On May 5th, 1993 the lives of 6 families were permanently rocked, catapulting every family into a state of depression some still experience today. Stripped nude, hogtied with their shoelaces, hands, and ankles bound behind their back, the corpses of Michael Moore, Steven “Stevie” Branch, and Christopher (Chris) Byers were discovered in a muddy creek bed by the West Memphis Police Department in a locale that had been already scoured, The Robin Hood Woods on May 6th, 1993. The corpse of Christopher Byers had lacerations of various degrees to multiple parts of his corpse with the castration of his scrotum and penis. The face of Stevie has almost been ripped apart. Their clothing was discovered in the creek where they were found out, turned inside out, and was curled around muddy sticks. Upon this discovery, West Memphis Police believed the boys had been raped and assumed some kind of satanic ritual occurred.
Within a month, police already speculated they had found the perpetrators, and with the admission of 17-year-old Jessie Misskelley Jr., they became sure they had a solid case. The West Memphis Three refers to the teenage boys accused in the killings, 18-year-old Damien Echols, 16-year-old Jason Baldwin, and 17-year-old Jessie Misskelley Jr. On May 7th, 1993 just 1 day after the finding of the boys’ corpses, Damien Echols was interviewed by West Memphis Police, with no notes being recorded. 2 days later, Damien and Jason were formally interviewed and refuted any involvement, and mentioned they had never even heard of the 3 boys that had been murdered. According to investigators, Damien mentioned one of the casualties had wounds to his genitals, furthering police to understand they had their man. Detective Bill Durham subjected Damien to a polygraph test, detecting signs of deception he claims “Damien had been untruthful during the polygraph examination and was involved in the murders.”
With an IQ of just 72, positioning him in the category of borderline mental retardation, Jessie Misskelley Jr. was interviewed by police on June 3rd, 1993 without any parents present despite police realizing he was a minor. Enduring police inquiry for 12 hours, Jessie admitted to involvement in the killings as well as implicating Damien and Jason, but shortly recanted citing coercion, deception, and intimidation made by police. Just 45 minutes of that 12 hours were recorded by police. Misskelley contended he was informed of his Miranda Rights but did not understand them. Later that day warrants for the charge of Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley Jr. were issued, each charged with capital murder, The West Memphis 3 Trials were now underway. During a public conference, Chief Inspector Gary Gitchell was raised a question by a reporter “On a scale of 1 to 10, how substantial do you think this case is” he replied with “eleven”.
It was ruled by Judge David Barnett that Jessie’s admission would be acceptable in the trial despite the coercive undertones. He also ruled that Jessie should be tried individually in a different county, and the 3 boys were to be accused as adults rather than juveniles. All entered pleas of not guilty and conserved their innocence throughout their trials.
Richard Ofshe, a professor at UC Berkley and specialist in false confessions, testified in Jessie’s trial that the 45 minutes of video recorded of interrogation was a “classic example” of police coercion and untrue confessions. Police contended the boys were raped and their anuses showed indications of dilation. Although, no evidence indicated any trauma to the boys’ anuses. One of the crucial pieces of evidence, according to the prosecution, was the alleged admission made by Jessie. In the coerced confession, Jessie contends he saw Damien hit one of the boys then rape him followed by Jason whacking Stevie. During the trial of Damien and Jason, an Occult specialist was brought in to testify on behalf of the prosecution contending the boys mirrored satanic religious tendencies. The Modern-day Witch trial ended in the guilty conviction of all three boys. Damien Echols was convicted to death by lethal Injection, while Jessie Misskelley and Jason Baldwin were convicted to life in jail without the likelihood of parole.
The epidemic of wrongful convictions has fogged our justice system on the exact objective it thrives on- justice. It is time to recognize the defective system that wrongfully equates us to be “Home of the Free”. This case epitomizes how police can gradually handle a case, ruining lives in the process.
After expending almost 2 decades detained, Damien, Jessie, and Jason were freed from jail based on an Alford plea. A plea deal encompassing the standpoint of being guilty under the eyes of the law, but still conserving your innocence. They were granted time served, but under this plea, they cannot take any civil effort against the state. After hours of researching this case, it is my personal belief that The West Memphis Three were not involved in the killings of Stevie Branch, Michael Moore, and Chris Byers. But if they did not kill those boys, then who did?
Vickie Hutcheson, a West Memphis citizen, came out in 2003 announcing her testimony during Damien and Jason’s trial was a lie due to coercion by the police. Vickie told police that 2 weeks after the killings occurred, she attended a Wiccan meeting with Damien and Jessie, where Damien drunkenly admitted to murdering the 3 boys. She was incapable to account for the location of that alleged meeting and the other members that attended. Once she confessed her guilt, she reasoned that she implicated Damien and Jessie to avoid being prosecuted for theft, and wishing to earn a reward for putting killers away.
