Despite being released from prison, a large online contingent still believes a trio of Arkansas men are responsible for the slaying of three young children. Uncommon Journalism speaks with two prominent "non-believers" who feel the subjects of "Paradise Lost" and "West of Memphis" remain guilty of cold-blooded murder.
By: James Swift
The West Memphis Three saga has resulted in something of a miniature media industry unto itself, with no less than five major feature films, dozens of books, countless magazine articles and newspaper stories too numerous to tally dedicated to the infamous Arkansas triple homicide.
On May 5, 1993, second graders Stevie Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore were viciously murdered in a wooded area, commonly referred to as Robin Hood Hills, in West Memphis, Ark. Three locals -- James Baldwin, Damien Echols and Jessie Misskelley Jr. -- were eventually charged with the slayings, with Echols given the death sentence.
Having spent 18 years behind bars, the trio originally convicted of murdering three young boys all those years ago suddenly walked out of prison free men in Aug. 2011.
Copping “Alford pleas,” Echols, Misskelley and Baldwin all stood in a Jonesboro, Ark. courtroom and pleaded guilty to first-and-second-degree murder charges while simultaneously asserting their own innocence. With Judge David Laser vacating their previous murder convictions, the three were then speedily found guilty under a “new” trial, with the trio ultimately sentenced to 18 years and 78 days -- the time they had already served under their initial convictions.
Before the Alford pleas, hearings for an undoubtedly lengthy and costly retrial was set to begin in Dec. 2011. Prosecuting attorney Scott Ellington told the New York Times that had a new trial been held, the three most likely would have been acquitted; among other reasons, he cited the disappearance of evidence and the deaths of several witnesses since the first trial. Had the men been found wrongfully convicted, Ellington said the three could have possibly sued Arkansas for millions of dollars.
Despite being released from prison, however, the pleas did not legally exonerate the men. Indeed, in the eyes of the state, the West Memphis Three remain technically “guilty” to this very day.
A Case Saved by Hollywood?
Following the release of the 1996 HBO documentary “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills,” the West Memphis Three case garnered international interest, with high-profile celebrities like Johnny Depp, Eddie Vedder and Peter Jackson all clamoring for a retrial.
Blossoming into a full-blown global movement, the star-studded campaign to free the Three certainly drew widespread attention to a case that, previously, had been little more than fodder for sensationalist tabloids and daytime TV talk shows.
“Without the films this would have been just a regional story that most people outside of Arkansas and Tennessee would not have heard of,” said blogger Trench Reynolds, who has been featured in Time and Rolling Stone.
Not unlike Echols, Reynolds said he was a teen who regularly wore black and listened to heavy metal music. Growing up in a staunch Catholic community, he could also relate to the highly religious trappings the Three were likewise raised in.
After watching the first two “Paradise Lost” films, Reynolds was a firm believer in the innocence of the West Memphis Three. However, as he began delving deeper into the case, doubts started to arise.
“I was finding information that was left out of the film, such as Echols’ alleged animal abuse and that Dale Griffis actually held degrees from legitimate brick-and-mortar universities,” he said.
Reynolds soon uncovered more omissions from the 1996 documentary, including several alleged admissions of guilt from those charged with the murders.
Prior to his arrest, witnesses said Echols bragged about committing the murders to several girls at a softball game. On an episode of 48 Hours, Echols himself mentioned the incident -- which he denied while on trial -- stating that his comments were made merely in jest.
Then there were Jesse Misskelley’s numerous confessions after being initially interrogated by West Memphis police on June 3, 1993.
Official transcripts indicate that Misskelley admitted guilt to his own attorney twice, at least once to prosecutors and to both fellow prisoners and police transporters.
“He couldn’t stop confessing,” Reynolds said. “Even after his own conviction.”
Key Omissions from the Documentaries
For many individuals, the documentary films “Paradise Lost” and “West of Memphis” are their introductions to both the triple homicide case and the West Memphis Three saga.
However, major evidence against the three men charged with the murders were either glossed over, downplayed, distorted or simply excluded from the films.
Perhaps the biggest misrepresentation in the films regards the length of Jessie Misskelley's interrogation. In "Paradise Lost" and "West of Memphis," it is heavily implied that Misskelley's initial questioning by police went on for 12 hours and that he was never informed of his legal rights. Official transcripts, however, reveal the actual interrogation was roughly two and a half hours long, and not only was Misskelley informed of his rights, his father gave written permission for his son to take a polygraph test -- which documents reveal he failed.
