On May 5, 1993, three eight-year-old boys, Chris Byers, James Moore and Steve Branch, were last seen riding their bikes through their West Memphis, Ark., neighborhood at 6 PM. Their nude bodies were found the next day at 1:45 PM, in a shallow drainage ditch. All three had been tied, wrists to ankles, with their own shoelaces.
James Moore and Steve Branch had multiple traumatic injuries to the head, torso and extremities. Branch showed signs of defensive wounds. There was no evidence either one was sexually assaulted. The injuries to Chris Byers were far more serious. His cause of death was from multiple traumatic injuries to the head. Unlike the other two, he did not drown. In addition, his genital area was mutilated, cut and stabbed.
The bodies had been removed from the area prior to the arrival of the coroner, possibly contaminating the scene. Body temperatures were not taken. Determining the time of death was rendered nearly impossible.
LATER THE SAME DAY
Upon learning of the incident later the day the bodies were discovered, the manager of a nearby restaurant called Bojangles notified police that he had witnessed a muddy, bleeding African-American man in the woman's room the previous evening (the night of the murders). Only after the second phone call did the police finally show up.
Wearing the same clothing and shoes from the original crime scene, policemen arrived at Bojangles and examined the restroom. Detective Bryn Ridge subsequently lost the blood scrapings taken from the restroom. Ironically, a strand of African-American hair was found on a sheet that had been used to cover one of the victims.
RUMORS OF SATANISTS
The day after the bodies were discovered, May 7, a new resident to West Memphis named Vicki Hutchenson was given a polygraph test by the Marion Police Department, a short distance from West Memphis, to determine if she had stolen money from her West Memphis employer. Her young son, Aaron, was also present and caused such a disturbance that the test was considered to be unreliable by Detective Don Bray who had conducted the test. During this process, young Aaron, who had been a playmate of the three victims, told Detective Bray he had witnessed the boys being killed at "the playhouse" by Satanists who spoke Spanish.
Upon further investigation, this story turned out to be false. There was no playhouse at the location Aaron indicated, other statements were completely inconsistent, and Aaron was later unable to identify the three teens who were subsequently charged with the crime.
However, a police officer leaked portions of Aaron's statements to the press – horrific murders committed during a Satanic ritual. The press ran with it, creating a frenzy among the residents of West Memphis. Rewards were posted for the capture and conviction of the killer.
On June 2, 1993, Vicki Hutchenson told police that a teenager named Damien Echols (who normally dressed in gothic attire) had driven her to a satanic cult meeting in a nearby town. She also claimed that another teenager, Jessie Misskelly, was along for the ride. She reported that Echols was drunk and bragged about killing the three boys. It was later learned that Echols didn't have a driver's license and had never driven a car. After the Misskelley trial, Hutchenson admitted she had consumed almost two bottles of Wild Turkey that night and woke up the next morning on her lawn. She also admitted she had implicated Echols and Misskelley to be eligible for the reward money.
In October of 2003, Vicki Hutchenson was interviewed by the Arkansas Times. She stated that everything she had originally told the police was a fabrication because the police made her believe they would take away her child if she didn't tell them what they wanted to hear. She also claimed the police station had photographs of Echols, Misskelley and Baldwin on the wall and had used them as dart targets.
Nevertheless, based on the June 2 Hutchenson tip, the police picked up Misskelly for questioning.
JESSE MISSKELLEY CONFESSION
Jesse Misskelley was 17 years old, legally a minor in the state of Arkansas. He had an IQ of 72, a mental age of 12, and had been previously diagnosed as retarded. He had a minor criminal record for shoplifting and a reputation for getting into fist fights. The interrogators denied Misskelly's request to see his father. In Arkansas, police are forbidden by law from questioning a minor without a written waiver from a parent or guardian. Misskelley was given his Miranda rights but later stated that he didn't understand them and that he was "scared of the police." Misskelley was questioned for over three hours with no camera or tape of that portion of his interrogation.
On a promise he would be able to go home, Misskelly started confessing. This time, Misskelley's "confession" was taped while interrogators blatantly passed him details of the crime, even correcting him to match their time frame and crime scene factors. The taped statement took only 46 minutes.
