Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Opinion: West Memphis Three, Outrage in Arkansas

A Manufactured Motive

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Mara Leveritt. Also please see out feature story on the case: The West Memphis Three

Heading into that second trial, the prosecutors told the victims' parents that they had offered Misskelley a reduced sentence to a term of 40 years if he would testify against Echols and Baldwin. The parents were unhappy about the offer, but Prosecutor Brent Davis explained, "Unfortunately, we need his testimony real bad."

John Fogleman
John Fogleman

Deputy Prosecuting Attorney John Fogleman added, "All is not lost if he doesn't testify. But the odds are reduced significantly. I mean, we've still got some evidence."

But Misskelley refused the prosecutors' offer. Had he accepted it, he would have long ago been eligible for parole.

Without Misskelley, prosecutors Davis and Fogleman faced asking a jury to order the death penalty for Echols and Baldwin based on nothing more than:

  • three fibers found in the homes of the accused that were "microscopically similar" to fibers found on the victims;
  • a woman's claim that, on the night of the murders, she saw Echols walking near the site where the bodies were later found;
  • statements from two teenage girls who said they'd overheard Echols at a softball field bragging about having committed the murders;
  • the claim of a jailhouse snitch that Baldwin had described killing the boys to him;
  • and a knife that divers pulled from a lake near Baldwin's house, a knife that prosecutors suggested might have been used on the boys.

The prosecutors reasonably feared that that wasn't enough. The fibers were generic; they could have been found in almost anyone's home. The statements by the woman, the "softball girls," and the snitch could all be reasonably doubted. Nothing proved that either Echols or Baldwin had any connection to the knife taken from the lake, or that it had ever been used on the boys. And worst of all for the prosecution, without Misskelley's statement Echols and Baldwin had no apparent motive for the murders.

Dr. Dale W. Griffiths
Dr. Dale W. Griffiths

Sensing that jurors would doubt that the two teenagers would have murdered three children whom they did not know without a reason, the prosecutors attempted to provide one. At the boys' trial, they called to the stand Dr. Dale W. Griffis, a self-proclaimed cult expert.

Defense attorneys quickly eviscerated Griffis' claim to a Ph.D., eliciting from him an admission that he had obtained it, without attending a class, from a mail-order diploma mill. The defense attorneys thus argued that Griffis should not be qualified as an expert. But Judge Burnett, who officiated at both trials, ruled that he would accept Griffis as an expert "based upon his knowledge, experience and training in the area of occultism or Satanism."

Griffis was then allowed to testify that aspects of the crime bore "trappings of occultism." He explained: there were three victims—a symbolic number. There was blood and water involved—also significant. The children were killed on the night of a full moon.

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