An outline of the case
At about six o’clock in the early evening of May 5, 1993, the mother of Michael Moore stepped outside her house in West Memphis, Arkansas, to make certain her eight-year-old son was near at hand. She saw him riding his bike away from her, his second-grade classmate Steve Branch peddling the new bike just given him by his grandpa with Christopher Byers, the same age and class as the other two boys, riding on the back fender. She didn’t really approve of the Byerses, who lived across the street from the Moore house, but it was pretty much okay as long as the children were playing together outside. She went back in to finish readying dinner for herself and her two children and to set aside a dish for her husband to eat when he returned later in the evening from a trucking run, having been the last family member of the three boys to admit to having seen them alive.
When she sent her daughter back out fifteen minutes later to call Michael in to eat, the three boys were nowhere to be found.
Chris’s adoptive stepdad, a big, blustering man with a checkered past, came home early to find Christopher not cleaning the carport as he’d been told to do once he got home from school, but instead riding down the center of a fairly busy street in the neighborhood, lying on his stomach on a skateboard. He took the child home and gave him a few swats with a belt, set him back to his task, and left first to fetch his wife home from her job across the Mississippi River in Memphis, Tennessee, and then to take Chris’s older half-brother to the courthouse where he was to serve as a witness in a disputed traffic accident. When he got home, Christopher was nowhere to be seen, and the boy’s mother reported he’d been in and out, had perhaps snatched a few cookies from the jar in the kitchen, and had been playing, she thought, with friends.
They were to have gone out for dinner, but instead the Byerses spent the early evening searching for their son, asking a passing police officer to keep an eye out for the boy, and learning that Chris had been seen last with Steve and Michael and their bicycles.
At eight o’clock an officer was taking down the missing persons reports for Christopher and Michael.
At nearly nine thirty Stevie’s mom learned her son was missing when her husband arrived at the restaurant where she worked, and her little daughter told her that they’d been looking for her brother but hadn’t been able to find him, even as her husband pushed by her to use the phone in the restaurant to report that Steve, too, was a missing child. Her first thought was that Stevie was dead.
By ten the families were searching the greenbelt area that lay between the north side of the neighborhood and the Ten Mile Bayou Diversion Channel, a wide drainage canal that ran between the northern borders of the small town and the interstate highway. This stretch of bike trails, woods, small streams, and ditches was known as Robin Hood Hills, and was a favorite place for the younger children from the neighborhood to play and the older boys to hang out. A few neighbors and extended family members helped them look, as well as a single police officer, a second officer having decided to get back in her car because the mosquitoes were so thick. By midnight the search was pretty much called off for the night, but Search and Rescue had agreed to coordinate a formal search for the children starting at dawn.
It wasn’t fully light when two police officers walked north from the north bank of the canal toward the freeway, paralleling a gully in a small patch of woods lying between a triangular field and the lot for the Blue Beacon Truck Wash, a thriving business just off the South Service Road for the freeway. They saw no signs of much of anything, as the woods appeared peaceful enough and there were no obvious signs of disturbance. At the bottom of the gully was a shallow, narrow drainage ditch with some water still filling it from a heavy rain some days earlier. There was nothing to be seen other than floating styrofoam cups and other such junk when they peered down at the water, but then it was opaque with suspended silt and coated with a dusting of pollen.
All during the morning people combed the Robin Hood Hills area south of the canal, and a few came north of it and repeatedly searched the Blue Beacon woods as well.
Shortly after noon a juvenile officer who’d been searching on his ATV got off his vehicle and walked into the Blue Beacon woods one more time, and again walked along the top of the gully. This time, however, a child’s tennis shoe could be seen floating on the surface of the water down in the ditch, and he radioed for police officers to come to investigate. One investigator, trying to retrieve the shoe to determine if it might have belonged to one of the missing boys, accidentally slid into the water of the ditch, breaking the suction holding Michael’s body down in the thick, clinging mud at the bottom. A search of the ditch conducted by another officer crawling on hands and knees down the ditch toward the canal resulted in the finding of the bodies of the other two boys some twenty to thirty feet south of Michael’s.
The juvenile officer, as Michael’s body was lifted out of the ditch, announced that it appeared that Damien Echols had finally killed someone. Meanwhile, in a precinct station where a woman was being questioned about whether or not she’d committed credit card and check fraud, as the scanner blared the announcement that the bodies of her son’s missing classmates had been found, and that the three boys were apparently the victims of murder and that there were signs of sexual mutilation, one of the listening officers shook his head and listed off a number of individuals, all teenagers in the area, who were likely to have been involved. Heading his list were the names Michael Wayne Hutchinson and Damien Echols—two names for the same troubled eighteen-year-old boy. This was to start a mangled investigation that has led to interest in the case of the West Memphis Three literally from people all over the world.