On the taped statement, Misskelly claimed to have seen Echols and another teenager, Jason Baldwin, murder the three boys. But many of his "facts" were inconsistent. He stated the incident took place at noon, but the victims were in school until 3 pm and later seen at 6 pm. He said the victims had been sodomized but there was no such evidence. He claimed the victims had been tied with a brown rope but there were bound with their own shoelaces. And so on. When he realized he would not be released as promised, Misskelley immediately recanted his confession.
Nevertheless, police then arrested Echols and Baldwin on murder charges.
On January 19, 2004, Misskelley was the first to be tried, separately from the other two. He refused to testify against Echols and Baldwin, even though he had been promised a reduced sentence.
Several of Misskelley's school classmates came forward and claimed they had witnessed Misskelley at a school wrestling match the evening of the murders, but they were not considered to be credible by the authorities who wanted swift justice, and were not allowed to be called as witnesses at the trial.
There was little evidence against Misskelley, except for the so-called "confession." There was some fiber evidence, yet it was extremely common fiber, including found in every Wal-Mart in Arkansas.
The star witness against Misskelley was a boy who had been in the juvenile correctional facility with Baldwin and claimed Baldwin admitted to the killings. Even though the witness's counselor from the correctional facility informed the court in advance that the witness was going to perjure himself, the judge allowed the heresay testimony.
During Misskelley's trial, Dr. Richard Ofshe, Professor of Social Psychology at the University of California and Pulitzer Prize winning expert on false confessions, testified that the recording of Misskelley's statement was a classic example of police coercion. He claimed it was the "stupidest confession I've ever seen."
ECHOLS AND BALDWIN TRIAL
Jason Baldwin, age 16, looked like a regular kid of that age. He had previously been arrested for vandalism.
Damian Echols , age 18, was a Goth who always dressed in black and rarely attended school. He and his girlfriend once broke into a trailer during a rainstorm and were charged with burglary. Based on rumors that Echols and his girlfriend had planned to have a child and sacrifice it, Echols had been institutionalized for psychiatric evaluation. He was diagnosed as depressed and suicidal, prescribed for imipramine and spent several months in a mental institution. His family was awarded full disability by the Social Security Administration. Although poor in math, he ranked above average in verbal and reading skills.
On February 4, 2004, Echols and Baldwin were tried together. Dr. George W. Woods testified for the defense that Echols suffered from a "serious mental illness characterized by grandiose and persecutory delusions, auditory and visual hallucinations, disordered thought processes, substantial lack of insight, and chronic, incapacitating mood swings."
Misskelley's confession was admitted as evidence at the trial, which stated that Misskelley, Baldwin and Echols were in the crime scene area when the three boys rode up on bicycles. Baldwin and Echols called the boys to come to the creek, then severely beat the three boys. Two of the boys were raped (which proved to be false at the autopsy). According to Misskelley's taped confession, he fled the scene after the boys were tied up.
Misskelley's statement contained many inconsistencies with the true crime scene facts. Autopsies showed no sign of rape. The three boys were not tied with a brown rope as Misskelley stated, but rather were tied with their own shoelaces. Misskelley claimed the crime took place at noon, yet the three boys had attended school all afternoon that day and were later seen at 6:30 PM riding their bicycles.
During the trial, Christy Van Vickle, age 12, testified she heard Echols say he "killed the three boys." Jodie Medford, age 15, testified she heard Echols say, "I killed the three boys and before I turn myself in, I'm going to kill two more, and I already have one picked out." During cross examination by defense attorneys, both girls testified they heard nothing before or after these statements and neither one could identify anyone else surrounding Echols, except Baldwin.
Detective Bryn Ridge testified that he had interviewed Echols a few days after the killings, along with many other local teenagers, and that Echols had knowledge of the crime not previously released by the police. However, this was rebutted by the fact that John Mark Byers, stepfather of victim Christopher Byers, had told reporters various aspects of the crime that were immediately published in local newspapers, creating excessive local gossip at the time.
A couple of days after the bodies were discovered, Echols and other teenagers were administered lie detector tests by Officer Durham. Echols denied any involvement in the killings. Officer Durham claimed that Echols showed signs of deception, but astonishingly didn't retain any records that indicated Echols had been deceptive, a breach of standard polygraph procedure. During and after the trial, many teenagers came forward to reveal that they too had been questioned and polygraphed by Officer Durham who became verbally abusive and aggressive if they did not conform to what they believed Officer Durham wanted them to say.
