West Memphis Three: 5 Things To Know About This Infamous Case

In 2011, after the story captured national attention and became the subject of numerous documentaries and books, the “West Memphis Three” were released after serving just over 18 years in prison each.

May 03, 2019

Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, Jason Baldwin

Photo by: Damien Echols, Jessie Miskelley, Jason Baldwin [West Memphis Police Department]

Damien Echols, Jessie Miskelley, Jason Baldwin [West Memphis Police Department]

By: Catherine Townsend

On May 5, 1993, the tiny town of West Memphis, Arkansas, was changed forever when three eight-year-old boys disappeared.

The next day, their bodies were found in a muddy creek. They had been stripped naked and bounch with their own shoelaces.

Three local teens — Damien Echols, 18; Jessie Misskelley, 17; and Jason Baldwin, 16 — were arrested and tried for the murders of Michael Moore, Stevie Branch, and Chris Byers.

In 2011, after the story captured national attention and became the subject of numerous documentaries and books, the “West Memphis Three” were released after serving just over 18 years in prison each.

Here are five basic facts about this infamous case.

1. Investigative journalism played a crucial role in their release.

The West Memphis Three would almost certainly still be behind bars if the case had not been brought to national attention.

Their story was first covered in the HBO documentary Paradise Lost, which pointed out the flaws in the case and trials.

Celebrities including Johnny Depp, Peter Jackson, and Eddie Vedder started speaking out in favor of the convicted men, and the story caught fire — and public pressure grew — each time a new book, song, movie, or TV show about the case was released.

These include Devil's Knot by Mara Leveritt, Blood of Innocents by Guy Reel, and Witches of West Memphis by Arkansas-based journalist George Jared.

In 2005, Damien Echols completed his memoir, Almost Home, Vol 1, offering his perspective of the case.

2. Experts say the state crime lab made crucial mistakes.

The crucial theory of the prosecution’s case was the mutilation of the bodies of the boys, which investigators stated that they believed could have been by knives as part of some kind of satanic ritual.

Dr. Frank Peretti, the state forensic pathologist who examined the victims' bodies, gave testimony to this effect at trial.

But other forensic experts later testified that the mutilation was much more likely to have been caused by animals, most likely turtles, after the children were killed.

Many of Peretti's decisions were later called into question. In 2002, reporter Aaron Sarlo posed many of these questions, and pointed out inconsistencies in Peretti's testimony, in an article for the Arkansas Times.

In 2007, DNA collected from the crime scene was tested. None was found to match DNA from Echols, Baldwin, or Misskelley.

3. In a strange twist, the men were released because they pleaded guilty.

Echols, Misskelley, and Baldwin have always maintained their innocence. Ironically, they were only able to get out of prison after pleading guilty to the crimes using an Alford Plea, according to CBS News.

An Alford plea is a rarely used legal move has been in existence since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on it in 1970. Basically, it’s a compromise: Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley were allowed to publicly maintain their innocence, and were released with credit for time served — but they had to plead guilty, and the felony remains on their records.

Baldwin said, "When we told prosecutors we were innocent, they put us in prison for life. Now when we plead guilty, they set us free!"

The county prosecuting attorney Scott Ellington said publicly that he still believed these men were guilty of the murders. He also made them sign a waiver promising not to sue the state.

The plea also meant that the men got no compensation for the time they spent in prison.

4. Potential witnesses and people of interest in the case could still be out there.

The case against the West Memphis Three depended heavily on the confession of Jessie Misskelley, an acquaintance of Echols who reportedly had an IQ of 72.

During Misskelley's trial, an expert on false confessions and police coercion would testify that Misskelley's interrogation was a "classic example" of police coercion.

In addition, many experts question why some other people close to the murdered boys — including Terry Hobbs, Stevie Branch’s stepfather — were not more throughly investigated by police.

Experts also say that some evidence has pointed to other potential suspects. One possibility mentioned early in the case was a man nicknamed "Mr. Bojangles," a mentally disoriented black male who workers at a nearby Bojangles restaurant reported seeing behave bizarrely inside the ladies' room. The man was reportedly bleeding and had brushed against the restroom walls.

By the time police arrived, the man was gone. Since the restaurant was located around a mile from the crime scene, police investigated. Blood scrapings were taken from the wall, which police later said they lost.

According to authorities, a hair identified as belonging to a black male was later recovered from a sheet wrapped around one of the victims.

5. The case was heavily influenced by the “Satanic Panic.”

The murders occurred during a period in American history when “Satanic Panic” stories were sweeping the nation — and the three teens could have been characters straight out of central casting.

Authorities focused on the teens, especially Damien Echols, with his black wardrobe, antisocial tendencies, and occult interests. “The police were so convinced that the murders had been committed by devil worshippers that they assigned the investigation a case number ending with 666,” Boston Magazine reported.

The case became further complicated when a so-called “occult expert” — who, it was later revealed during the trial, got his academic accreditation via mail order — testified that he had “personally observed people wearing black fingernails, having their hair painted black, wearing black T-shirts, black dungarees."

Speculation that the boys could have been killed as part of a Satanic ritual contributed to this collective belief, which was later debunked.

Since his release from prison, Echols has written and talked extensively about how his interest in magick — which he compares to "meditation" and enlightenment — "saved his life" while he was behind bars, and may have even played a part in his release.

For more on this case, watch the West Memphis Three episode of Investigation Discovery's True Crime With Aphrodite Jones on ID GO now!