The case has received considerable attention. Their supporters believe the arrests and convictions were a miscarriage of justice and that the defendants were wrongfully convicted during a period of intense media scrutiny and so-called "Satanic panic." The defendants remain imprisoned, but legal proceedings are ongoing; as of July 2007, new forensic evidence is being presented in the case.
A status report jointly issued by the State and the Defense team on July 17 states, "Although most of the genetic material recovered from the scene was attributable to the victims of the offenses, some of it cannot be attributed to either the victims or the defendants." On October 29, 2007, the defense filed a Second Amended Writ of Habeas Corpus outlining the new evidence.
In September, 2008, Judge David Burnett (Circuit Court) denied Echols' application for a hearing on the new DNA evidence. Hearings for Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley are scheduled to be heard September 23rd through October 1st.
Damien Echols' next stage in the legal process is an appeal to the Arkansas Supreme Court. Unless that court reverses the conviction, he will proceed to federal court on his pending writ of habeas corpus.
A police search for the children began at about 8:00 am on the morning of May 6, aided by Crittenden County Search and Rescue personnel. Searchers canvassed all of West Memphis, but focused primarily on the Robin Hood Hills, a frequent playground for children, and the last location where the boys were reported. Despite a human chain making a shoulder-to-shoulder search of the Robin Hood Hills, searchers found no sign of the missing boys. Search and Rescue personnel broke for lunch at 1:00 pm, but police and others continued searching.
At about 1:45 pm, Juvenile Parole Officer Steve Jones spotted a boy's black shoe floating in a muddy creek that led to a major drainage canal in the Robin Hood Hills. A subsequent search of the ditch found the boys' bodies. They were stripped naked and had been hog-tied with their own shoelaces: their right ankles tied to their right wrists behind their backs, the same with their left limbs. Their clothing was found in the creek, some of it twisted around sticks that had been thrust in the muddy ditch bed. The clothing was mostly turned inside-out; two of the boys' underwear was never recovered. All of the boys had been severely beaten about their heads and faces, and Byers further had a fractured skull. Chris Byers had deep lacerations and injuries to his scrotum and penis.
The original autopsies were inconclusive as to time of death, but stated that Byers died of blood loss (from either stab wounds or a deep head wound), and the other boys drowned. A later review of the case by a medical examiner for the defense attorneys determined the boys had been killed between 1:00 am and 5:00 am on May 6, 1993.
The official interpretation of the crime scene forensics for the case remain controversial. Prosecution experts claim Chris Byers's wounds were the results of a knife attack and that he had been purposefully castrated by the murderer; defense experts claim the injuries may have been the result of animal predation. Police suspected the boys had been raped or sodomized; later expert testimony disputed this finding. Police believed the boys were assaulted and killed at the location they were found; critics argued the assault, at least, was unlikely to have occurred at the creek.
Christopher Byers was the only victim with drugs in his system; he had been prescribed Ritalin in January 1993, as part of an attention-deficit disorder treatment. (The initial autopsy report describes the drug as Carbamazepine.) The fact that the dosage was found to be at sub-therapeutic level is consistent with John Mark Byers's statement that Christopher may not have taken his prescription on May 5, 1993.
The man was bleeding from his arm as he attempted to use the toilet and had brushed against the walls. The man had defecated on himself on the floor. The police were called, but the man left the scene. Officer Regina Meeks responded (by inquiring at the drive thru window) about 45 minutes later. By then, the man had left and police did not enter or examine the bloodstained bathroom on May 5.
The following day, when the victims were found, Bojangles' manager Marty King, thinking there was a possible connection between the bloody, disoriented man and the killings, called police twice to inform them of his suspicions. After the second telephone call police gathered evidence from the restroom. Police wore the same shoes and clothes from the Robin Hood Woods crime scene into the Bojangles restaurant bathroom. Police detective Bryn Ridge later stated he lost the blood scrapings taken from the walls and tiles of the bathroom. A hair identified as belonging to a black person was later recovered from a sheet which had been used to wrap one of the victims.