Completely excluded from either documentary films was Damien Echols' rather unsavory rap sheet. Prior to being charged with the murders, Echols had already amassed a lengthy juvenile record, with reports revealing that had a knack for getting into fights, setting fires and even ingesting the blood of his classmates.
His mental health history reveals equally disturbing behavior and ideations. A 1992 Social Security Administration service application described the youth as "homicidal," "suicidal" and "sociopathic."
|Prior to being charged with murder, Damien Echols had amassed a|
lengthy psychiatric record -- more than 500 pages detailing his
mental health history were submitted as evidence during trial.
Regarding their whereabouts on the night of the murders, all three of the convicted men have changed their stories several times.
On May 9, 1993, Baldwin and Echols told police they were at Jason's uncle's house at the time of the murders. The very next day, however, Echols told police a different story -- that he and his family spent the evening together, with Damien stating that he had a telephone conversation with a girl named Holly George until almost midnight. George denied this in an official police statement.
Echols would later state that he spent the evening talking on the phone to three other girls. In official statements, all three said they didn't speak with Echols until nearly 9:30 p.m. -- well after the suspected timeframe of the triple murder.
Testimonies from Baldwin's parents, brother and uncle were similarly disjointed, and Misskelley's wrestling alibi presented in "West of Memphis" conflicts sharply with earlier testimonies.
There is, however, a considerable amount of evidence to corroborate Misskelley's "confession" that he committed the murders while intoxicated. Not only did police investigators speak to a woman who said she purchased the liquor for him, a whiskey bottle was discovered in an area proximate to the murders -- the exact same brand Misskelley mentioned, in virtually the identical location he told police he had discarded it.
An Unexpected Skeptic
In at last one facet, Billy Sinclair can relate to Damien Echols -- he, too, once sat on death row.
Sinclair was convicted of murdering James Bodder during an armed robbery in 1965. He was released on parole from Louisiana’s C. Paul Phelps Corrections Center in 2006.
Writing for the prison publication the Angolite, Sinclair received the James Polk Award in 1979. The magazine he co-edited would go on to receive both the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award and a Silver Gavel Award from the American Bar Association.
Sinclair said he first heard about the West Memphis Three case through Dixie Chicks frontwoman Natalie Maine’s advocacy efforts. He and his wife then watched one of Damien Echols television interviews.
“Based upon his responses to the questions, his demeanor and having spent so long in prison and understanding the prisoner mindset,” he said, “something in my instincts told me that he was not being truthful.”
Sinclair posted a blog entry discussing his thoughts on Echols. Facing a strong backlash from WM3 supporters, he soon began extensive research on the case. As with Reynolds, the information left out of the documentaries was more than enough evidence for Sinclair to believe the three men were responsible for the homicides.
“I concluded, and am still convinced, that they were guilty,” he said.
Sinclair said he found it peculiar that the Three's attorneys opted for the Alford Plea, when he believes a retrial almost certainly would have led to the men being acquitted.
"What most people don’t understand about Alford pleas is that before the court can accept such a plea, you have to admit that the State has enough evidence to convict you, should the case go to trial," Sinclair said. "This is not a situation where the district office attorney’s caved to public pressure, this is a case where Echols’ attorneys chose to open the Alford plea negotiations."
In prison, Sinclair said he met a man who was locked up for 20 years. He rejected a guilty plea deal that would have freed him, because he was determined to establish his own innocence.
"My gut feeling is that if a person is truly innocent, who has spent 18 years fighting for his innocence," Sinclair said, "he’s not going to go and plead guilty to killing three 8-year-old boys unless he’s guilty."
A Virtual Line in the Sand
In the online sphere, the West Memphis Three debate is divided into two camps -- “believers” in the innocence of the convicted and “non-believers" who feel that Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley are indeed responsible for the triple murder.
With the Three released from prison, "nons" frequently criticize the "believers" base for transforming from political activists to something more akin to a traditional fan club.
|Much debate rages online, regarding the true culprits behind the 1993|
triple homicide. While WM3 supporters have trotted out several
"alternative" suspects, "non-believers" on the Web remain convinced
of the Three's guilt.
It didn't take long for Echols to make his way onto social media, as his Twitter account went live the same month he stepped out of prison. Today, the recent New York transplant makes a living selling the artwork he made while incarcerated, giving speeches and offering New Age faith healing appointments.
As of early Oct. 2014, he had more than 50,000 followers on Twitter. He refers to his most dedicated fans as "chupacabras" -- the namesake of a mythical beast believed to feed on the lifeblood of farm animals.
