On May 6, 1993, the nude bodies of three 8-year-old boys were found hogtied with shoelaces in a drainage canal in West Memphis, Arkansas. Three local teens — dubbed the West Memphis Three — were charged and found guilty of the brutal slayings, but they long maintained their innocence.
Following their conviction, a series of documentaries drew attention to the case and suggested they were victims of “Satanic Panic,” a widespread fear in the 1980s that Satanism would infect society.
A new batch of DNA testing later revealed that no genetic material tied them to the crime scene evidence, and after almost 20 years behind bars, the West Memphis Three were released as part of a plea deal in 2011, according to court documents obtained by Oxygen.com.
“The Forgotten West Memphis Three,” premiering Saturday, March 28 at 8/7c on Oxygen, looks back on the case with the help of investigative experts and the victims’ families.
Before tuning in, catch up on the 10 key players below.
Victim Stevie Edward Branch was an honor student in the second grade at Weaver Elementary School in West Memphis.
"He was a very intelligent little boy. I could have had the next president had he not been murdered," his mother, Pamela Hicks, told Memphis NBC affiliate WMC-TV in 2007.
His parents were divorced, and at the time of Stevie’s murder, Hicks was married to a man named Terry Hobbs. Hicks told WMC that the last time she saw her son was on the afternoon of Wednesday, May 5, 1993, the day he went missing, when he asked to go bike riding with his friends.
He died from drowning and suffered a fractured skull, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Christopher Mark Byers was a child of divorce and had been adopted by his mother’s new husband, John Mark Byers. He lived with his parents and older brother, Ryan Clark.
On the day of the boys’ disappearance, Christopher had been sent home from Weaver Elementary School for misbehaving.
“I spanked him three times with my belt with his pants up," Byers said in a 2006 interview, according to weekly newspaper the Memphis Flyer. Christopher was told not to leave the house, but he wasn’t there when his stepfather returned home that evening.
Byers reported his son missing to the West Memphis Police Department around 8 p.m. on the night of May 5, 1993.
Christopher’s autopsy listed “multiple injuries” as his cause of death. He had a fractured skull, and his genitals had been mutilated.
While police initially theorized the dismemberment was indicative of a Satanic ritual, forensic experts hired by the defense contended the injuries occurred after death and were the result of foraging animals, according to the Arkansas Democrat Gazette.
James Michael Moore attended Weaver Elementary School and was a member of the Cub Scouts along with Stevie and Christopher. He lived with his parents and his older sister.
He died from drowning and had also suffered a fractured skull, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Born Michael Wayne Hutcheson, Damien Echols was an 18-year-old high school dropout who drew unwanted attention in his conservative hometown.
A self-described “metal kid,” he dabbled in Wicca and was known to dress all in black, according to a 2012 interview in Spin magazine. People in West Memphis described him as a “wacko cult member” and “real weird,” reported The New York Times in 1993.
When investigators pulled the boys’ bodies from the water, a local probation officer who was helping with the search “allegedly [said], 'Damien Echols finally did it. He finally killed someone.' And that's where the investigation went from there forward," host Bob Ruff told “The Forgotten West Memphis Three.”
Echols was ultimately found guilty on three counts of capital murder in March 1994 and sentenced to death by lethal injection, according to the Arkansas Times.
Echols was released in August 2011 at the age of 36 after agreeing to an Alford plea, which allowed him to proclaim their innocence while admitting the prosecution had enough evidence to convict him.
Since his release, Echols has published multiple books and lives in New York City with his wife, whom he met while he was incarcerated.
Jason Baldwin, 16, was a friend of Echols who shared his love of heavy metal. He got good grades in school, and his mother told The New York Times he was “brainy.”
Baldwin was tried alongside Echols and was also convicted of capital murder. He was spared the death penalty and instead sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, according to the Arkansas Times.
Feeling it undermined his claims of innocence, Baldwin was initially against taking the Alford plea, but he relented in order to get Echols off death row, reported the Arkansas Times.
After his release from prison in August 2011, Baldwin moved to Seattle to study law, according to The New York Times. He currently lives in Austin, Texas, where he runs the non-profit group Proclaim Justice, which advocates for victims of wrongful conviction.
Jessie Misskelley, Jr.
Jessie Misskelley, Jr. was a 17-year-old high school dropout who had a reputation around West Memphis for getting into fistfights and other trouble, according to The New York Times.
A month after the murders, Misskelley was brought in for questioning by police. He ultimately waived his right to a lawyer and confessed to helping Echols and Baldwin kill Stevie, Christopher and Michael.
Defense attorneys later claimed Misskelley had an I.Q. of 72, didn’t understand the questions and only confessed because he thought he’d receive a reward, reported the Memphis Flyer.
Before his trial, Misskelley recanted his confession, but it was enough evidence to convict him for the slayings. 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 1995, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Following his release in August 2011, Misskelley moved back to West Memphis.
Terry Hobbs, Stevie’s stepfather, was married to Pamela Hicks until 2004. The two divorced after experiencing marital problems that emanated from her son’s death, she told CNN in 2009.
Hobbs was interviewed by the West Memphis Police Department in 2007 after DNA testing showed that a hair found in one of the ligatures used to bind the boys was consistent with the DNA of Hobbs, according to court documents obtained by Oxygen.com.
In 2009, three witnesses came forward and filed affidavits claiming they saw Hobbs with the three boys the night before their bodies were found, contradicting Hobbs’ previous statements to police, according to CNN.
Hobbs rejected the allegations and questioned why eyewitness evidence surfaced 16 years later. He has continually denied any involvement in the murders, and police have never named him a suspect or charged him in connection with the case. He still believes the West Memphis Three are guilty.
“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.
John Mark Byers
John Mark Byers was the adoptive father of Christopher.
During the production of “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills,” a 1996 HBO documentary covering the case, Byers gave a knife to a member of the film crew, who sent it to the West Memphis Police Department.
Forensic testing found there was blood on the knife that contained the same DNA factor as in Byers’ and Christopher’s blood, reported the Arkansas Democrat Gazette. Byers would later testify that “he had no idea how any blood could have gotten on the knife, except that he remembered cutting his own thumb,” according to court documents obtained by Oxygen.com.
Byers has denied any involvement in the murders, and he has never been charged in connection with the case. After years of blaming the West Memphis Three, Byers came out in 2007 and said he believed them to be innocent, according to ABC News.
"I want these three men to know I'm here for you," Byers said. "I hated you for years. I believed with all my heart you killed my son — and I'm sorry for that."
On a tree stump near the crime scene, investigators found another hair, according to court documents obtained by Oxygen.com. DNA testing conducted in 2007 found the hair to be consistent with the DNA of David Jacoby, who is Hobbs’ friend, according to court documents.
Jacoby has denied any involvement in the murders. He has never been named a suspect nor has he been charged in connection with the case.
"I did walk near where they had found the kids with Terry Hobbs … But I didn't wear hats back then, my hair could have blown around anywhere,” Jacoby told Memphis NBC affiliate WMC-TV in 2013.
To learn more, watch “The Forgotten West Memphis Three” on Saturday, March 28 and Sunday, March 29 at 8/7c on Oxygen.
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