Late in 1993 two producers of documentaries for the Home Box Office organization, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, heard about a murder case based upon a most unusual premise. Allegedly the three teenaged defendants in the case had committed a triple murder of three eight-year-old boys in a satanic ritual. The few details sounded lurid—sexual overtones; sexual mutilation; unusual means of binding the victims; bodies found naked in a wooded area sunk into the mud at the bottom of a ditch. The entire region was focused on the upcoming trials, which were to begin in January. One of the three youths had given a confession, but had since recanted it and was pleading innocent. Because the prosecution had intended that the young man who’d confessed should testify against the other two, he was to be tried separately and before the trial for his co-defendants. Due to strong emotional upset within the community where the children had lived, the trials were to be held in Corning and Jonesboro, Arkansas, rather than in West Memphis where the murders had occurred.
Berlinger and Sinofsky arrived in Arkansas expecting that the three young men accused of this heinous crime were indeed guilty of murder; however, once they were involved in videotaping the first trial they began to question whether the case was even valid. They made their documentary and did their best to remain objective, but by the time the two trials were over both were convinced that the three teens had been framed by a corrupt police force and railroaded into convictions by the courts.
Summer, 1998 or 99. My stepson was staying with my husband and myself temporarily, and on the suggestion of a friend went to my older brother’s video store to rent the documentary Paradise Lost: the Robin Hood Hills Child Murders. He began to watch the video, then came into the office where his father was napping and I was checking email, and demanded I come watch the documentary with him. “You won’t believe this!” he insisted.
He was right—I couldn’t.
I’d heard bits and pieces about the case, but not a great deal. I’d read the descriptions of how three teenaged boys had been convicted of murdering three eight-year-olds they’d come across in a wooded area near the community where the victims had lived in what was described as a satanic ritual, and I’d shaken my head. Only in Arkansas, I’d thought, could such a thing happen. Arkansas hasn’t been precisely my favorite place even to contemplate since I was a teenager and began to appreciate what I came to think of as the Arkansas mentality that led to the chaos of the Highway 71 corridor running down the western side of the state. As both my mother and stepfather’s families had settled there when my parents were teenagers, I’d visited the region once every few years growing up, and eventually came to loathe it with a passion. Oh, it’s a beautiful state—there’s no question of that; but the ability of so many I met there to suspend their rational capabilities to buy into fundamentalism and to ignore the future in order to cash in on what they thought were opportunities to make big profits now, thus damaging the environment and endangering their own futures, drove me absolutely crazy.
Now, as I saw a documentary of two trials that each ended in guilty verdicts for three young men, trials riddled with questionable evidence and testimony, I was left wondering what evidence not shown to the audience for the documentary was seen by the juries that had led them to find the three kids guilty. This question kept niggling at me until at last I went on the internet to do research on the case. I found the wm3 org site set up by Kathy Bakken, Grove Pashley, and Burk Sauls, joined an email discussion group, and eventually joined a discussion board as well. A number of people had made the journey to West Memphis, Arkansas, to visit the police department and to copy out the documents in the case files for the murders, and the more I read the more amazed I was that anyone could take the premise of the police and prosecution’s case seriously.
Jessie Miskelley, Jr., seventeen at the time, had been convinced to make a “confession” indicating he’d been present when Damien Echols (born Michael Wayne Hutchinson but who’d changed his name when his stepfather adopted him and his sister) and Charles Jason Baldwin killed Michael Moore, Steve Branch, and Christopher Byers. Reading the transcript of the confession, however, made it plain that Jessie was being led into the very information he was supposed to be giving the police. It wasn’t his personal story of what he’d seen as much as him mostly agreeing with almost everything the officers were suggesting.
“Did Damien have a briefcase, Jessie?” “No.” “Are you sure?” “Well, yes, he had one.” “What was in the briefcase? Were there photos in the briefcase?” “Yes.” “What of?” “Of trees, houses, and stuff.” “Were there photos of the children in the briefcase?” “Yes.” “What else? Did he have any kind of weapon?” “Oh, yeah—there was a little gun in there.” “Anything else, Jessie? Drugs, perhaps?” “Yes, there were drugs.” “What kind?” “Some cocaine.” (Admittedly paraphrased.) Once they had this information intended to show premeditation, they dropped the subject completely, and briefcase and contents were not mentioned again. Certainly no such items were found—anywhere.