Not surprisingly, West Memphis Three supporters -- specifically, Echols' most loyal fans -- have been quite adversarial with the online "non-believers."
"They ironically call me closed minded and assume I'm some kind of fundamentalist Christian who think the Three were devil worshipers," Reynolds said. "I don't believe it was an occult killing, but rather a cult killing ... the cult of Damien Echols and his two flunkies, for lack of a better word."
Martin David Hill is a "believer" who runs one of the most prominent West Memphis Three case websites. Having had extensive interaction with "nons" over the years, he said they vary in politeness and education.
"I hold some respect for people who are not informed about the case --why should you spend months and years poring over thousands of documents?" he said.
However, Hill said he has little respect for those sans knowledge of the case, who he believes virulently parade about their uninformed opinions on the Web.
"They will post an inflammatory unsupported statement and expect others to provide evidence to contradict it, and, in true internet fashion, some take the troll-bait and respond to the statements," he said.
"They make it personal and try to tear me down a notch pointing out some supposed incorrect information on my website.The germ of this is fine. Maybe they could find an error or misrepresentation ... instead they come up with something that is their own error."
Many "nons," Hill said, are satisfied providing the same "non-evidence" over and over.
…And Justice For All?
Both Sinclair and Reynolds feel that some West Memphis Three "believers" are guilty of turning a blind eye to key evidence against Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley.
"The supporters have spent a whole lot of time and a whole lot money trying to undermine these admissions and confessions," Sinclair said. "Unless you believe there is some huge, massive conspiracy involving the public officials in the State of Arkansas to convict these people ... there is certainly more than circumstantial evidence that they were involved in the crime.”
Citing "alternative suspects" such as Terry Hobbs, John Byers and even a mysterious, blood-drenched man who reportedly stumbled into an area Bojangles restaurant the night of the crime, Sinclair said WM3 loyalists are constantly attempting to shift blame to other individuals.
"They first pointed the accusatory finger at John Byers in the probably murder, and when that didn’t pan out, they turned around and pointed the accusatory finger at Terry Hobbs," he said. "All the while, they’ve been going from one suspect to another."
Nor does he find recent accusations that the three boys may have been killed by a quartet of men convincing.
“If anybody can believe that scenario took place, that four beer guzzling rednecks in a pick-up truck are suddenly going to kill three 8-year-old boys, in the kind of manner that they killed them," he said, "it’s so bizarre and absurd that it stretches any realistic kind of assessment of the situation.”
Reynolds said that many supporters are swayed by emotions as opposed to logic. "[They] cling to their innocence as blindly as some fundamentally religious people cling to their holy books," he said.
Neither believe print and broadcast journalists handled the case appropriately, pre-trial or post-release.
"I think the media does not do it’s due diligence when it comes to reporting the facts of their release -- they often just accept what someone has told them," Reynolds said.
Sinclair even believes some members of the media themselves may not have bought into the Three's innocence, but continued following the news for the sake of sensationalism.
"I believe there were a lot of good reporters who were stuck behind it and I think there were a lot of them who willingly accepted being snowed because it was a good story," he said.
“Once the media gets their teeth into a case, they’re not going to come back and say ‘we were wrong’ … they’re going to keep pursuing the issue, they’re going to keep giving coverage to it."
As a supporter of the Three, Hill said he has “moved on” since the men were released from prison in 2011.
If conclusive evidence turned up demonstrating the guilt of the WM3, he said he would have no qualms accepting it. “It would solve a longstanding question in my mind -- whodunnit?” he said.
However, Hill thinks the combined evidence against the Three is nowhere near enough to finger them as the culprits in the two-decades-old slayings.
“All in all, I've found the evidence against the three of them combined to be virtually nothing, and of the individuals to be below that of dozens of other suspects in the case," he said. "Over the years, I’ve been surprised at how little evidence there is, how much of it disappears with even the most cursory analysis."
Pending Echols, Baldwin or Misskelley come forward and publicly admit guilt, neither Reynolds or Sinclair believe the murders of Branch, Byers or Moore will ever be truly solved.
"There is no real, serious evidence that links anyone else to these crimes," Sinclair said. "This case is closed."
Reynolds said the Three may "escape justice" now, but he believes they will eventually answer for their crimes in an entirely different kind of courtroom.
"Unfortunately justice will never happen in this world," he said. "It will have to wait until the trio face their ultimate judgment."
Uncommon Journalism, 2014.