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Could New DNA Testing Fully Exonerate The West Memphis Three?
Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley, Jr. were convicted in 1994 of the murder of three 8-year-old boys. Despite their release, following years of maintaining their innocence, they are still technically convicted killers.
On May 6, 1993, 8-year-olds Stevie Branch, Michael Moore and Christopher Byers were found nude and hogtied in a West Memphis, Arkansas, bayou.
Their bodies and clothes had been jammed into the muddy ground with sticks, and their bikes were found on either side of a pipe bridge not far from the crime scene.
The boys had been so badly mutilated that investigators believed they had been killed in a Satanic ritual, and they soon arrested three outcast teenagers — Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley, Jr. — and charged them with the murders.
The so-called “West Memphis Three” were tried and convicted of the slayings, but they continued to proclaim their innocence from behind bars, and a series of documentaries drew critical attention to the case and suggested the teens were the victims of “Satanic Panic,” a fear that Satanism would infect society.
While their appeals were repeatedly denied, a new set of DNA testing in 2007 revealed that no genetic material taken from the crime scene was a match to Echols, Baldwin or Misskelley, according to court documents obtained by Oxygen.com.
Four years later, they reached a deal with prosecutors and were released from prison after agreeing to an Alford plea, which allowed them to maintain their innocence while admitting the prosecution had enough evidence to convict them.
Although the men have been free for the past decade, they are still technically convicted killers, and it remains unclear who is responsible for the deaths of Branch, Moore and Byers.
“There’s still that sense that something ain’t right. Things haven’t been finished. I just want my name back, and I want justice in this case,” Baldwin told investigator and host Bob Ruff in the documentary special “The Forgotten West Memphis Three,” streaming now on Oxygen.
To potentially uncover new evidence in the case, Ruff is hoping to have the crime scene evidence — including the bikes, sticks and clothing — re-tested with M-Vac, a wet-vacuum DNA collection system that can gather “200 times more DNA sample” compared to swab testing.
“DNA testing … was very limited back at the time of the trial in 1993. There was no such thing as touch DNA … and so I’m hoping that this new M-Vac technology may be the key to unlocking evidence that’s been there this whole time,” Ruff said.
In order to gain access to the evidence, however, Ruff and his team need the consent of district prosecuting attorney Scott Ellington. While Ellington was not in office during the original trials, he was throughout their appeals, and he was the one who ultimately approved the Alford plea that freed the West Memphis Three.
Following their release, Ellington pledged he was not abandoning the case.
“It would be a dereliction of my duties not to review credible evidence that’s been presented, and so we have to do that,” Ellington said in a 2012 interview that was also featured in “The Forgotten West Memphis Three.”
As of now, Ruff and his team say they’ve been unsuccessful in their attempt to contact Ellington, even though they have the support of Echols, Baldwin, Misskelley and victims’ family members, including Branch’s mother, Pam Hicks, and Byers’ brother, Ryan Clark.
Ruff’s hope is to finally figure out who murdered Branch, Byers and Moore and “give the people involved some closure.”
"There were a lot of victims. Many people had their lives completely and absolutely destroyed by this case," Echols told Ruff in “The Forgotten West Memphis Three.”
Although both Echols and Hicks said they were not surprised by the state’s lack of response, they continue to support Ruff in his fight for justice.
“I met with Scott Ellington and, you know, all of them. I’ve been from A to Z. I’m the mother, and they won’t even let me have access to anything. … I want finally to be able to say that it’s over. But I’m not giving up. I’ve got too much hope and too much to live for,” Hicks said.
Ruff has also vowed to “exhaust every single possible avenue and effort to try to figure out who killed these boys.”
“The only way that we’re ever going to be able to solve this case definitively is gonna have to be through science and DNA testing. … At this point, the ball’s in the court of Scott Ellington. … So this is all gonna come down to whether Scott Ellington wants to find the truth or not because we have the technology to find it,” Ruff said.
To hear more from those involved in the case, watch “The Forgotten West Memphis Three,” streaming now on Oxygen.com.