This kind of interchange happened throughout the entire interview. If Jessie gave an answer that didn’t fit with their theory of what had happened they’d cue him to change it, usually giving him the answer they wanted.
When asked where he was standing as he watched the assault on the children take place, he initially stated he was at the top of the gully, up by the Interstate—in other words, at the north end of the gully. Except—from that point no one could see the area in which the bodies were found and where they were now convinced the children had been assaulted and died. So they got him to change his story, giving him only the choices east side (on the side toward the Mississippi River) or west side (the side toward the Blue Beacon Truck Wash). And so it went.
They led him to indicate he was a member of a satanic cult of which Damien was allegedly the leader, and that most of their rituals involved the killing of dogs and cooking and eating their legs. (Apparently ignorant of the supposed structures of the Black Mass, they’d become convinced that satanic rituals would involve taking God and turning it around to dog—a dyslexic exercise that I found both ridiculous and pathetic.) Then, having “established” that Damien was indeed a Satanist, they forgot that they were supposed to have Jessie describe a satanic ritual in which children were sacrificed, leading him instead to describe what appears to be a thrill kill—the teens were supposedly sitting in the woods drinking and Damien and Jason were playing in the water, when the children arrived on their bikes which Jessie couldn’t really describe because they left them way over there and he was behind Damien and Jason and couldn’t really see because he “was behind nem.” [sic] They got him to describe beatings with fists and sodomy and forcing the children to perform fellatio. Jason was supposed to have produced a knife and used it to cut one boy on the face and castrate a second. However, Jessie’s descriptions were so vague as to require them to provide details and interpret for the microphone what he supposedly meant or was indicating visually, leading the primary interrogator to ask him, “Do you know what a penis is?”
Once they got the “confession” they wanted, they had to get warrants to arrest the three of them and to search their homes and the home of Damien’s current girlfriend for evidence. The judge they approached pointed out a number of discrepancies that would have to clarified before he’d sign off on the desired warrants, so back they went to get the “clarification statement,” in which they tried desperately to get Jessie to indicate Damien had forced one of the children to perform fellatio on him, and in which he stated he’d seen Damien doing this by getting a child into a headlock—which, of course, would have made it impossible for the child to have his mouth anywhere near the region of Damien’s body he was supposed to have been stimulating.
And so it went.
When I began to look at the evidence examined by the police and presented by the prosecutors in the trials, it was to learn that every single piece of physical evidence was declared by the very forensic scientists brought in to vet them as inconclusive—in other words, not one of them could be shown to really support the prosecution’s case at all. Fibers could not be proved to have been left by the defendants and only the defendants; hairs could not be proved to have come from the defendants; big club-like branches couldn’t be shown to have been used to strike the victims; knives could not be shown to have been used in cutting or scraping the victims; the tests on blood evidence indicated that blood could have come from both victims and alleged assailants; and so it went.
The one portion of Jessie’s confession that was analyzed for his jury was intended by his defense lawyers to indicate he didn’t even know what time the children were supposed to have gone missing, a point well made, I thought. However, because he was pleading innocent and had recanted his “confession,” they were not allowed to dissect the whole thing; nor would the judge allow the expert witnesses brought in by the defense to properly explain why they felt that the confession was coerced or how they believed this to have happened. In the end the jury found him guilty solely because he’d been convinced to give a confession, and everyone knew it, and they assumed that it was valid. In the case of Damien and Jason’s trial, the prosecutors weren’t supposed to mention Jessie’s “confession” at all, but they managed to get it mentioned by a witness, and the judge allowed the comment to stand, saying that it was pointless to do otherwise because everyone knew, after all, that Jessie had confessed. And although the jury was directed not to consider the confession in making their determination of guilt, they nevertheless did so as indicated by at least three sets of jury notes left in the jury room when the second trial was over.
Over the years more information has come to light—slowly—to cast further doubt on the cases as presented in the two trials. It was learned that the medical examiner had told the prosecutors in the wake of the first trial that in actuality none of the victims was sodomized; yet they still implied in the second trial that this had happened anyway, and the ME did not refute this. One of the jury members announced publicly that she’d gone into the trials convinced of guilt on the basis of the rather sensationalist press she’d been aware of beforehand, and that the jury foreman had pressured them all to find for guilt. What she’d learned in the wake of the trials, however, had led her to change her ideas, and she felt the defendants deserved new trials and would most probably be found innocent.
Then in November of 2007 the whole case was turned on its head by new revelations as the new defense teams brought in some of the top forensic scientists in the nation to weigh in on the case—and they indicated that none—I repeat, none—of the wounds to be seen on the children’s bodies could have been done with knives, and that even the castration of the one victim was undoubtedly due to the body having been scavenged upon by animals after death.