State Medical Examiner, Dr. Frank Peretti, testified there were serrated wound patterns on the three victims. On November 17, 1993, a diver found a knife with a serrated edge in a lake behind Baldwin's family residence. A woman named Deanna Holcomb testified she had seen Echols carrying a similar knife.
The State's prosecution theory was that the killings were a satanic ritual.
Echols, steadfastly articulate about his beliefs on the witness stand, openly admitted he was deeply into occult practices. He testified that he always wore a long black trench coat, even in warm weather. Evidence used against him in court were various items seized from his room, including lyrics from Metallica songs, Stephen King novels, a drawing of a pentagram and black T-shirts.
One witness, Jerry Driver, testified he had seen Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley together six months prior to the killings, wearing long black coats and carrying long staffs. The State Medical Examiner had earlier testified that some of the head wounds found on the victims were consistent with the size of two sticks recovered by investigators, even though the two sticks were not recovered from the crime scene until some two months after the crime took place.
The State's key witness was a so-called expert on occult killings, Dale Griffis, who received his degree via mail order correspondence and never attended a college or university class on the subject, testified that the murders had the "trappings of occultism" because it occurred near a pagan holiday and that there was a full moon. He testified that the number three has significance in occultism (three victims), the number eight is a witch number (the victims were each eight years old), sacrifices are often performed near water (victims found near a drainage ditch), the manner the victims were bound was significant in order to display genitalia (victims were tied wrist to ankle), the removal of Byers's testicles was significant to remove semen (biologically incorrect, semen is produced elsewhere, plus the victims were pre-pubescent), the absence of excessive blood at the scene was significant because occultists store blood for future use, and the presence of multiple cuts also had occult overtones. He even had an explanation for the injury patterns. He testified that there was a significance to the preponderance of wounds to one side of the body. According to Griffis, those who practice occultism believe in the Midline Theory, whereby the right side of a person's body is related to those things synonymous with Christianity and the left side is related to practitioners of the satanic occult. He also contended that the clear area on the bank of the drainage ditch was consistent with an occult ceremony. In conclusion, Griffis stated there was significant evidence of satanic ritual killings.
In 1994. Jason Baldwin, Jesse Misskelley and Damian Echols were convicted of murder. Baldwin received life without parole. Misskelley received life plus 40 years. Echols was sentenced to death by lethal injection.
In 2007, DNA collected from the crime scene was tested.
No matches were found for Echols, Baldwin, Misskelley or John Mark Byers. However, a hair from the stepfather of victim Steven Branch, Terry Hobbs, was discovered tied into the knots that bound the victims. Far from conclusive evidence linking Hobbs, the source of this hair could have come from approximately one percent of the population.
In August of 2007, Pamela Hobbs, mother of victim Steven Branch and no longer married to Terry Hobbs, became openly skeptical of the convictions and called for reopening the case.
On October 29, 2007, attorneys for Echols filed a motion for a retrial, based on the DNA evidence linking Terry Hobbs to the crime scene and recent statements by ex-wife Pamela Hobbs. Also included in the motion was new expert testimony that the so-called knife marks on the victims were the result of animal mutilations.
On September 10, 2008, the request for a retrial, based on new DNA evidence submitted by attorneys for Echols, was denied by Judge David Burnett (Circuit Court). The Arkansas Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments on the decision on September 30, 2010.
Echols' next option in the legal process is an appeal to the Arkansas Supreme Court. If that fails, his case will proceed to federal court on his pending writ of habeas corpus.
In October of 2008, Judge David Burnett heard appeals from Baldwin and Misskelley. These proceedings have been continued until a further date.
During Misskelley's appeal, his trial attorney, Dan Stidham, testified, "I didn't have the proper experience. I admit with a degree of shame that I made a mistake."
At the time of Misskelley's trial, Stidham had been a part-time Greene County public defender. He had routinely settled cases out of court by negotiating pleas and had only one client who took his case to court in a felony drug trial.
Jason Baldwin testified at his appeal hearing that he unsuccessfully urged his attorneys to allow him to testify at his trial. "I was always waiting to testify, but he never called me," Baldwin said, claiming his trial attorney, Paul Ford, systematically denied him the chance to testify.