Misskelley's former attorney Dan Stidham cites multiple substantial police errors at the crime scene, characterizing it as "literally trampled, especially the creek bed"; removal of the bodies from the water before the coroner arrived to examine the scene and determine the state of rigor mortis; allowing the bodies to decay on the creek bank, and to be exposed to sunlight and insects; a late appearance by the coroner, who police did not telephone for almost two hours after their discovery of the floating shoe; failure to drain the creek in a timely manner and secure possible evidence in the water (the creek was sandbagged after all three bodies were pulled from the water); a coroner's investigation Stidham calls "substandard"; failure to test a small amount of blood found at the scene; and police failure to control disclosure of information and speculation about the crime scene.
According to Mara Leveritt, investigative journalist and author of Devil's Knot, "Police records were a mess. To call them disorderly would be putting it mildly." Leveritt speculated that the small local police force was overwhelmed by the crime, which was unlike any they had ever investigated. Police refused an unsolicited offer of aid and consultation from the violent crimes experts of the Arkansas State Police, and critics suggested this was due to the WMPD being investigated by the Arkansas State Police for suspected theft from the Crittenden County drug task force. Leveritt further noted that some of the physical evidence was stored in paper sacks obtained from a supermarket (with the supermarket's name pre-printed on the bags) rather than in containers of known and controlled origin.
Leveritt also mistakenly presumed that the crime scene video was shot minutes after Detectives Mike Allen and Bryn Ridge recovered two of the bodies, when in fact the camera was not available for almost thirty minutes afterwards.
When police speculated about the assailant, the juvenile probation officer assisting at the scene of the murders speculated that Echols was "capable" of committing the murders, stating "it looks like Damien Echols finally killed someone."
One expert, in the film Paradise Lost 2, stated that human bite marks could have been left on at least one of the victims. However, these potential bite marks were first noticed in photographs years after the trial and were not inspected by a board-certified medical examiner until four years after the murders. The defense's own expert testified that the mark in question was not an adult bite mark, which is consistent with the testimony of the list of experts put on by the State who had concluded that there was no bite mark. The State's experts had examined the actual bodies for any marks and others conducted expert photo analysis of injuries. Upon further examination it was concluded that, if the marks were bite marks, they did not match the teeth of any of the three convicted.
Police interviewed Echols two days after the bodies were discovered. During a polygraph examination, he denied any involvement, but the polygraph examiner claimed that Echols' chart indicated deception. When asked to produce the record of the examination, he indicated that he had no written record. Officer Durham, who administered the polygraph, also did not keep any record of the test.
On May 10, 1993, four days after the bodies were found, Detective Bryn Ridge questioned Echols, asking Echols to speculate as to how the three victims died. Ridge's description of Echols' answer is abstracted as follows:
He stated that the boys probably died of mutilation, some guy had cut the bodies up, heard that they were in the water, they may have drowned. He said at least one was cut up more than the others. Purpose of the killing may have been to scare someone. He believed that it was only one person for fear of squealing by another involved.At trial, Echols testified that Ridge's description of the conversation (which was not recorded) was inaccurate. At the time Echols allegedly made these statements, police thought that there was no public knowledge that one of the children had been mutilated more severely than the others. This contradicted John Mark Byers' (the stepfather of victim Christopher Byers) statement to reporters only minutes after the three bodies were found, "that two boys had been badly beaten and that the third had been even worse." At that time, Det. Gitchell had not released that information. Gitchell later said he had told the elder Byers some details of the scene first, before the official release to the media. Leveritt also demonstrates that the police leaked some information, and that partly accurate gossip about the case was widely discussed among the public.
Throughout the course of the trial and afterwards many teenagers came forward stating that when they had been questioned and polygraphed by police, Durham, among others, was at times aggressive and verbally abusive if they did not say what was expected of them. After the test, when asked what he was afraid of, Echols replied, "The electric chair.
After a month had passed, with little progress in the case, police continued to focus their investigation upon Echols, interrogating him more times than any other person, but claiming he was not regarded as a direct suspect but a source of information.
