Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The West Memphis Three

A Most Heinous Crime

The West Memphis Three. Police photos.
The West Memphis Three. Police photos.

On the afternoon of 6 May 1993, West Memphis was rocked by the news of the discovery of the mutilated bodies of three eight-year-old boys. Rumors regarding the nature of the murders spread like wildfire through the town. It was soon well known that the boys had been cut with a knife, raped and at least one of the boy's genitals had been cut, many of these rumors were based on inaccurate police assumptions. By 12.00 p.m. the next day, police were questioning their first suspect, Damien Echols. Several weeks later Jessie Misskelley, an associate of Echols, confessed to the murders, implicating Damien Echols and another friend, Jason Baldwin. Soon after, following a confession by Misskelley, the three teenagers were arrested and charged with the murders of James M. Moore, Steven E. Branch and Christopher M. Byers.

The citizens of West Memphis were relieved that the monsters that had committed these heinous crimes had been apprehended and justice would be served. There was a great deal of anger in the community directed towards these three adolescents, supposedly involved in Satanic cults, who were accused of killing three innocent boys as part of a Satanic ritual. Rumors of Satanic groups had abounded in this dominantly Baptist community for decades. Details of their exploits were well known although there was never any proof of any murders actually having been performed in the past. From the time the arrests were made until they were tried, local papers fed the community's blood-lust, with stories of Satanic abominations appearing on a regular basis.

On Wednesday 19 January 1994, Jessie Misskelley was sent to trial after an attempt to have his confession suppressed was denied. Two weeks later, he was found guilty on one count of first degree capital murder and two counts of second degree capital murder. He was sentenced to life imprisonment with no parole. He was seventeen years old.

The trial of Jason Baldwin and Damien Echols began on Tuesday 4 February 1994. On Monday 18 April 1994, they were both found guilty on three counts of capital murder. The next day Jason, just 16, was sentenced to life imprisonment with a non-parole period of 40 years. Eighteen-year-old Damien Echols was sentenced to death by lethal injection.

DVD Cover: Paradise Lost
DVD Cover: Paradise Lost

More than five years after these sentences were handed down the three young men continue to proclaim their innocence and are persevering in their attempts to have new trials granted. This in itself is not unusual. There are many guilty men who have succeeded in tying up the legal system in the process of appeals for as many as 15 years. What is unusual in this case is that they are not alone in proclaiming their innocence. Thousands of American citizens are convinced that Jessie, Jason and Damien were wrongly tried and convicted and are now lending their support to the fight for justice. Everyday this support is growing and now includes many criminal and legal experts who are throwing the weight of their knowledge and experience behind the three boys. 

Damien Echols claims that he was found guilty long before the trial began because he was considered weird by many in the community, having practiced the Wicca religion and listened to the music of supposedly Satanic groups such as "Metallica." Jason believes he was found guilty by association. Jessie claims that his confession was coerced, claiming he had told police whatever they had wanted him to so that they would let him go. 

Under question in this case is not merely whether Jessie, Jason and Damien are guilty or innocent, but whether the correct legal processes were upheld to secure their convictions. Was the basic tenet of the American legal system, the presumption of innocence, discarded in order to satisfy a community's call for the revenge of the dreadful murders of three innocent children?

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