Baldwin claimed he went to school the day of the murders, returned to his Marion home, then went to West Memphis to mow his uncle's yard. That evening , he talked with three girls and his mother on the telephone and went to bed. He believes his whereabouts that day are all accounted for but he never had a chance to explain.
THE CURIOUS BEHAVIOR OF MARK BYERS
John Mark Byers, a.k.a Mark Byers, was the stepfather of victim Christopher Byers and a jeweler by trade. He had a very checkered past, marred with violence, and his behavior following the trial was incredibly bizarre.
In 1973, Byers threatened his parents with a knife. Police were summoned to the scene whereupon Byers threatened to cut the throat of a police officer.
Byers' ex-wife stated that Byers beat her and her children in the 1980s.
Later in the 1980s, Mark Byers married Melissa Byers. Melissa's father stated Mark Byers "beat Melissa up more than once. He blackened her eye."
In September of 1987, Mark Byers was convicted of threatening to kill his ex-wife. His ex-wife cited previous death threats as well. Byers received three years probation.
In 1990, Byers was sued for disappearance of $65,000 in jewelry.
In July of 1992, Byers was arrested in Memphis for conspiracy to distribute cocaine (felony) and possession of a dangerous weapon.
In December of 1992, Byers was investigated for the disappearance of $11,000 in gold watches. He confessed to the misdeed but no charges were filed.
In May of 1993, Christopher Byers, stepson of Mark Byers, and two other 8-year-old boys were murdered. Unlike the other two boys, Christopher's genital area was mutilated, cut and stabbed. Unlike the other two boys, he did not drown but rather died from the traumatic injuries. His autopsy revealed many healed injuries and defensive wounds, along with three sets of fresh wounds on his buttocks.
During questioning, Mark Byers admitted to "giving Christopher two or three licks with a belt" at around 5:20 P.M. on the day of the killings. A half hour later, Diane Moore, mother of one of the victims spotted the three boys riding by on their bicycles, even though Mark Byers told Christopher to stay at home.
During initial police investigations of the killings, there were several reports of Mike Byers beating his stepson Christopher. One neighbor stated, "One of the times I went to hang out with Ryans [Chris's older brother], Ryan and I were going up the stairs to play Nintendo. Mark was beating the crap out of Chris, who was either naked or had shorts and such down to his feet. Mark was cursing Chris and hitting him everywhere with a belt."
In 1994, Mark Byers spanked a neighbor's five-year-old son with a fly swatter. The neighbor obtained a restraining order against Mark Byers, stating that Byers had threatened him and his family. Soon thereafter, bullet holes appeared in the neighbor's trailer (source undetermined).
In 1994, West Memphis police had 13 outstanding warrants against Byers for bad checks.
In April of 1994, eleven months after the trial, Mark and Melissa Byers moved to Cherokee Village, in the Ozark Mountain region of northern Arkansas.
In July of 1994, Mark Byers was arrested for contributing to the delinquency of a minor. He had spotted two young boys (minors) arguing near his residence. He provided one of the boys with a folded knife to be used as a bruising weapon and stood watch with a .22 rifle to make sure that a fight take place between the two minors.
In September of 1994, Mark and Melissa Byers were jailed for stealing $20,000 in antiques from a neighbor. Not long thereafter, the complainant had her motor home burned down (cause undetermined). The Byers were ordered to pay restitution for the stolen property.
During the first six months of the Byers stay in Cherokee Village, the police had been summoned to their residence eight times.
In January of 1995, Mark Byers was found guilty of contributing to the delinquency of a minor pertaining to the July 1994 incident. He was sentenced to one year in jail, with nine months suspended, ordered to pay half of hospital bills ($2,000) and a $250 fine.
On March 29, 1996, Melissa Byers, age 40, died mysteriously in her home. Sonny Powell, Sheriff of Sharp County, thought the death looked like a possible homicide and called Investigator Stan Witt of the Arkansas State Police who arrived at the hospital shortly thereafter to examine the body.
Later that evening, Investigator Witt interviewed Norm Metz, a neighbor who followed Mark Byers to the hospital. Metz told Witt that Mark Byers called him on the phone at 5 PM that evening stating that he could not awaken Melissa and asked Metz to come over and see if she had a pulse. Metz went to the Byers residence and saw Melissa totally nude, on her back, on the far side of the bed with her mouth wide open and eyes shut. Metz then checked Melissa's pulse and told Mark he was going to call the EMS.