On June 3, police interrogated Misskelley. Misskelley, whose IQ was reported to be 72 (making him borderline mentally retarded), was questioned alone; his parents were not present during the interrogation. Misskelley's father gave permission for Misskelley to go with police, but did not explicitly give permission for his minor son to be questioned or interrogated. Misskelley was questioned for roughly twelve hours; only two segments, totaling 46 minutes, were recorded. Misskelley quickly recanted his confession, citing intimidation, coercion, fatigue, and veiled threats from police. During Misskelley's trial, Dr. Richard Ofshe, an expert on false confessions and police coercion and Professor of Sociology at UC Berkeley, testified that the brief recording of Misskelley's interrogation was a "classic example" of police coercion. He has further described Misskelley's statement as "the stupidest fucking confession I've ever seen. Critics have also stated that Misskelley's "confession" was in many respects inconsistent with the particulars of the crime scene and murder victims, including (for example) an "admission" that Misskelley "watched Damien rape one of the boys." Police had initially suspected that the boys were raped due to their dilated anuses, but forensic evidence later proved conclusively that the murdered boys had not been raped at all, and their dilated anuses were a normal post-mortem condition.
Subsequent to his conviction, a police officer also alleged that Misskelley had also confessed to her. However, once again, no reliable details of the crime were provided.
Misskelley was a minor when he was questioned, and though informed of his Miranda rights, he later claimed he did not fully understand them. The Arkansas Supreme Court determined that Misskelley's confession was voluntary and that he did, in fact, understand the Miranda warning and its consequences. Misskelley specifically said he was "scared of the police" during his first confession. Portions of Misskelley's statements to the police were leaked to the press and reported on the front page of the Memphis Commercial Appeal newspaper before any of the trials began.
Shortly after Misskelley's original confession, police arrested Echols and his close friend Baldwin.
Misskelley's attorney, Dan Stidham, who was later elected to a municipal judgeship, has written a detailed critique of what he asserts are major police errors and misconceptions during their investigation.
James Martin Sr., a new resident in the area and a known child molester, offered his testimony as an expert into the criminal mind. With the exception of John Mark Byers, he currently has the largest file (57 pages) at www.wm3.org and has often been thought to be the leading suspect, especially early on in the case. Why he was removed from the suspect list eludes many people. In addition to failing the polygraph test, he also described the crime in great detail, with much information that had not been released to the public at the time of his interview. He presented obvious signs of Antisocial Personality Disorder, and had at one time been hospitalized and incarcerated for sexually assaulting both his stepson and stepdaughter. He currently lives in Gatlinburg, Tennessee.
Vicki Hutcheson, a new resident of West Memphis, would play an important role in the investigation, though she would later recant her testimony, stating her statements were fabricated, due in part to coercion from police.
May 6, 1993 (the day the murder victims were found), Hutcheson was given a polygraph exam by Detective Don Bray at the Marion Police Department to determine if she had stolen money from her West Memphis employer. Hutcheson's young son, Aaron, was also present, and proved such a distraction that Bray was unable to administer the polygraph. Aaron, a playmate of the murdered boys, mentioned to Bray that the boys had been killed at "the playhouse." When the bodies proved to have been discovered near where Aaron indicated, Bray asked Aaron for further details, and Aaron claimed that he had witnessed the murders committed by Satanists who spoke Spanish. Aaron's further statements were wildly inconsistent, and he was unable to identify Baldwin, Echols or Misskelley from photo line-ups, and there was no "playhouse" at the location Aaron indicated.
A police officer leaked portions of Aaron's statements to the press, potentially contributing to the growing belief that the murders were part of a Satanic rite.
On or about June 1, 1993, Hutcheson agreed to police suggestions to place hidden microphones in her home during an encounter with Echols. Misskelley agreed to introduce Hutcheson to Echols. During their conversation, Hutcheson reported that Echols made no incriminating statements. Police said the recording was "inaudible", but Hutcheson claimed the recording was audible.
On June 2, 1993, Hutcheson told police that about two weeks after the murders were committed, she, Echols and Misskelley attended an Esbat in Turrell, Arkansas. Hutcheson claimed that, at the Esbat, a drunken Echols openly bragged about killing the three boys. Misskelley was first questioned on June 3, 1993, a day after Hutcheson's Esbat confession. Hutcheson was unable to recall the Esbat location, and did not name any other participants of the purported Esbat.
Hutcheson was never charged with theft. She claims that she implicated Echols and Misskelley to avoid facing criminal charges, and to gain a reward for the discovery of the murderers.