Most of the supporters of the West Memphis Three, as they were now known, had been convinced that the most likely suspect in the murders of the children was the flamboyant adoptive stepfather of Christopher Byers; now that idea was dropped, particularly as we learned that the reason why no one had ever produced the copy of the questioning of Steve Branch’s stepfather was because the West Memphis Police Department had never bothered to interview the man! We learned he had a case history of spousal and child abuse against both his first wife and Steve’s mother as well as against his son by his first marriage and against Steve and his little sister, as well as having been found guilty of sexually assaulting a neighbor in response to her filing complaints against him for abuse she heard him inflicting on his family----well, suffice it to say, at this time the most likely suspect of whom we are aware is Steve’s stepfather, who since the murders shot his brother-in-law in the stomach with a hollow-point bullet, a wound that never healed properly, leading the man to die of complications some time after the incident.
Although Murder Most Foul is based on the West Memphis Three case to a large degree, it is not truly a fictionalized version of the actual case. Although many of the incidents described are based on incidents in the real case, and although the characters of the defendants and other players in the situation share a number of attributes with their real-life counterparts, and certainly the same community attitudes played into the convictions, still Enelmir is not Judge Burnett who oversaw all trials and associated hearings until he was finally forced to step down in November of 2010 when he ran for the Arkansas State Senate, Caraftion is not Dan Stidham, Danárion is not Damien Echols, Carenthor is not Jason Baldwin, Garestil is not Jessie Miskelley, Rindor is not John Mark Byers, and Vangil is not Terry Hobbs. Nor is Dírhael Chris’s brother Ryan Clark, Argilien Domini Teer, Fendril John Fogelman, Vendrion Bryn Ridge, or Hanalgor either Steve Jones or Jerry Driver (or Dale Griffis). Certainly the real case has not been set to rights as handily as is portrayed in my tale. As is all too true in cases of wrongful convictions, the wheels of justice have been grinding very slowly indeed, from the winter of 1994 when the verdicts were handed down and continuing through now until at least December of 2011 and possibly on for a few more years before true justice will be rendered—if ever.
Too many cases of wrongful convictions are never overturned, as everyone involved in the criminal justice community is rightfully concerned over the dangers inherent in possibly undermining the public’s trust in the criminal justice system, and as the careers of some prominent judges and attorneys have been made by taking hard stands in such cases and forcing through the verdicts they felt were needed. However, sometimes our trust can be marred more by the courts insisting on upholding such highly questionable findings as in this case no matter what than it could be by admitting that at times the system gets it wrong.
The major question I faced in writing this story was how much to reflect the real case and how much to make truly original. I decided to do a sort of backwards murder mystery: I would identify the real killer from the beginning—indeed, we see the murders from his point of view; and then a year later present Aragorn and his people with a case to review with immediate indications that there are questionable aspects to it. In the end the investigators Aragorn sends figure out who probably killed the children, but cannot prove it to everyone else, and even if they did, how are they going to see justice carried out on an unknown half-orc spy of Saruman’s who’d most likely died either in the Battle of Helm’s Deep or in the destruction of the ring of Isengard by the Ents? Everyone else is probably going to always suspect that Rindor or Vangil killed the children, or will continue to insist that Danárion, Carenthor, and Garestil were really guilty all along because, after all, Garestil did confess. In this way it’s not so much a murder mystery per se as it’s an exploration as to how people come to conclusions of guilt and innocence based on preconceptions versus analytical consideration of all of the existing evidence.
The story has already gone through a number of major revisions. I started this in 2005, before the revelations that no knives were used on the children at all. There were still some unanswered questions I had that led me to put the story aside, and then to revisit it in the immediate aftermath of the November, 2007, press conference involving Drs. Spitz, Baden, Souvrion, and Haddix along with the information imparted by FBI profiler John Douglas that Steve’s stepdad had never been questioned by police but was now a person of interest in the crime. Knowing that an animal had removed one child’s scrotum and that this action was accompanied by the loosening skin to pull from his penis as well required the reworking of the entire murder scene and the addition of the animal activities within the gully and ditch afterwards. It also required me to reexamine the entire dynamics involving the children’s families.
But then I simply could not decide how to deal with the situation involving the stepfather who’d managed to evade police scrutiny for fourteen years. Again I set it aside. However, said stepfather made a major tactical error. Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks had come under a good deal of censure from the radical Right for criticism she’d made toward President George W. Bush; now remarks she made at a support rally for the WM3 indicating that the stepfather in question needed to be thoroughly investigated and that it was possible he had murdered his stepson and the boy’s two friends led the man to file a lawsuit for defamation of character.
