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Who Is The Real Killer Behind The 'West Memphis Three' Murders?
Stevie Branch, Michael Moore and Christopher Byers were only 8 years old when they viciously murdered in 1993.
It’s a case built on a shoddy confession and community bias, and includes allegations of Satanism, sexual abuse and mutilation. To this day, it inspires fierce debate and accusations of guilt, while the facts and evidence remain contested.
What’s known is that three 8-year-old boys — Steve "Stevie" Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore — were murdered in West Memphis, Arkansas, in 1993. Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley, Jr. were arrested and convicted for the crimes, despite a majority of the evidence being circumstantial. Two were sentenced to life in prison, and the third received the death penalty.
Following a series of documentaries that cast doubt on the investigation and law enforcement’s conclusion, high-profile supporters began to rally behind the imprisoned teens, later dubbed the “West Memphis Three.”
In 2011, after almost two decades in prison, the West Memphis Three agreed to an Alford plea, which allowed them to proclaim their innocence while admitting the prosecution had enough evidence to convict them, and they were released from prison.
Who Were Victims Stevie Branch, Michael Moore and Christopher Byers?
The debate rages to this day, and no one has a definitive answer.
Located across from Memphis, on the west bank of the Mississippi River, West Memphis shares many problems with its more famous neighbor. Crime and poverty rates are significantly higher than the national average and the Bible Belt city ranked as the most the most dangerous in the state in 2018, reported USA Today.
Eight-year-olds Stevie, Michael and Christopher were best friends and Cub Scout members who attended Weaver Elementary School, where they were in second grade.
On the afternoon of May 5, 1993, the three friends were enjoying a warm spring afternoon outdoors. Stevie’s mother, Pamela Hicks, said the last time she spoke to her son, he asked for permission to go bike riding with his friends, according to Memphis NBC affiliate WMC-TV.
Residents Jamie Clark Ballard and Carlos Seals were reportedly the last two people to see the boys alive, as reported in Oxygen's "The Forgotten West Memphis Three."
John Mark Byers, Christopher’s stepfather, reported the boys missing to the West Memphis Police Department at approximately 8 p.m., reported local newspaper the Memphis Flyer.
The following day, authorities launched an extensive search for the boys where they were last seen playing — a wooded area off Interstate 40 known as “Robin Hood Hills.” Their bodies were discovered that afternoon in a drainage ditch.
What Was Stevie Branch, Michael Moore and Christopher Byers' Cause of Death?
The boys had been stripped naked and they had been hog-tied. Christopher’s cause of death was from "multiple injuries,” while both Michael and Stevie died from "multiple injuries with drowning,” according to local newspaper the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
Christopher had a fractured skull, and his genitals had been mutilated, which authorities believed was done by his killer. However, it also could have been the work of wild animals.
A 1996 appeal filed by Echols and Baldwin states that the boys' clothing and bicycles had been found strewn around the crime scene.
Why Were Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley, Jr. Arrested?
Investigators soon zeroed in on 18-year-old high school dropout Damien W. Echols, who was interrogated on May 7. Echols lived in a trailer park and stood out in the conservative small town. He had a penchant for wearing all black, and he liked heavy metal music, horror and science fiction. Moreover, he also studied Wicca, which incorporates elements of paganism and witchcraft.
“He's like some wacko cult member," high school teacher Jim Ferguson told The New York Times at the time of the murders.
When Echols was asked about how the boys died, he guessed as to the nature of the killings and suggested "purpose of the killing may have been to scare someone," according to the appeal. He said that one of the boys had likely been mutilated more than others, raising suspicion because, "at the time Echols made the statement, there was no public knowledge that one of the children had been mutilated more severely than the others."
Echols’ friend, Jason Baldwin, 16, was subsequently wrapped up in the investigation, and a third teenager, Jessie Misskelley Jr., 17, also came under scrutiny. Like Echols, Misskelley was a high school dropout and was known for getting into fistfights and trouble around town, according to The New York Times. In fact, Baldwin and Echols said they barely knew Misskelley.
"To be honest, I didn't really think of him at all," Echols told 48 Hours in 2010. "He was just someone that was sort of on the fringes of mine and Jason's life."
But it was the testimony of Misskelley, who was brought in for questioning on June 3, 1993, that led to the teenagers' arrests. He was held for 12 hours and interrogated without his parents present. He waived his right to a lawyer and eventually confessed to being involved in the murders, naming Echols and Baldwin as his accomplices, according to a 1996 appeal.
His confession had numerous factual errors and inconsistencies, according to the Arkansas Times newspaper. He made outlandish claims that he had taken part in Satanic rituals, telling the officers, "They engaged in orgies and, as an initiation rite, killing and eating dogs," according to the 1996 appeal.