Baldwin and Misskelley had previous records for minor juvenile offenses (for vandalism and shoplifting, respectively) and Misskelley had a reputation for being hot tempered and engaging in frequent fistfights. Misskelley and Echols had dropped out of high school, but Baldwin earned above-average grades and demonstrated a talent for drawing and sketching, and due to encouragement from a school counselor, was considering studying graphic design in college. Echols and Baldwin were close friends, due in part to their similar tastes in music and fiction, and due to a shared distaste for the prevailing cultural climate of West Memphis, which was politically conservative and strongly Evangelical Christian. Baldwin and Echols were acquainted with Misskelley from school, but were not close friends with him.
Echols' family was very poor, with frequent visits from social workers, and he rarely attended school. His tumultuous relationship with an early girlfriend culminated when the two ran off together. After breaking into a trailer during a rain storm, the pair were arrested, though only Echols was charged with burglary.
Police heard rumors that the young lovers had planned to have a child and sacrifice the infant; Based on this story, they had Echols institutionalized for psychiatric evaluation. He was diagnosed as depressed and suicidal, and was prescribed the antidepressant imipramine. Subsequent testing demonstrated poor math skills, but also showed that Echols ranked above average in reading and verbal skills.
Echols spent several months in a mental institution in Arkansas, and afterwards received "full disability" status from the Social Security Administration. During Echols' trial, Dr. George W. Woods testified (for the defense) that Echols suffered from:
"... serious mental illness characterized by grandiose and persecutory delusions, auditory and visual hallucinations, disordered thought processes, substantial lack of insight, and chronic, incapacitating mood swings."At the time of his arrest, Echols was working part-time with a roofing company and expecting a child with his new girlfriend, Domini Teer.
Misskelley claimed that while these events were taking place, Michael Moore tried to escape and began running. Misskelley chased him down and returned him to Baldwin and Echols. Misskelley also stated that Baldwin had used a knife to cut the boys in the facial area and that the Byers boy was cut on his penis. The defense forensics experts disputed this claim, giving testimony that the wounds were not caused by knife, but by animal predation. All three boys had their clothes taken off and were tied up.
According to Misskelley, he ran away from the scene at some point after the boys were tied up. He did observe that the Byers boy was dead when he left. Sometime after Misskelley arrived home, Baldwin called saying, "we done it" and "what are we going to do if somebody saw us." Echols could be heard in the background. Misskelley was asked about his involvement in a cult. He said he had been involved for about three months. The participants would typically meet in the woods. They engaged in orgies and, as an initiation rite, killing and eating dogs. He noted that at one cult meeting, he saw a picture that Echols had taken of the three boys. He stated that Echols had been watching the boys.
Misskelley then went into further detail about the sexual molestation of the victims. At least one of the boys had been held by the head and ears while being accosted. Misskelley claimed that both the Byers boy and the Branch boy had been raped, and that all the boys were tied up with brown rope. These statements, among others, cast doubt on the validity of Misskelley's confession. Although the medical examiner could not absolutely rule out sexual assault, he could not find any conclusive evidence to suggest that the boys were raped. Also, it is well documented that they were all tied with their own shoe laces, not brown rope.
Misskelley was interrogated for in excess of three hours off camera and off-tape. He was then tape recorded giving a statement during which his interrogators were instructing him on crime details (such as the time of day that the crime occurred) and correcting him on vital details when Misskelley's statements did not align with the evidence. The confession included allegations that Misskelley had witnessed the boys being raped—even though the prosecution's forensic expert would later testify that none of the boys had in fact been raped. Although his statement was played for the jury only in the Misskelley trial and was deemed inadmissible in the Echols/ Baldwin trial, jurors would later admit that they had heard and been deeply influenced by Misskelley's statement. Critics of the convictions note that because the statement was inadmissible yet widely published, the jury never heard about its inconsistencies.
Lisa Sakevicius stated that Byers' white polka-dot shirt had blue wax on it and that the wax was consistent with candle wax. Subsequent forensic testing demonstrated that the wax was in fact not candle wax.
On November 17, 1993, a police diver found a knife in a lake behind Baldwin's parents' residence. The large knife had a serrated edge and had the words "Special Forces Survival II" on the blade. Peretti testified that many of the wounds on the victims were consistent with, and could have been caused by, that knife. The knife was presented to the jury as the murder weapon, even though Misskelley's statement had claimed a "folding type knife" had been used.
