Part one: Homicides, and a Satanic panic
On the afternoon of May 6th, 1993, the bodies of three eight year old boys were recovered in a creek in West Memphis, Arkansas. The boys were naked, tied with their own shoelaces, and dumped in a in a gorge in the back of a forest. The bodies had been mistreated, and one of the boys, Christopher Byers, had been castrated. Or so it seemed.
The inexperienced rural police officers were bewildered; they had never seen anything like it. They quickly managed to contaminate the crime scene by barging around and destroying evidence – the riverbed was even rinsed with water. The chance of recovering DNA from the perpetrators, for instance, was lost. This would have fatal consequences for three teenagers living in the area. Three ordinary guys who were considered somewhat odd – wearing black clothes and listening to heavy metal music. “Satanist” was the word applied to Damien Echols (18) who was soon named as the main suspect. The logic of the police and the general public is that such a brutal act cannot have been committed by a “normal” killer – there had to be Satanists behind this. And when the police apprehended Jessie Misskelley (17), a mentally disabled guy who slightly knew Damien Echols, the case was clear. Jessie was brought in and exposed to a 12-hour interrogation, of which only 46 minutes were taped. Neither a legal guardian nor a defense attorney were present, as is otherwise customary. Initially, the story of Jessie was entirely off, but in the transcript one can follow how the police goad Misskelley to indicate times, places and events that fit the Satanic hypothesis.
Eventually, the police got what they wanted. A pledge was made to the exhausted boy, who has an IQ of 72 and the intellectual level of a six-year-old, that he could go home to his daddy if he ”cooperated”. Then Jessie admitted that he, together with Damien Echols and his best friend Jason Baldwin (16), killed and raped Steve Branch, Michael Moore and Christopher Byers. Then all hell broke loose.
Damien, Jason and Jessie were jailed and prosecuted for the murders. Their trials became an unprecedented media show, as the journalists competed in digging into the horrendous theories of the assistants of Satan and the secret nighttime rites they had performed in the forests, while decent people were innocently asleep.
When a local newspaper asked at the time how solid the case was on a scale of 1 to 10, the chief police investigator Gary Gitchell replied: “11”. In the mind of the public, the case was already clear – the devil-worshipping teenagers had sacrificed the eight-year-old boys in a satanic ritual.
The sentiment in West Memphis approached mass hysteria. One after another person came forward in the media with fantastic tales about Damien Echols and his Satanic sect. In one of these, John Mark Byers, the stepfather of one of the boys killed, Christopher Byers, said that police found the testicles of his boy in a glass jar under Damien Echols’ bed, a complete fabrication. John Mark Byers was, like most other people in West Memphis at that time, entirely convinced that Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley are the ones who tortured and killed the boys. He would later have to change his certainty completely.
In absence of technical evidence, the prosecutor built his case entirely on circumstantial evidence. Poems by Edgar Allan Poe, books by Stephen King, ”scary drawings”, heavy metal music and black T-shirts were presented as evidence that the three were worshippers of Satan, and great credibility is given to testimony from one of the roommates of Jason Baldwin and two minor girls, who say they had been talking with Damien Echols at a softball match. The substantial reward of $30,000, a huge sum for the white underclass that constitutes the majority in West Memphis, caused people to appear from east and west with things to tell. The jury in the case against Jason, Damien and Jessie was supposed to approach the task without any prejudice. But it was not practically possible to find any unprejudiced person in the state of Arkansas. Much later the truth came out that several of the jury members had decided in advance that the three were guilty.
A knife found in a lake near Jason Baldwin’s home was said to be the weapon used to castrate Christopher Byers. Later, however, it turned out that the damages on the bodies of the boys was more likely caused by wild animals – that, however, was not understood by the inexperienced coroner witnessing in the case.
The main character himself, the sulky Damien Echols, did not manage to improve his situation significantly. He gave the court an impression of obstinacy, rolled his eyes, and came across as generally uninterested.
”I thought all the time that this was a total joke. I thought it would resolve by itself, that the truth would come out, because I knew they did not have a scrap of evidence,”, Damien Echols later explained.
But he was mistaken. In spite of the complete lack of technical evidence or reliable witnesses, he and his friends were convicted of murder.
Jessie Misskelley and Baldwin were sentenced to life, and Damien Echols was received a death sentence. The prison gates slammed heavily behind the three teenagers, and this could have been the end of the matter. But one factor was to change everything. Two documentary filmmakers from New York, Bruce Sinofsky and Joe Berlinger, were present in West Memphis during the trials. They filmed everything – interviews with witnesses, suspects, relatives, investigators and the defense. When their movie, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders of Robin Hood Hills, was released in 1996, everything was turned upside down.
The movie made it clear that there was no evidence against the three. This was the real beginning of the battle for upholding freedom. This was the beginning of the storm of opinion that would later turn into a hurricane, a movement followed by people all over the world, including celebrities such as the actor Johnny Depp, the musicians Eddie Vedder, Nathalie Mains and Marilyn Manson, as well as the movie director Peter Jackson. The movement was dubbed Free The West Memphis Three, and was to be an 18-year protracted battle of life and death. Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley not only had to provide proof that there was doubt. They had to directly prove their innocence.
In the next installment: ”If it hadn’t been for you, they would have managed to kill me already.”