At our office we are always invested in the rights of those charged with crimes. As such, we stay up to date on a variety of cases, some high profile and some lesser known. This article is about one of those high profile cases – the arrest and conviction of three teenaged boys known as the West Memphis 3, who spent nearly two decades in prison before being freed due to a public outcry and court appeals. This case strikes as an interesting one because there are a number of questions surrounding the investigation, the trial and the appeals process for each of these young men. Keep in mind as you read this that in a criminal case, the standard is beyond a reasonable doubt.
In 1993, three boys went missing and were later found murdered in a small town in Arkansas. These were horrific crimes. According to records and trial transcripts, very little police work was actually done before settling in on a main suspect, Damien Echols. Here is how they were led to Mr. Echols:
It began with a missing persons report for the boys, the investigation of which was not immediately begun and until the morning, was scarce at best. Even the discovery of the children’s bodies appears to be vague and unclear. Investigators, while out speaking with potential witnesses, were led to a 17 year old boy with a low IQ, Jesse Miskelley, who claimed to have some knowledge about the murders. His “confession” continues to be a great source of discussion and conflict to this day. First, most of it is not recorded. Second, when the recording finally does begin, it appears to be completely led by the detectives. Third, Miskelley had a low IQ. Finally, during the interview, there are many elements which simply cannot be true according to other evidence, therefore making it completely questionable. However, the interrogation led to the door of Damien Echols which led to his best friend, Jason Baldwin.
The accused then became known as the West Memphis 3 (WM3).
There were two trials. The Court severed (separated) the trial for Miskelley from the other two given his implication of them in his statement. The judge refused to sever the trial of Echols from Baldwin (though Baldwin was simply a defendant by his choice of friends), so the two were tried as co-defendants. Each trial was full of evidentiary rulings that rose on appeal. There were witnesses who were allowed to testify as “experts” in the rites of satanic rituals who only received a PhD from online correspondence courses. There were witnesses who admitted to lying in their statements to the police, but could not be cross examined. There was lost evidence. There was jury tampering. There were viable leads for suspects that were never followed – including a man who was seen in a local restaurant that evening with blood covering his hands and clothes. The police were called to the scene initially, but left without a report. Some would say that there was a mountain of reasonable doubt. In the end, all three boys were convicted – Baldwin and Miskelley received life sentences; Echols received the death penalty.
An opportunity arose when one of the defense attorney’s was approached for a documentary about the case. The attorney agreed because money was needed to continue to appeal and he truly believed his client, Jesse Miskelly, was innocent. The screenwriters believed the teens were guilty and thought they had an opportunity to create a one of a kind movie about teen killers. “Paradise Lost” was released and went viral. Some of the victims’ families began to question the convictions. Celebrities, such as Johnny Depp and Eddie Vedder, took to the spotlight to speak out. Money poured in for the WM3 defense and appeal fund. The appeals moved forward (see below). Eventually, Paradise 2” & “Paradise 3” were created and released.
At the same time, attorneys began immediately appealing. Remember that an evidentiary ruling can lead to an appellate issue if there is an argument that the evidence was admitted in error and that error had a negative impact on the defendant (simplifying here, there is a legal standard for appeal that must be argued in each case according to that state’s law). There are two different standards, for example, in Massachusetts, to argue based upon whether or not defense counsel objected during trial to the issue or whether appellate counsel determined later that the issue is one that should have been objected to and raises the issue for the first time on appeal. Various issues were raised on appeal in this particular case leading to the opportunity for these three young men to appear once again before their trial court.
After 18 years in prison and on death row, the WM3 were offered an Alford Plea. This plea allows a plea, to resolve the case, but also permits the defendant to maintain his innocence by not making an admission to the facts. It allowed the three to received credit for “time served” and be released. It also allowed for the state to save the cost from having to pay for a second trial. Given all of the issues and the rulings on the appeals, this was a fair compromise for all to close this case.
The WM3 have been out of prison for nearly ten years. However, there is still no justice for the murder of three little boys, Stevie, Michael and Christopher whether any or all of the WM3 were involved or others were involved. The conflicts continue over guilt or innocence of the WM3. There are movies, books, websites, and podcasts devoted to solving the crime. As for the confession that started the chain of events? It is still one of the most hotly debated issues in the case.
There are some indications that police may be onto new information that could clear the WM3 and close the case. We will provide updates on the case.
For details on the case you may visit:
- Paradise Lost 1,2 and 3
- Devils Knot
- West of Memphis
- Devils Knot by Mara Leveritt
- The Case Against the WM3 by Gary Meece
- Life After Death by Damien Echols
- Untying the Knot – Greg Day
- Abomination – Greg Ramsey
- Dark Spell – Jason Baldwin
As always, if you have knowledge of this case that can help close it for good, please contact the CrimeStoppers at: 870-732-4444.