In a later appeal, Misskelley argued he had an I.Q. of 72 and that his “mental capacity rendered his confession involuntary,” according to court documents obtained by Oxygen.com. The appeal also stated that he was scared of officers and thought he might be given reward money.
"He thought he was helping by adding to the story," his attorney Dan Stidham told 48 Hours in 2010, "but he turned himself from a witness to an accomplice."
Although Misskelley recanted his confession, it was among the evidence used against him in court — though his attorney noted in the 1996 appeal that his statements "were virtually the only evidence, all other testimony and exhibits serving primarily as corroboration."
He was found guilty of one count of first-degree murder and two counts of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison in February 1994, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Echols and Baldwin went on trial a month later, and the prosecution argued they had murdered the boys in a Satanic ritual. They were both found guilty on three counts of capital murder, according to the Arkansas Times. Baldwin was given life without parole, while Echols was sentenced to death by lethal injection.
Which Celebrities Supported The West Memphis Three?
In June 1996, HBO aired “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills,” the first of three documentaries that took a critical look at the case, highlighting law enforcement’s questionable investigation tactics and lack of physical evidence tying Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley to the murders. It also suggested that The West Memphis Three were victims of lingering “Satanic Panic,” a widespread fear in the 1980s that Satanism would infect society. (Dale Griffis, an expert on the occult, testified that the amount of victims and the fact that the date of the killings was close to a pagan holiday, suggested that the murders were Satanic in nature.)
The tale of three metal-loving misfits who may have been scapegoated for being different resonated with many, including several prominent musicians, celebrities and activists, including Johnny Depp and Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder. As Depp told 48 Hours, "I can empathize with being judged on how you look, as opposed to who you are."
Two tribute albums, “Free The West Memphis 3” (2000) and “Rise Above: 24 Black Flag Songs to Benefit the West Memphis Three” (2002), helped generate funds for their ongoing legal costs.
What Evidence Is There In The West Memphis Three Case?
While the Arkansas State and U.S. Supreme Courts repeatedly denied the West Memphis Three’s appeals, a new batch of DNA testing done in 2007 showed that no genetic material on the crime scene evidence was a match to Echols, Baldwin or Misskelley, reported the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
Furthermore, a hair found in one of the ligatures used to bind the boys was found to be consistent with the DNA of Terry Hobbs, Stevie’s stepfather, according to court documents obtained by Oxygen.com.
Another hair found on a tree stump near the crime scene was found to be consistent with the DNA of David Jacoby, a friend of Hobbs, according to court documents.
Hobbs and Jacoby have denied involvement in the murders and have never been named as suspects or arrested in connection with the case.
The Arkansas Supreme Court ordered a new evidentiary hearing for Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley in the fall of 2010. The following year, lawyers working for the West Memphis Three presented the new DNA tests, which showed no link between them and the 1993 murders, according to the Arkansas Times.
When Were The West Memphis Three Released From Prison?
Prosecutors then offered the West Memphis Three a plea deal.
Baldwin, 34, Echols and Misskelley, both 36, pleaded guilty to first- and second-degree murder charges through an Alford plea which allowed them to simultaneously proclaim their innocence, according to The New York Times. They were released on Aug. 19, 2011.
“I am innocent, as are Jason and Jessie, but I made this decision because I did not want to spend another day of my life behind those bars,” Echols said, according to the Arkansas Times. “I want to live and to continue to fight for our innocence. Sometimes justice is neither pretty, nor is it perfect, but it was important to take this opportunity to be free.”
Since their release, West Memphis authorities confirmed that some evidence in the case "might have been destroyed" in a fire "around 15 years ago."
Where Are The West Memphis Three Now?
Since his release, Echols has released three books — most recently “High Magick: A Guide to the Spiritual Practices That Saved My Life on Death Row.” He lives in New York City with his wife, Lorri Davis, whom he married in prison in 1999.
Baldwin lives in Austin, Texas, where in 2017 he founded the non-profit group Proclaim Justice, which advocates for victims of wrongful convictions. Misskelley still lives in West Memphis and has kept a low profile since his release. Per a bio on the website, he is seeking a degree and plans to attend law school.
No further arrests have been made in the murders of Stevie, Michael and Christopher. Hobbs has consistently denied having anything to do with the killings of his stepson and his two best friends.
“I still believe in my heart that Jessie, Jason, and Damion Echols [sic] are responsible for what happened to our children,” Hobbs told Memphis ABC affiliate WATN in June 2019.
To this day, it is still unclear who is responsible for the killings.
To learn more, watch “The Forgotten West Memphis Three” on Oxygen.com.
(This story was originally published on March 19, 2020 and has been updated with new information.)