I doubt that he realized that Ms. Maines was not the type of person who is likely to choose to settle out of court; instead she bankrolled a far more intense investigation of the man than he was ever likely to endure from your average police department. There are hours and hours of depositions from the man himself, and thousands of pages of affidavits from almost everyone who’d dealt with him for years. Just trying to follow the flood of information that was suddenly released proved overwhelming, as did trying to sort out what little truth he told from the shifting of stories left, right, and sideways all through the interviews conducted with him. How much of that type of information should I include?
Then there was the photograph finally released of impressions found on the thigh of one of the victims, impressions that, according to forensic scientists, had to have been made as the child lay dying or immediately after death. This particular child, as he died, appears to have been lying with his thigh pressed against a pair of manufactured objects with a very distinct, regular raised diamond pattern, and it is likely that he continued to lie against them for at least ten minutes after he died. Had he been moved away from these objects before he died, normal blood flow would have quickly caused the skin cells to smooth out again, and although a bruise might have formed, the actual contours would have been difficult to determine.
The medical examiner in stating the measurements of the repeating diamond pattern this object was decorated with indicated the diamonds were far larger than they really are. Seeing the actual photograph, one could see that the child had been lying against what appeared to be metal rods with the pattern on them, and the one artifact so far known to be both consistent with the impression’s pattern and size as well as being available in the area where the children lived and played is construction rebar manufactured by a particular company that supplied, among others, the company that manufactures manhole access chambers for sewer and drainage systems for the city of West Memphis.
No such rebar was found in the ditch where the bodies were found—not by the officer who crawled down the ditch, not by those who drained the ditch and searched it, not by those who used metal detectors to search for any weapons that might be buried in the mud. So, if the children drowned as claimed in the ditch, then why was no rebar found where that child’s body was hidden?
And how could I include such a discrepancy in my story?
What about the unknown black guy who showed up at a nearby fast-food chicken franchise at eight that evening and took refuge in the women’s bathroom, leaving behind him mud, blood, vomit, feces, and a pair of sunglasses? How to show the massive indifference toward him displayed by the police department? Or the trucker whose knowledge of the crime was such that the WMPD was called by officers from Utah saying, “This guy’s talking about your murder case so graphically we’re willing to hold him until you can send an officer to question him,” and the WMPD responded, “No, you can let him go—we’re certain we have the right guys here”? Should I work in the fact a second “confession” was elicited from someone else who’d left West Memphis a few days after the murders and who was questioned by the police in the town he was visiting out on the west coast, or that the same officer who led the questioning there was already notorious for eliciting false confessions in another case of child abduction and murder? Should I work in the pedophile who was trying to help the WMPD get inside the head of whoever killed Steve, Michael, and Christopher? Or the religious extremists also suspected of drug trafficking who lived very close to the so-called pipe bridge that children and teens used to cross the canal as a shortcut to the service road by the freeway, under which the bicycles had been found? Or the mentally ill man whose hair was found similar to hairs that the police believed to be similar also to that of Damien Echols, the alleged ringleader in the assault on the children?
And how to include the fanaticism of those who are certain that the police were right in focusing on Damien Echols (who was born Michael Wayne Hutchinson) and his friend Charles Jason Baldwin, and who insist that simply because Jessie Miskelley gave more than one “confession” it doesn’t matter that none of them reflect what really happened to the children—that quantity of alleged confessions is somehow more important than the fact the only details he got right in ANY of them were those facts that were public knowledge—that the children had been found dead, obviously murdered, the bodies stripped and strangely bound, in water in a wooded area, that one had been sexually mutilated, and that bikes were somehow involved? These people ignore the fact that the greatest forensic minds in the country agree that no knife was used on the children, preferring to grasp at fibers (they’ve given up on the hairs, thank God) to “prove” their case. They ignore the revelations by two jurors in the Baldwin/Echols trial who insist that they went into the courtroom already convinced of the guilt of the accused by the sensationalist press that was so common in the immediate wake of the murders and arrests, and that the foreman for the jury was pressuring everyone to vote guilty in spite of questions brought up regarding a good deal of the evidence presented by the prosecutors during the trial. And now that an independent lawyer has revealed that said foreman discussed with him his determination to break the law and focus on the fact that Jessie had made a confession, the question of juror misconduct is definitely on the minds of those who believe Damien, Jason, and Jessie were framed and flat railroaded into prison.