Metz later joined Mark at the hospital. According to Witt's notes, "Mark Byers told him he was afraid Melissa had overdosed on a drug... and that he was going to be blamed for smothering her." Metz could not remember the name of the drug, except that it started with the letter "D."
Six months later, the medical examiner's report indicated Melissa tested positive for marijuana and for hydromorphone, a synthetic narcotic commonly known as Dilaudid. Melissa did not have a prescription for Dilaudid. However, this powerful opiate was found in Melissa's urine but not in her blood stream, as expected.
The coroner's statement listed Melissa's cause of death as "undetermined."
Two documentary films, contracted by HBO, were made of the West Memphis Three saga. During an interview in the 1996 documentary Paradise Lost 2, Byers casually stated, "I got a DWI after my wife was murdered." and continued the interview as if this slip of the tongue never occurred.
In June of 1998, Mark Byers was convicted of writing a bad check and received a one-year suspended sentence.
In April of 1999, Byers sold narcotics (Xanax) to an undercover officer. He was sentenced to five years in prison but the sentence was suspended. However, his prior probation for previous offences was revoked and he was sentenced to eight years for the prior crimes of burglary and inciting the fight between minors. He served 15 months.
Many people who have followed this case have their suspicions about Mark Byers.
For example, very early on the evening his stepson was missing, Byers notified the police at around 6:30 PM (according to Mark) he had a child missing. He claims he was told to call back at 8 PM. However, the police have no record of such a call. Byers did call the police at 8 PM and searches were initiated that evening and continued the following day until the victims were found in the early afternoon. It seems odd that a father would call the police department when his son is less than an hour late for dinner. Mark Byers claimed that Christopher was never late before, however this was contradicted by his wife Melissa who said he was often late for dinner.
Four years after the trial, someone noticed bite marks in the photographs of at least one of the victims. Those who have seen the photos claim, "even a layman viewing the marks can easily discern they are indeed in the perfect shape of human teeth." Consequently, dental impressions were taken of Misskelley, Baldwiin and Echols, but none of them matched the bite marks, which displayed a wide gap between the bottom front teeth.
Ironically, Mark Byers had a wide gap between his bottom front teeth. Shortly after the bite marks became public knowledge, Mark Byers mysteriously had a new set of front teeth. At first, he announced that he had gotten into a fight with some rednecks in a honky-tonk bar up in the mountains (Cherokee Village) and they knocked his teeth out. I lived in Cherokee Village at that time. Sharp County, Fulton County and the surrounding counties are all dry counties. There are no honky-tonk bars. The only liquor establishment in any of those counties is the county VFW Club, hardly a honky-tonk joint. He later changed his story to losing his teeth because of a gum disease.
Suspicion of Mark Byers intensified when he gave the HBO documentary crew a gift at the end of their filming. It was a folding knife that Byers claimed had never been used. The filmmakers turned the knife over to the police. Two blood types were soon discovered on the knife – that of Mark Byers and that of his stepson Christopher. When told the knife had blood on it, Mary Byers replied, "I must have nicked myself when I was skinning a deer." The West Memphis Police Department has allowed the incident to go uninvestigated.
THE CURIOUS BEHAVIOR OF JAMES MARTIN, Sr.
James Martin, a known child molester, was a new resident to the West Memphis area when the crimes took place. At one time, he had been incarcerated and hospitalized for sexually assaulting both his stepson and stepdaughter. He also displayed obvious signs of Antisocial Personality Disorder.
Early in the case, Martin was considered to be a leading suspect.
Ironically, he offered his services as an expert into the criminal mind. He was interviewed by the police whereupon he described the crime in great detail, which included facts that had not been released to the public at the time of his interview. In addition, he failed a lie detector test.
Martin currently lives in Gatlinburg, Tennessee.