The Mr. Bojangles Theory
On May 5th, 1993, the night the boys were killed, workers of the Bojangles Fast Food establishment reported an African American man, bleeding, muddy, and disorientated, inside the women’s toilet. Occurring just a mile away from where the boys were discovered, and around the time the boys would have been murdered, it is logical this could be our man. The Oxygen Documentary Series, “The Forgotten West Memphis Three” tries to clarify this puzzle, and examines the Bojangles angle.
Fleeing West Memphis just 4 days after the killings, Brian Holland and Chris Morgan were briefly suspected in the early days of the inquiry. May 17th, 1993 Brian Holland and Chris Morgan were given a polygraph test under the suspicion of them being involved in the killings after being charged In Oceanside California. California police contended their polygraphs showed indications of deception when inquired about involvement in the killings. During an interview, Chris Morgan told investigators about his history of drug and alcohol abuse. Implying that he sometimes encounters blackouts and lapses in memory and “might have” murdered the boys. He later recanted this statement. There is no evidence of West Memphis police acting on these individuals, concentrating completely on the West Memphis Three from the start.
John Mark Byers
The HBO documentary, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, aired in 1996 provoked an uproar of debate over the detention of the West Memphis Three. With some speculating the adoptive father of Christopher Byers, John Mark Byers was implicated in the killings. When filming this documentary John Mark Byers gave a folding hunting knife to filmmakers, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, suspecting there was blood on it, HBO administrators ordered them to hand it over to police. Byers initially stated to have never utilized the knife, but later altered his claim to have used the knife one time to cut deer meat. Testing of the blood on the knife was indicated to be consistent with Christopher Byers, as well as John Mark Byers, even though they were not biologically associated. An alleged bite mark can be noticeable on the face of Stevie Branch that was not noted in the original autopsy or mentioned at the trials. Damien, Jessie, and Jason following their conviction. All submitted their teeth implants to be related to the mark on Stevie’s face. Their teeth imprints did not fit the alleged bite mark. John Mark Byers removed his teeth before an imprint could be made, citing his periodontal disease from taking seizure medications. In another HBO documentary, Paradise Lost 2: Revelation’s, a specialist examined the autopsy images and claimed it was apparent to be a belt buckle imprint. Byers said to police he had beaten Chris with a belt at around 5:30 pm the night he was murdered.
Natalie Maines, Lead Singer of the Dixie Chicks and Advocate for the exoneration of the West Memphis Three, vocalized her backing for new DNA and forensic testing to be done on this case while forcefully suggesting if such testing was done, Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of Stevie Branch, would be implicated in the casualty of his step-son. Following these allegations Terry sued the dixie chicks for defamation, opening himself to questioning under oath about the killings of Stevie, Michael, and Christopher. Terry under oath contended to be a non-violent individual, despite reports of him whipping his wife, Pam Hobbs, and shooting his wife’s brother-in-law. He also contended to have not glimpsed the boys at all the night they were killed.
In 2010, Jamie Clark Ballard came ahead with claims to have glimpsed the boys on the night of May 5th, around 6:30 pm. She remembers them zooming on their bikes and yelled out to Christopher to go back home, with Christopher shouting back” I don’t have to do what you tell me to do” after she allegedly saw Terry Hobbs hollering for Stevie. Police never came by to interview them even though she resided just 3 doors down. She wasn’t familiar with Terry’s claims to have not glimpsed the kids that day.
DNA testing was done in 2007 none of which fitted Damien, Jason, or Jessie. A hair that was discovered tied in one of the ligatures knots used to Michael Moore was found to be compatible with Terry’s.
John Douglas a retired FBI Profiler said “The person responsible for this crime knew these victims, and knew them fairly well. We’re looking at someone violent in the past, who’s violent now and at the time the crime was committed and would also be vicious in the future”.
The Oxygen Docuseries, The Forgotten West Memphis Three, hosted by podcaster Bob Ruff reinvestigates the case concentrating on probable suspects. He performs an experiment in the river bed the boys were discovered in, attempting to determine if perhaps turtles or creatures in the water caused the lacerations to the boy’s corpses. He placed raw chickens in the water and within minutes turtles started snapping at the chickens eradicating almost all of it. Meaning turtles could have played a role in the lacerations, scratches, and removal of Chris’ scrotum. A specialist who examined autopsy images of the corpses theorized the majority of their trauma could have occurred post mortem while they lay in the river bed.
The killer or killers of Steven Branch, Michael Moore, and Christopher Byers are still at large and need to be brought to justice.