I can’t cover everything in the real case in my story, so I’ve had to pick and choose those details that could be examined using techniques, technology, and abilities available to those living in Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Again, in spite of some shared characteristics, the characters in the story are original ones, particularly as Middle Earth had no trailer parks, Wal-Marts, WWF, or Blue Beacon Truck Wash franchises. The incoherent black guy with the bad arm in the chicken restaurant becomes a youth from Dunland who accidentally witnesses the murders and whose terror-ridden run from the scene leaves him injured and determined not to be questioned as he rightly fears being suspected of the crime. Damien’s first girlfriend who introduced him to Wicca and who was dabbling in black magic herself is barely depicted in the story; and his girlfriend at the time of the murders has very little in common with Argilien. The bullying Leverion has some characteristics in common with several of the teenagers peripherally involved in the investigation in the real-world case, but none of them stole candy and gave it to Jessie Miskelley to set him up for a charge of petty theft.
Interest in the West Memphis Three case first became important as HBO prepared to release their first documentary on the case in the mid-nineties. They approached an advertising company to create posters for the film, and so Kathy Bakken, Grove Pashley, and Burk Sauls were introduced to the case. On seeing the film they were to create posters and banners for, they began investigating available information about the case, contacted Jessie’s lawyer Dan Stidham, and began an internet site known as WM3 dot org where they began compiling all of the information they’d been able to gather on the case and on which they keep visitors apprised on the progress of appeals and whatever new information has become available. They encourage people to increase awareness of the case across the country, and sell Free the Three T-shirts, bumper stickers, and coffee mugs to help finance the site. As they became more involved, they began to take classes and attend seminars in forensic science, and invited new profiler Brent Turvey to look into the case. When Damien’s Rule 37 hearings were held in 1997, these three and others who’d become interested in the fate of the three youths accompanied Sinofsky and Berlinger back to Arkansas to attend the hearings and demonstrate their support for new trials, and became part of the second HBO documentary made, Paradise Lost Two: Revelations. Sinofsky and Berlinger by this time were definitely convinced in the innocence of the three youths, and were now indicating other individuals who had not been adequately investigated, ending up focusing primarily on the flamboyant John Mark Byers, Christopher’s adoptive stepfather.
One of the most startling twists came, therefore, when, in the wake of the 2007 revelations of animal predation and increased interest by the defense in the other stepfather, that Mr. Byers and Steve Branch’s mother both announced that they’d now become convinced that the police had botched the investigations, that the prosecutors had presented flawed cases, and that the judge had demonstrated definite bias against Jessie, Jason, and Damien, and that they were now to be considered officially supporters. This was a terrible blow against the NONs, as those who are certain the verdicts are valid are known, most of whom had become convinced that supporters were merely ganging up on Mr. Byers when we pointed out the potential evidence indicating a far stronger circumstantial case could be put together to convict Christopher’s dad than had been presented against the three tried for the murders. It’s both amusing (to a degree, at least) and definitely a turning of the tables to see the NONs now banding together to “protect” the other stepfather while trying to convince us of how terrible a person Mr. Byers is, using the very same arguments against him that we used to recite as if we were totally unaware of his criminal history and the reasons why his first wife divorced him.
As of today the real-life case has not been “solved” to the satisfaction of much of anyone. The NONs remain convinced that the verdicts are valid, while supporters hold that they aren’t. A few supporters are still convinced that Mr. Byers was involved in the deaths of the children; a good many more that the other stepfather is the guilty one; and a fair number still are not convinced that the official evidence so far has proved anyone guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. I am still wanting to see the documentation behind a test said to have been run—if it indeed shows that a particular fiber came from a particular source and was found indeed in a particular place, then I will at that point be convinced beyond that reasonable doubt that the one in whose possession was found a particular item he ought not to have had is the one who killed the boys. And if a dig into the dirt used to fill a swimming pool judged to be too damaged to warrant repairs did indeed lead to the finding of a pair of tennis shoes that match the two and a half footprints found above the ditch, well, that’s the icing on the cake as far as I’m concerned. Hopefully all of these issues will be presented in the new evidentiary hearings ordered to be held in December 2011.
What has been most illuminating, however, is how the prosecutors are failing to find expert witnesses who are willing to testify for them to refute Drs. Spitz, Baden, Souvrion, Haddix, and company. The defense teams finally filed the Rule 37 briefs for Jessie and Jason, and the original trial judge officiated over the hearings in 2009-2010. During the first session the defense presented their contention that the case as presented by the prosecution was fatally flawed in insisting that a particular knife (which had never been shown to have any ties to the crime or the defendants at all) had possibly been used to leave certain wounds on the bodies, wounds these experts insisted were left by animals clawing at the bodies and seeking to feed off of them. During the break between sessions, the prosecution promised to get a well-known forensic scientist who often discusses various murder cases on a talk show available on cable TV to refute their testimony. Yet, when the hearings resumed they had only been able to convince the original Medical Examiner, whose own qualifications are pretty shaky to begin with, to speak for them, and his testimony was not precisely convincing.
