansas, demanding a fresh trial.
This now seems to be on the horizon. Six weeks ago Echols’s lawyer revealed that new and independent DNA tests of the murder scene not only cleared the trio but also pointed to a friend of the parents of one of the victims, who had a brutal history. The man is now being “interviewed” by West Memphis police and new hearings are “under consideration”.
Two sets of bereaved parents recently declared that they feel betrayed by police and lawyers and want an inquest.
“We can only thank God that Damien Echols has survived death row,” said John Mark Byers, stepfather of Chris Byers. “Otherwise, not only would we have lost the chance of finding the truth but we, too, would have blood on our hands. And that would have been unbearable.”