THE CURIOUS BEHAVIOR OF TERRY HOBBS
Terry Hobbs has a checkered history. At age 24, Hobbs broke into the home of a neighbor named Mildred French who had previously reported a domestic disturbance in the Hobbs' residence, creating an angry verbal confrontation. In November of 1994, a year after the murders, Terry had an altercation with his wife, Pamela, where he hit her. Upon learning of the incident, Terry's brother-in-law, Jackie Hicks, went to the Hobbs' residence whereupon Terry shot him, later claiming self-defense. Terry served six months in prison for aggravated assault and Hicks died years later due to complications with his injuries. In 2003, Terry was arrested and found guilty on a minor drug charge.
At the time of the murders, Terry Hobbs was married to Pamela Hobbs and was the stepfather of one of the victims, Steven Branch. He had never been interviewed by police until 14 years after the crime, in 2007.
Ironically, Steven Branch was the only one of the three victims who showed signs of defensive wounds, suggesting he may have been the primary subject of the attack.
While DNA samples from the crime scene have not been linked to John Mark Byers, the DNA of a hair found in the knot of the ligature that bound Michael Moore was consistent with Terry Hobbs. Plus, another hair found nearby was consistent with a man named David Jacoby, who was with Terry Hobbs on the day of the murders.
In 2007, when questioned by police, Terry Hobbs admitted going into the woods where the murders took place prior to picking up his wife, Pamela, at work between 6:00 PM and 6:30 PM. He also claimed that David Jacoby was with him at that time.
Pamela Hobbs, now divorced from Terry and living elsewhere, has stated she had "caught him in quite a few lies over the years." She also claimed that Terry gave his stepson "a whippin' every other night."
Some years after the murders, Pamela discovered Stevie's small pocketknife with Terry's belongings. She insisted that Stevie carried it with him at all times but Terry claims he took it from Stevie, but couldn't remember when he did.
During a civil deposition dated July 21, 2009, Terry Hobbs declared, under oath, that he never saw his stepson, Steven Branch, on the day of the murders.
However, three eyewtinesses have come forward to rebuke Terry's civil deposition statement. Jamie Clark Ballard lived three doors away from Terry Hobbs at the time of the murders. She, her mother and her sister all have claimed Terry Hobbs did indeed interact with his son on that day, including calling loudly at his son and two other boys, ordering them to return to his house.
Jamie Clark Ballard has stated in a sworn affidavit that "Between 5:30 PM and 6:30 PM, I saw Stevie Branch, Michael Moore and Christopher Byers playing in my backyard. I am absolutely, completely and totally positive that I saw Terry Hobbs hollering at Stevie, Michael and Christopher to get back down to the Hobbs house at approximately 6:30 PM. If Terry Hobbs said he did not see Stevie Branch, Michael Moore or Christopher Byers on May 5, 1993, he is not telling the truth. I know for a fact that Terry Hobbs saw, was with and spoke to Stevie, Michael or Christopher on May 5, 1993."
THE BOTTOM LINE
Basically, it all started when a little boy imagined he had witnessed the killings, at a non-existent location, perpetrated by Satanists speaking Spanish. The press, always eager for sensation, quickly picked up on it -- Satanists mutilating children.
Suddenly, local citizens were outraged, demanding swift justice. And those in charge of ridding society of evil were eager for a swift resolution.
Then the little boy's mother blurted out the names of a couple of local punks, hoping to cash in on some reward money if they happened to be involved. One thing led to another and three teenagers were caught up in the hysteria for retribution.
It may have been swift but it was not justice.
John Mark Byers, stepfather of victim Christopher Byers, and Pam Hobbs, mother of victim Steven Branch, have each expressed serious doubts recently concerning the guilt of the West Memphis Three.
This case screams to be reopened, reexamined and retried.
"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." Martin Luther King, Jr.
Numerous celebrities in the entertainment industry have given time and energy in various fashions to support the West Memphis Three, including Eddie Vedder, Johnny Depp, Natalie Maines, Winona Wyder, Tom Waits, Axl Rose, Henry Rollins, Patti Smith, Ben Harper, Margaret Cho, Steve Earle, Joe Strummer, Marilyn Manson, Bob Gruen, Michale Graves, Trey Parker, Sage Francis, Zao, John Gray, Skeleton Key, Alkaline Trio, Disdurbed, Andy Sixx, Bubba the Love Sponge, and many more.
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Bret Burquest is a multi award-winning newspaper columnist and author of four novels. He is now retired in the Ozark Mountains of northern Arkansas. See www.myspace.com/bret1111