Most of this cannot be properly worked into the story, of course, but it’s been interesting to see the prosecution’s case continuing to crumble over the years.
Berlinger and Sinofsky have indicated they are already gathering material to use in a third and hopefully final documentary on the case to be released in November of 2011, although they are no longer allowed to videotape hearings or other court proceedings dealing with it. Most supporters hold out hope that the new judge who has finally been assigned to deal with the final state hearings will prove less biased than Judge Burnett ever showed himself to be. Should the man merely rubberstamp the convictions as has happened to this point, however, there are still federal appeals to be pursued, and there are definite problems involving jury misconduct and charges of judicial misconduct by Judge Burnett that must be considered in such an exigency.
It would have been much nicer, most of us feel, had we been able to obtain the evaluation of such a deputation as Aragorn sent to Anórien to examine the findings of Enelmir’s court. Certainly we would not have seen three young men still in prison seventeen years later for a murder that the forensic evidence shows did not happen as presented by the prosecution.
With special thanks to the efforts of those who have been involved in the BORG—Kathy, Burk, Grove, ChrisW, AttyEddy, Brenda and Scott, Cruecial, Isabelle, Bucket, JivePuppi, GrahamScotland, Girlene, FishmongerDave, RonnyK, PaidFerSumBitch, DollParts, RedWolfVision, Rob, Boohiss, Out2Sea, and so many others I cannot name; for those who are active on the BlackBoard—Mark and Jacki Byers, Rugs, CompassionateReader, Wolf, Herb, and more; for those who’ve added to our store of information available for research purposes—Christian, Greg, RandyH (yes, even you, guy!), CuriousMe, and so many others; and to those who’ve gone above and beyond the levels of duty—Lorri, Alea, Lisa, Capi, Dan, Mallett—to support these three men whose lives have been stolen from them. May your efforts end up at least freeing Damien from Death Row and Jason and Jessie from life sentences plus forty; and may indeed a more honest and determined Attorney General and prosecutor direct a proper investigation to finally identify and convict the real perpatrator(s).
WM3 dot org is the primary website intended to raise awareness regarding the case. There are now a number of discussion boards on which the case is debated and new information regarding the constant ongoing investigation is released.
The two major supporter boards can be found at http colon slash slash westmemphisthreediscussion dot yuku dot com and http colon slash slash www dot wm3blackboard dot com slash forum slash index dot php slash .
There are a few more supporter boards, but I regret to say that for the most part there isn’t a great deal of information on them, and I do recommend against getting involved in the so-called NON boards, as they tend to involve a good deal of hyperbole and nastiness I tend to find pretty difficult to wade through.
Websleuths also has a section on which the case is discussed, and the nastier NONs have managed to get themselves banned there as they have on the two primary supporter discussion boards.
The supporter known as JivePuppi has a site where a good deal of the information available has been analyzed, and it can be found at http colon slash slash www dot jivepuppi dot com .
The most comprehensive site for reading case documents associated with the case can be found at http colon slash slash callahan dot 8k dot com .
Although a good many of the details included in this story are paralleled in the real case, I readily admit that I have crafted a few of my own as well. Avrandahil’s doctored pictures are not to be seen in the real case; his prevaricating testimony is. Those who took part in investigating the real WM3 case have never been involved in smuggling, or not to my knowledge; but some of them have been implicated in stopping cars along the freeways going through the region and accusing the motorists of smuggling drugs, then confiscating the vehicles and their contents and trusting that most will decide it’s cheaper to let the cars go than to fight the confiscations. Others have been since arrested for misappropriation of departmental funds, weapons, equipment, et cetera, and a few for being suspected of stealing weapons, drugs, and money from evidence lockers. One of the juvenile officers involved in the ongoing persecution of Damien for well over a year before the murders has since been imprisoned in a different state for misappropriation of funds after being fired for such reasons in West Memphis, and has also been accused of improper sexual advances toward some of the youths on his caseload.
One of the most surprising turnabouts was when the other juvenile officer for the area, the one who first said that it appeared Damien had finally killed someone, admitted about a year or so ago that in reality the case was a true witch-hunt, or at least as far as the case against Jason Baldwin went.