Deanna Holcomb testified that she had seen Echols carrying a similar knife, except that the one she saw had a compass at the end of its handle. James Parker, owner of Parker's Knife Collector Service in Chattanooga, Tennessee, testified that a company distributed this type of knife from 1985-87. A 1987 catalog from the company was shown to the jury, and it had a picture of a knife similar to the one found behind Baldwin's residence. The knife in the catalog had a compass on the end, and it had the words "Special Forces Survival Roman Numeral Two" on the blade.
Dale Griffis was presented to the jury by the State as an expert in "occult killings," although he admitted on cross examination that he had only a "mail order" degree from Columbia Pacific University, which has since been closed by court order. Griffis testified in the State's case-in-chief that the killings had the "trappings of occultism." He testified that the date of the killings, the day before a pagan holiday Beltane which actually falls on May 1 not May 6, was significant, as well as the fact that there was a full moon. He stated that young children are often sought for sacrifice because "the younger, the more innocent, the better the life force." He testified that there were three victims, and the number three had significance in occultism. Also, the victims were all eight years old, and "eight is a witches' number". He testified that sacrifices are often done near water for a baptism-type rite or just to wash the blood away.
The fact that the victims were tied ankle to wrist was significant because this was done to display the genitalia, and the removal of Byers's testicles was significant because testicles are removed for the semen. This part of the statement is biologically inconsistent; semen is produced in the seminal vesicles and prostate, not the testes, and the three victims were pre-pubescent. He stated that the absence of blood at the scene could be significant because cult members store blood for future services in which they would drink the blood or bathe in it.
Griffis testified that the "overkill" or multiple cuts could reflect occult overtones. Griffis testified that there was significance in injuries to the left side of the victims as distinguished from the right side: people who practice occultism will use the midline theory, drawing straight down through the body. The right side is related to those things synonymous with Christianity while the left side is that of the practitioners of the satanic occult. He testified that the clear place on the bank could be consistent with a ceremony. In sum, Griffis testified that there was significant evidence of Satanic ritual killings. Other experts who have reviewed the case disagree with Griffis' claims, stating that there is a definite lack of ritualistic overtones to the crime.
When Echols was asked about his statement that one victim was mutilated more than the others, he said he learned the fact from newspaper accounts. His attorney showed him the newspaper articles about the murders. On cross-examination, Echols admitted that the articles did not mention one victim being mutilated more than the others, and he admitted that he did not read such a fact in a newspaper. Mark Byers, the stepfather of victim Christopher Byers, had been informed by the police that one of the victims had been hurt much worse than the others, and many details of the crime were circulating in West Memphis.
In August 2007, Pamela Hobbs, the mother of victim Steven Branch, and John Mark Byers, adoptive father of Christopher Byers, joined those who have publicly questioned the verdicts, calling for a reopening of the verdicts and further investigation of the evidence.
It is expected that a reversal of Echols' conviction would result in the vacating of the Baldwin and Misskelley convictions.
In July, 2008, it was revealed that Kent Arnold, the jury foreman on the Echols / Baldwin trial, had discussed the case with an attorney prior to the beginning of deliberations and advocated for the guilt of the West Memphis Three as a result of the inadmissible Jessie Misskelley statements. The resulting juror misconduct claim is expected to result in a reversal of the convictions by the spring of 2009.
Byers initially claimed the knife had never been used. Blood was found the knife, and Byers then stated that he had used it only once, to cut deer meat. When told the blood matched both his and Chris' blood type, Byers said he had no idea how that blood might have gotten on the knife. During interrogation, West Memphis police suggested to Byers that he might have left the knife out accidentally, and Byers agreed with this. Byers later stated that he may have cut his thumb. Further testing on the knife produced inconclusive results, due in part to the rather small amount of blood, and due to the fact that both John Mark Byers and Chris Byers had the same HLA-DQα genotype. The 2007 joint status report submitted to the Arkansas Supreme Court affirmed that there was no DNA at the scene from Echols, Baldwin, Misskelley, nor John Mark Byers, a fact many observers equate with exoneration of all four suspects.
On October 29, 2007 papers were filed in federal court by Damien Echols' defense lawyers seeking a retrial or his immediate release from prison. The filing cited DNA evidence linking Terry Hobbs (stepfather of one of the victims) to the crime scene, and new statements from Hobbs' now ex-wife. Also presented in the filing is new expert testimony that the "knife" marks on the victims were the result of animal predation after the bodies had been dumped.