Welcome to part 2 of our look into The West Memphis 3.
In this post, I want to look at the revelations and subsequent verdicts that were revealed during the trials of the West Memphis 3.
Due to his confession and his allegations against Damien and Jason, Jessie Misskelley would stand trial alone and would be the first of the three young men to face the courts.
Jessie's trial began in January 1994.
Due to having a taped confession (which was the only recorded interview in the case), this was set to be a challenging trial for Jessie and his defence team. The defence team were adamant that detectives had taken advantage of the fact that Jessie had a lower than average IQ and had between them, coerced him into confessing. Their reasoning behind these claims is that Jessie made several claims in his confession that were absolutely false. For example, Jessie told detectives that the boys had been tied up with ropes and sexually assaulted. This wasn't in fact the case; the boys had been bound with their own shoelaces and had no signs of sexual abuse of any kind on their bodies. He also initially told police that the murders had taken place in the middle of the day when the boys would have been at school. He later retracted this and changed the times to match those of what the police were suggesting.
Prosecutors claimed that Jessie was simply confused and that he did in fact know what had really happened to the boys. Transcripts were read out in court and photographic evidence of the scene and the victims were showed to the jury and the boys' families. This obviously added extra emotion to an already highly charged murder trial.
The trial would last almost a month with the verdict ready to be read in the first week of February, 1994.
Despite his defence teams best efforts and the contradictions in his statements, Jessie Misskelley was found guilty of first and second degree murder. He was sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole.
The trial of Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin followed shortly after Jessie's conviction.
Jessie refused to testify against Damien and Jason which meant that the prosecution could not use his confession as evidence against them. Instead only circumstantial evidence could be used.
There was no biological evidence belonging to any of the young men at the crime scene, which would also cause the prosecution to struggle to provide any argument. However, they were a strong team and were under immense pressure to get a conviction so all the stops were pulled out.
Damien's unusual hobbies and interests were used in order to pin him to the murders. From the first day of investigation it was theorised that the killings were down to a satanic, ritualistic nature and Damien, who held an interest in the occult and witchcraft fit the bill of what the prosecution were looking for in a suspect. His alternative looks, with his long dark hair and black clothes made him stand out even more in a town that was highly religious and conservative.
Drawings and diaries belonging to Damien were also used by the prosecution to further pin Damien down as a cold blooded killer. He enjoyed writing in his journals and drawing unusual symbols that were unfamiliar to the jury and to the population of the small town in general.
Although circumstantial, the evidence was slowly piling up against Damien Echols.
As well as this, the prosecution called a witness by the name of Michael Carson to the stand. Michael was a fellow inmate of Jason Baldwin and testified on the stand, under oath that during their time together in jail, Jason confessed to him that he and the other suspects were indeed behind the murders. He went into great and rather graphic detail of what he was told by Jason, which quite obviously shocked and disturbed the jury. (This statement was later retracted by Carson, who admitted to lying on the stand)
Despite the best efforts of the defence teams, and there only being circumstantial evidence provided in court, the jury went on to find Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin guilty of all charges.
Jason was sentenced to life in prison, with no possibility of parole and Damien received the death penalty and was told he would be executed by lethal injection.
Support for the West Memphis 3.
The sentencing of the three men bought relief to the children's families, who were overjoyed that there were people being held accountable for the horrific murders.
However, along with the celebrations came an outpouring of support for the "WM3". People believed that the trials had been unfair and biased and that Jessie in particular had been taken advantage of by police and had been coerced into making a false confession. Documentaries and books in the favour of the three men were produced which only fuelled the support they were receiving.
Amongst their supporters were some famous faces, including Jonny Depp and Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam.
Concerts to earn funds for further defence and investigations were arranged by the celebrities and the support network became fundamental to helping boost the campaign to free the West Memphis 3.
Along with famous faces, the three also had support from Lorri Davis. Lorri was first made aware of the plight after watching Paradise Lost, an award winning documentary focusing on the three men. Lorri felt compelled to write to Damien and over a number of years the two became closer and closer and eventually got married at the prison in which Damien was being held. Lorri gave up her day job and threw herself into supporting the men and was determined to help free them from their sentences and save Damien from certain death.
The support groups worked tirelessly over the years, and in 2007 they finally got some much wanted news.
Further tests on DNA from the crime scene had been carried out to try and determine if any matches could be found. A hair that had been found stuck in between some of the ligatures used to tie up one of the boys showed that it held similarities to Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of one of the victims,Stevie Branch. This was the first time any DNA at the scene had even remotely connected to anyone involved in the case.
Terry Hobbs reputation was far from pure, and he had a troubling past. His ex wife and mother of Stevie, Pam Hobbs accused him of domestic violence and unpleasant behaviour during their marriage and later told people that she and Stevie were scared of him.
Terry was questioned briefly however the evidence was not seen as being 100% reliable as the DNA found at the scene also matched a further 1.5% of the population. Not only this, but Terry didn't match the initial profile of a devil worshipping outcast so wasn't considered to be linked to this "satanic in nature" crime.
Further developments in the case came in 2008 when it transpired that a jury foreman during Damien and Jason's case had discussed Jessie Miskelley's confession to prosecutors and other jury members. This was supposed to be inadmissible due to Jessie's refusal to testify. This was yet more positive news for the WM3 support networks.
Eighteen years after the three were jailed, in 2011, a trial court judge had to determine whether to use this newly discovered evidence to go through yet more trials or to exonerate the three men.
It was put to Damien, Jessie and Jason that by taking what is known as an Alford plea, they could finally be released from incarceration. An Alford plea means that the defendants would all have to plead guilty to murder, whilst still maintaining their innocence and avoiding having to go through another trial that could see them sent back to jail.
On the 19th of August 2011, Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Miskelley pleaded guilty to murder under the Alford plea and were sentenced by the judge to time served (18 years) plus 10 years parole. They walked "free" from prison on the same day, to jubilant crowds and were reunited with their families and friends.
With many cases of this nature, there is still much controversy surrounding these murders. Theoretically the WM3 are still guilty in the eyes of the law, but inconsistencies in evidence, DNA and witnesses now coming forward and admitting they lied during trials cast a shadow of doubt over who is really responsible.
I would love to hear what you think of this case, and if you have a conclusion of your own after sifting through the articles and documentaries surrounding it!
Its important that beyond all of this, we remember the three children who needlessly lost their lives in West Memphis on the 5th of May 1993. Rest in Peace Stevie, Christopher and Michael.
Paradise Lost. Parts 1, 2 and 3 (can be found on youtube)
West of Memphis (Netflix)
VIEWER DISCRETION ADVISED - THESE DOCUMENTARIES CONTAIN GRAPHIC FOOTAGE OF CRIME SCENE AND VICTIMS.
Once again, thank you so much for the wonderful support. I have been truly overwhelmed with how kind people have been about this new venture. Keep your eyes peeled for a new case in the coming week! Chloe xo