I joined the discussion list convinced that John Mark Byers had killed the three boys, but had to realize within a couple of weeks that the police had failed to clear much of anyone—in fact the only person they’d truly managed to clear was Michael Moore’s father, who as a trucker had his time logged down to the minute he returned to the depot in West Memphis with his rig. And, until I see that last bit of information that will indeed convince me beyond a reasonable doubt, I will continue to hold that there remain too many suspects and nowhere near enough investigation to go around. And, although I no longer believe Mr. Byers was involved in the murder of his stepson and his classmates, I still insist that a far better circumstantial case can be built against him than ever was produced against Damien, Jason, and Jessie.
So, welcome to one of my other obsessions. And be aware that false confessions have been involved in the convictions of a good many people later proved to be innocent; and that three of the circumstances that tend to lead to an individual making a false confession are when the confessor is a juvenile, when he is of limited intelligence, and when he is being coerced or threatened, physically or psychologically, by those questioning him, all of which were true of Jessie Miskelley when he was questioned in 1993 and again by the prosecutors in the period between the two trials when they hoped either to get either a more realistic depiction of what happened when the children were killed they could use against Damien and Jason in their trial, or, hopefully, convince Jessie to testify against Damien and Jason.
The prosecutors met with Jessie privately several times over a period of three days without notifying either of his lawyers, Dan Stidham or Greg Crow, which is considered unethical both on a national level and by the code of ethics for those who serve as lawyers in the state of Arkansas. On February 8, 1994, they notified Stidham and Crow that Jessie had agreed to give a new statement. Mr. Stidham came armed with a Bible and talked for quite an extended period of time to Jessie, attempting to find out what Jessie intended to say in this statement, and Jessie commenced giving a “confession” that transcribes out to 74 pages of unbelievable details that totally fail to describe what the Blue Beacon woods are like, what really happened to the children, or much of anything else, and wherein he and his co-defendants are supposed to have walked about two miles to the BB woods, done some heavy drinking with him getting through an entire fifth of Evan Williams whiskey and the others through half a case of cheap beer, done some extensive beating on the children with fists that forensics said never happened, attempted to sodomize the children that forensics said never happened, attempted to commit fellatio with the children that is questionable—apparently one child might have been subjected to fellatio, but not on that evening according to forensics, attempted to force the children to commit fellatio that forensics said never happened, cut Steve’s cheek leaving a wound the forensic scientists indicate was done by animals, removed Chris’s scrotum that the forensic scientists say was done by animals, choked at least one child that forensics said never happened, cleaned up all the blood with fingers and ditch water so well it wasn’t picked up by Luminol testing that is impossible to accomplish, dropped children into clear water way over Jessie’s head in depth that doesn’t exist, and walked back home in excess of two miles—all within an hour to an hour and a half’s time. And the only alleged physical evidence that all this happened is supposed to be the neck of a bottle of whiskey that might have come from an Evan Williams bottle that was supposed to have been broken against the supports for an overpass a mile from the BB woods and not exactly on Jessie’s most direct route home, a place he supposedly stopped, broke the bottle, threw up, and went on home, where he ate dinner, changed his clothes, and was out to sit with a friend in the bus shelter at the entrance to their trailer park at seven thirty that evening with no indication he’d done any such thing to the friend or those who picked them up to take them to another little town some ways away where they went weekly to practice wrestling—little Jessie, who is only five foot two, wanted to become famous in the World Wrestling Federation, you see…. At last, faced with a map of the real BB woods and its environs to study, Jessie admitted it was all a lie, and he agreed it wouldn’t be right to make a statement that was false.
Stidham was furious and filed a complaint (which Judge Burnett and the legal ethics committee both ignored), and warned the officials where Jessie was being held that he and Mr. Crow were to be called immediately if the prosecutors tried such a stunt again. A few days later the prosecutors had Jessie transferred (without advising Stidham or Crow), recommenced the secret interviews, and on the seventeenth again advised Stidham and Crow Jessie had agreed to make a statement. This time neither Stidham nor Crow was given time to talk Jessie out of it, and although they both insisted it be made a part of the record that they believed that any statement that Jessie might make under oath would be perjury, Jessie made his statement. This time the details were very vague (and probably purposely so), but still indicated actions and beatings and so on that forensics said didn’t happen, included details regarding the BB woods that don’t exist, and still ended up with the children, still alive, being dropped into clear, deep water that doesn’t exist anywhere in the vicinity of the BB woods where all of this supposedly happened. And before the actual start of the Baldwin/Echols trial, Jessie again recanted this last statement as he had his previous ones.
I suppose that this story is a bit of an idealization of what ought to happen, were this whole situation to be reviewed as we supporters would like to see it.