On May 5, 1993, three second-graders—Steve "Stevie" Branch, Christopher Byers, and Michael Moore—from West Memphis, Arkansas went for a bike ride. They never returned home for dinner.
The three boys were found brutally murdered in a shocking fashion in a wooded area called the Robin Hood Hills. The boys had been hogtied with their own shoelaces, sexually mutilated and physically assaulted before being killed.
Not long after three teens were arrested, including Damien Echols, 18, Jason Baldwin, 16, and Jessie Misskelley, 17. The three were outcasts, wore black and soon the Bible Belt town accused them of killing the boys as part of a Satanic cult ritual. All three were convicted. Before the conviction, their case became something of a media frenzy because of the trial’s focus on Echol’s interest in paganism. Other evidence, however, appeared a bit more damning. A teen girl confessed that she overheard Echols describing how he murdered the children. Misskelley confessed several times, but his attorney said that was because he was mentally incapacitated. Echols was sentenced to death while Baldwin and Misskelley were sentenced to life.
The trial became an HBO film called "Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills." It was so popular it was followed by two sequels, each of which featured interviews with the three teens. They became known West Memphis Three and they garnered a lot of support. Johnny Depp, Eddie Vedder, and The Dixie Chicks were some of their high profile supporters.
The support garnered by the documentaries surrounding the controversial case helped get the former teenage boys, now men, out of jail. Lorri Davis, a Manhattan landscape architect became one of the three’s biggest advocates. Later, Echols married her. According to CNN, advanced DNA testing, which wasn’t available at the time of the trial, has revealed that no physical evidence at the crime scene is able to link the teens to the murders.
DNA belonging to Stevie Branche's stepdad, Terry Hobbs, was discovered in the shoelace of Christopher Byers. A strand of hair that could possibly have belonged to Terry Hobbs was also discovered in one of the bindings that tied up Moore. Police have never considered Hobbs a suspect. The stepdad maintains that he is innocent, according to CNN.
In 2011, after nearly two decades of prison, the three men were released from prison after entering an Alford plea, which is a rare plea which allows people to plead guilty, even while claiming innocence, in order to avoid greater punishment. That means that, technically, their convictions were never overturned. A status report jointly issued by the state and the defense team stated: "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."
After being released, Echols said: “I'm just tired. This has been going on for over 18 years, and it's been an absolute living hell."
The victims’ parents are still torn over the innocence or guilt of the Memphis Three.
Echols is now an artist, movie producer and author. Baldwin has been involved in some movie production and has been working towards a career in law. Both got degrees while in prison. Misskelley has stayed out of the limelight, working and living not far from where he was arrested.
[Photos: West Memphis Police]