The "Infamous" West Memphis Three

Teenagers accused of murduring three young boys.

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What happened?

On the afternoon of 6 May 1993, West Memphis was shaken 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 and raped. 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 (Steel 1).

Setting the Scene

A Little Background

Soon after the bodies were removed from Robin Hood Hills, rumors began circulating that the killings might have been the work of devil worshipers. Inspector Gitchell did nothing to squelch the rumors when he told reporters that his department was investigating the possibility that the murders were connected with "cult activity." The West Memphis Police Department assigned the case number 93-05-0 666 to the murder file.
On May 7, Steve Jones, the juvenile officer who first discovered the bodies, interviewed a troubled local teenager, Damien Echols, who had been under watch of another juvenile officer, Jerry Driver. Echols was a seventeen-year-old dropout with a history of psychiatric problems, including major depression.

In addition to Echols, investigators focused their attention on Jason Baldwin, a friend of Damien's who also had "EVIL" inked across his left knuckles.

Investigations might have stalled were it not for the work of a local waitress named Vicki Hutcheson. Hutcheson told police she suspected the killings were cult-related and that she was willing to "play detective" (Linder). She told investigators that on the night of May 19 she and Jesse were driven by Damien to an "esbat" (a gathering of witches) in a field outside of town where she encountered ten young people, each with faces and arms painted black (Steel).

On June 3rd, after being interviewed by the police for hours, Jessie Misskelley implicates himself, Baldwin and Echols in the murder of the three children. Baldwin, Echols and Misskelley are arrested. The three plead not guilty to capital murder at a pre-trial hearing on August 4th. A jury in Clay County Circuit Court convicts Misskelley of first-degree murder in the death of Michael Moore and second-degree murder in the murders of Stevie Branch and Christopher Byers and sentences him to life in prison plus two 25-year terms. Baldwin and Echols are found guilty of capital murder by a jury in Jonesboro. Circuit Judge David Burnett sentences Echols to die by lethal injection and Baldwin to life without parole.

The documentary film "Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills" by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky begins airing on HBO, casting doubt on the WM3's guilt, drawing critical praise and sparking international interest into the case. "Paradise Lost 2: Revelations" begins airing on HBO; it examines the "Free the WM3" movement and focuses on new evidence.

On September 30, 2010 The Arkansas Supreme Court hears oral arguments to determine whether there should be an evidentiary hearing for a new trial. At issue is each side's interpretation of the state's DNA statute and the "intent" behind the law that grants access to DNA testing, and possibly relief, for those wrongly convicted of crimes

In a rarely used plea arrangement known as an "Alford plea," Baldwin, Echols and Misskelley plead guilty to murder while still maintaining their innocence. Judge Laser releases them with time served and a suspended 10-year sentence on August 19, 2011 (Arkansas Times Staff).

Can We Relate This to Anything?

Towns across the country have faced times of fear, uncertainty, and crisis with effects on their society that can never be forgotten. No one would ever know such a crisis would hit the small city of West Memphis. One piece of literature that presents the same themes as this tragedy is Arthur Miller's The Crucible. In this play, a town is practically destroyed due to the false accusations of witchery were made in a time where fear and uncertainty took over. Sound familiar? Now the boys mentioned in the above story were out of the ordinary: "Echols wrote dark poems, dressed mostly in black, wore long hair, had a tattoo on his upper arm, and was a self-described Wiccan" (Linder). In The Crucible, anything out of the ordinary was also viewed as something negative, maybe even Satanic: "Abigail, if you know something that may help the doctor, for God's sake tell it to me. I saw Tituba waving her arms over the fire when I came on you. Why was she doing that? And I heard a screeching and gibberish coming from her mouth. She were swaying like a dumb beast over that fire!" (Miller 12). Again, anything presented as strange is not considered good.

As both the events in West Memphis and the play carry on, more parallels are presented. Both events reeked havoc among the towns, causing fear. The fear of the unknown and the potential danger the citizens felt called for false accusations and false confessions. In the play, accusations are made against John Proctor by Mary Warren because she is being pressured to "speak the truth" by others. She also fears for her own life because if she does not blame another she will end up dying: " You’’re the Devil’’s man! My name, he want my name. “'I’’ll murder you,”' he says, “'if my wife hangs! We must go and overthrow the court,”' he says!" (MIller 122). In the West Memphis incident, the three teenagers are convicted for the murder of three young boys. After receiving their sentences, films began surfacing about this incident. The films brought it to the attention of people, therefore, they began to do something about it. Due to the pressure of the people of their town, judges were then persuaded into revisiting the case and eventually ruling the convicted murders innocent after evidence was presented. This can show the power that a town can have. In the play, the town believed that witchery was consuming their town, therefore some felt pressured to accuse others: "Proctor, you mistake me. I am not empowered to trade your life for a lie. You have most certainly seen some person with the Devil. Mr. Proctor, a score of people have already testified they saw this woman with the Devil" (Miller 142). In the West Memphis case, the town felt strongly against the convictions of the three teenagers, therefore, they convinced the judge to overrule their sentence. The fear the people had in The Crucible caused the accusations to fly as did in West Memphis. People were looking for scapegoats to find a way to explain their fears instead of having to face the fear of the unknown.

Works Cited

  • Arkansas Times Staff. "Timeline of Events in the West Memphis Three Case." Arkansas Times. Foundation, 24 Aug. 2011. Web. 06 Dec. 2014.
  • Echols, Damien. "Only the Guilty Want Closure in West Memphis Three Case." Http://www.arktimes.com. Foundation, 26 June 2014. Web. 6 Dec. 2014.
  • Linder, Douglas O. "The West Memphis Three Trials: An Account." The West Memphis Three Trials: An Account. N.p., 2013. Web. 08 Dec. 2014.
  • Miller, Arthur. "The Crucible." Web. 8 Dec. 2014. <http://www.hatboro-horsham.org/cms/lib2/PA01000027/Centricity/Domain/339/The Crucible - Arthur Miller .pdf>.

  • Steel, Fiona. "A Most Heinous Crime." The West Memphis Three — — Crime Library. N.p., 2014. Web. 04 Dec. 2014.