Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The West Memphis Three

Confession

Jessie Misskelley was brought in to WMPD for questioning on 3 June 1993. During the course of his interrogation, which lasted for several hours, Jessie was given a lie detector test and the police succeeded in securing a confession from Jessie of his own part in the murders of the three boys. He named Jason Baldwin and Damien Echols as his accomplices.

According to Jessie's defense attorney, Daniel Stidham, Jessie claims that he and his friends were first approached by the police and offered a reward for information about the murders. Jessie was later taken into WMPD for questioning despite the fact that they did not have a written waiver of his Miranda Rights signed by Jessie's father, a legal requirement when police interview minors. Normally this breach of a minor's constitutional rights would be sufficient to have the subsequent confession quashed. For some reason in this case Judge Burnett chose to allow it.

Dan Stidham
Dan Stidham

In his confession, Jessie claimed that Jason Baldwin telephoned him very early on the morning of 5 May. During the course of this conversation, Jason had asked Jessie to accompany himself and Damien Echols to the Robin Hood Hills area. Initially, Jessie stated that he had gone to the Robin Hood area at about 9:00 a.m. that day to an area near a creek where he met up with Damien and Jason. They were actually in the creek when the three boys rode up on their bicycles. Baldwin and Echols had called to the boys who then came to the creek. At this time, Baldwin and Echols began to severely beat the boys. Jessie, claiming to be merely an observer, stated that at least two of the boys were raped and forced to perform oral sex on Baldwin and Echols. While these events were occurring, (James) Michael Moore had attempted to escape, but Jessie had caught him and returned him to Baldwin and Echols.

Jessie stated that Baldwin had used a knife to cut the boys' faces and the penis area of Christopher Byers. Echols had used a large stick to hit one of the boys and to strangle one of them. After this attack the boys' clothes were removed and they were tied up, Jessie then left the scene. He was sure that Christopher Byers was already dead. After he arrived home, he claimed that he was telephoned by Baldwin who apparently said "We done it!" And "What are we going to do if somebody saw us?" Jessie said that he could hear Echols in the background.

When asked whether he had ever been involved in a cult, Jessie said that he had been for about three months. He told police that they usually met in the woods where they engaged in orgies and initiation rites which included killing and eating dogs. He stated that at one of these meetings, he saw a photograph that Echols had taken of the three boys and claimed that Echols had been watching the boys.

Jessie, when asked to describe what Baldwin and Echols were wearing at the time of the murders, told police that Jason had been wearing blue jeans, black lace-up boots and a T-shirt with a skull and the name of the band "Metallica" on it. Damien was wearing black pants, boots and a black T-shirt.

During the course of this first statement, Jessie changed the time that the murders occurred from 9:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. and explained that the three boys had skipped school. These times were again changed in another recorded statement taken two hours after the first one had concluded. In this statement Jessie said that he, Baldwin and Echols had arrived at the Robin Hood area between 5:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m., but after prompting from one of the interviewing officers, he again changed this time to between 7:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. The final time Jessie gave was that the teenagers had arrived at 6:00 p.m and the victims had arrived when it was nearly dark.

In this second statement, Jessie gave further details about the sexual molestation of the boys. He stated that the boys had been held by the head and ears and forced to perform oral sex on Jason and Damien. He named Steven Branch and Christopher Byers as the two victims who were raped. He stated that the boys had been tied with brown rope. A further contradiction in this story was added later when one of the interrogating officers testified that according to his notes Jessie had claimed that Baldwin had called him the night before the murders had occurred and said that they planned to go and get some boys and hurt them.

Dan Stidham was able to secure the expert testimonies of Dr Richard Ofshe and Warren Homes. Dr Ofshe, a Pulitzer Prize winning social psychologist and an expert on false and coerced confessions, believed after reading the confession, listening to the tape and interviewing Jessie Misskelley, that Jessie's confession was a coerced compliant and false confession. The reasons given for this conclusion were:

  1. Many instances of coaching from the interrogating officers, especially in regard to the timing of events and Jessie's identification of Christopher Byers as the boy who had been emasculated.
  2. That nearly three hours of the interview were not recorded.
  3. That the interrogating officers had used intimidating methods during the interrogation.
  4. That many areas of Jessie's confession were not supported by the facts.

Examples of incorrect information in Jason's "confession:"

  1. Jessie stated that the victims and Jason Baldwin were not at school when in fact they were proven to have been in attendance
  2. Jessie stated that the victims were bound with rope when in fact they were bound with their own shoelaces
  3. Jessie stated that one boy was choked with a stick when the medical examiners report stated that there was no evidence of strangulation
  4. Jessie stated that the boys were anally raped when in fact the medical examiner had found no evidence of this occurring
  5. Jessie described the murders as having been conducted at the scene where the bodies were found when in fact the medical examiner had stated that there was no blood found at the scene.

Dr. Ofshe was not permitted to state all of his opinion during the trial as Judge Burnett had previously ruled that Jessie's confession had been voluntary and Ofshe's testimony in this regard would directly contradict the court's previous ruling. Burnett also stated that such a testimony would give an expert witness the power to determine whether the accused was guilty or innocent which was solely the jury's domain. Finally, the jury only heard that Ofshe had a lot of experience with coerced confessions and it was possible for police to obtain a confession from someone who was in fact innocent, anything more specific was not allowed.

Warren Holmes, an expert in lie detection testing and interrogation who has studied and worked in this field for over 30 years, agreed to testify for the defense after he was approached by Daniel Stidham, despite the knowledge that he would not be paid for his services and only his expenses would be reimbursed.

At a hearing prior to the trial, Judge Burnett ruled that Warren Holmes could not testify regarding the polygraph examination itself. As polygraph test results are not admissible evidence he would only allow Holmes to testify to his experience and qualifications and to give an analyses of the interview techniques used during Jessie Misskelley's interrogation.

When Holmes analysed the polygraph test conducted by the WMPD on Jessie Misskelley he found that Jessie's responses to the questions relating to the murders indicated that Jessie was truthful in his answers and in fact did not have any knowledge of them. The WMPD interrogating officers' statement to Jessie that he had in fact lied, indicated that they had not conducted or interpreted the results of the tests properly. The result of being informed that he was lying would have greatly contributed to Jessie's sense of helplessness in the situation making him more likely to comply with the demand for a confession by the police.

According to Holmes there are a number of indicators which will validate to the investigators that a suspect's confession is true.

  1. In a true confession the suspect will often give the police information about the crime that the police do not already know.
  2. If a confession is true the suspect gives information that fits with the real evidence of the crime.
  3. A true confession is usually given in a narrative form including many incidental details about the situation surrounding the crime which can be corroborated by police later
  4. In a true confession, if the investigators make an incorrect supposition about the crime, the suspect will correct them.
  5. In a true confession, there is no need to correct the suspect for contradictions in their story.
  6. In a true confession there is no need for coaching or leading questions in order to elicit information.

Homes believed that there were many instances in Jessie's confession where these criteria were not met. He was especially concerned that Jessie was wrong about the times and the type of ligatures used. Both of these factors should have meant a great deal to him. Nor does Jessie mention anything about his feelings at the time of the crimes or afterwards, or talk about the things that were said by himself, the other perpetrators or the victims. Jessie's confession was elicited by a series of highly suggestive questions by the interrogating officers and was not given in a narrative form.

The testimony of these two witnesses was the strongest evidence that the defense had to refute the prosecution's case which was built solely upon the weight of Jessie's confession. Without this expert opinion, Jessie's case was severely hampered.

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