The West Memphis Three: Who murdered Christopher Byers, Michael Moore, and Stevie Branch?
Warning: Graphic Depictions of Violence Against Children
Junior Officer Steve Jones started the warm spring day of May 6, 1993 like any other; he planned on performing the usual task of patrolling the area of West Memphis, Arkansas and enjoying casual chit-chat with locals from the small community. Shortly after his lunch break, he received a call about a small shoe floating in the creek located inside the wooded area of Robin Hood Hills and thought nothing of it; local children were known to visit this area often, so he assumed someone left it after playing in the creek. He arrived around 1:45 p.m. and quickly spotted the shoe at the bottom of a ravine; Officer Steve Jones began to crawl up the creek bank, expecting to find a group of unruly kids on the other side but he couldn’t help but notice how eerily silent it was. As he reached the peak of the bank, he looked down to witness something that would haunt him for the rest of his life; three deceased young boys who were all hog tied with their arms behind their backs and fully nude. All three victims appeared to have suffered horrific injuries, many of which seemed to have been focused on their genital regions and heads; despite these injuries, there was a total lack of blood at the crime scene. The case went unsolved for nearly a month and with past rumors of satanic cults in the area already creating fear within the community, mass panic spread. Parents refused to let their children out of the house to play with friends and public gatherings were held at churches to give the parents of the community some semblance of comfort. It wasn’t until the arrest of three boys in the community with a proclivity for listening to heavy metal music and wearing all black that the true West Memphis Three trial began; what is often referred to as a ‘Modern Day Witch Hunt,’ the West Memphis Three trial spanned the course of two decades, with the original suspects, Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, and Jason Baldwin filing multiple appeals of their sentences due to trial misconduct and lack of forensic evidence to link them to the crime scene. It wasn’t until new forensic testing was released in 2007 that prosecutors retested the ligatures that bound the boys hands; what they found not only exonerated all three boys, but also put the stepfather of Stevie Branch, Terry Hobbs, at the scene of the crime. 18 years and 78 days later, Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley were released from prison. Still, a crucial question remains: Who does the forensic evidence truly point at as the perpetrator of this crime? Join me as we dive into the case of the West Memphis Three.
Christopher Byers, Michael Moore and Stevie Branch were three 8-year-old cub scouts who loved riding their bikes around their neighborhood and frequenting the area of Robin Hood Hills. Neighbors knew them as three rambunctious and lively little boys who all grew up together in the suburbs of West Memphis. On May 5, 1993 neighbors of Stevie Branch were leaving for church around 6:30 p.m. when the three boys came crashing through their bushes trying to cross onto the street. With Stevie Branch on his bike and Michael Moore and Christopher Byers running behind him, the trio headed in the direction of Steve Branch’s house after his stepfather, Terry Hobbs, told him to get home. Around 8:00 p.m., Christopher Byers stepfather, Mark Byers, called West Memphis Police to report his son missing. By 8:30 p.m., local police arrived at the Byers home and headed towards Robin Hood Hills under the instruction of Mark Byers, who stated this area was the most likely place they would have been. At 9:00 p.m. Dana Moore, Michael Moore’s mother and Pam Hobbs, Stevie Branch’s mother also reported their sons missing. An extensive search of the wooded area began; the search started on the southern side of Robin Hood Hills because this is where the local children were known to frequent. The northern side of Robin Hood Hills was next to a 24-hour car wash, The Blue Beacon; this area was frequented by transients and drug dealers, stopping kids from wanting to venture into that area. Despite an extensive search, the boys’ bodies weren’t discovered in the Northern section of Robin Hood Hills until the following afternoon. Shortly after the crime scene was set up, their bikes were discovered on a steel beam that led into dense brush before reaching the creek. After thoroughly collecting evidence from the crime scene, the bodies were immediately taken to West Memphis medical examiner, Dr. Frank Peretti.
From the beginning of their autopsies, one thing became very apparent; all three boys suffered extensive injuries to their heads and genital areas. While all of the boys suffered multiple contusions, stabs, and blunt force trauma, Steve Branch seemed to have suffered the worst of the beatings to his head and Christopher Byers was horrifically mutilated.
During Branch’s autopsy, it was reported that his hands were bound to his feet with one black shoe lace and one white shoe lace; the contusions on his wrists and ankles showed that the ligatures were present before the time of death. There were apparent bite marks on his face, and there was evidence that his ears had been violently pulled. He had a skull fracture at the base of his skull measuring 3.5 inches and had a subarachnoid hemorrhage in his frontal lobe. His autopsy showed signs of sexual assault and his penis was mutilated, but there were no injuries to his scrotal sac. His lungs were full of a frothy liquid containing water, blood, and vomit which showed that he was alive when he was placed inside of the creek.
Christopher Byers autopsy showed very similar injuries to Stevie’s; his hands and feet were bound by one black shoe lace and one white shoe lace, he had blunt force trauma to the base of his skull and abrasions covering his entire face. His frenulum was damaged in the attack and he had multiple superficial bite marks on his cheeks. His body showed signs of sexual assault and both the skin of his penis and his testicles were removed. The injuries to his pelvic region were extensive; they were gouging type injuries with a depth of almost an inch in some places. Tears on the outer edges of the wounds indicate that he was either alive during this part of the attack or the killer was purposefully stabbing the blade in and moving it around.
Michael Moore’s autopsy showed major deviations from the other boys; he was hog tied with the same pair of shoe laces and had fly larvae present in his orbital socket, which suggested that he was the first to die. Unlike Stevie and Christopher, he also showed defensive wounds on his hands and had a piece of fiber clutched in his hand at the time of his death. There was evidence of his ears being pulled and he also suffered multiple skull fractures. There was evidence of sexual assault after mud was located inside of his anus; petechial hemorrhages in his lungs showed that he was also alive at the time he was dropped into the creek. (reference autopsy reports)
After almost a month of zero leads, West Memphis Police began questioning Jessie Misskelley, a local teenager, about his close friends Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin. In the year leading up to the murder, West Memphis Police were hearing rumors about satanic rituals occurring in the woods of West Memphis and were looking into Echols and Baldwin as being potential satanists due to their black attire, desire to listen to heavy metal music and their use of satanic symbols in their drawings; West Memphis was an area with people who believed heavily in the word of God and any inclination of satan worship happening created panic.
Despite being a juvenile and having an I.Q. of only 72, West Memphis police questioned Misskelley for 12 hours at which time he initially denied even knowing who the boys were, then eventually confessed to participating in the crime. It was only the final 41 minutes of this 12 hour interrogation that was recorded. In his initial confession Misskelley claimed that he, Damian Echols and Jason Baldwin went to Robin Hood Hills around noon on the afternoon of the murder but after repeated questioning, the story eventually changed to Jessie claiming they were there around 6 p.m. and they saw the boys when the sun started to go down. He stated that Damian and Jason snagged Stevie Branch and Christopher Byers before restraining them with rope; then they began beating them with their fists and sexually assaulting them. He claimed that Michael Moore was able to escape back into the woods at which time he caught him and held him there until Damian and Jason came to get him but he left before the murders took place. After this confession was given, West Memphis police arrested Misskelley, Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin on three counts of capital murder. After Misskelley’s arrest, he hired a defense team that filed a motion to prove that Misskelley’s confession was a false confession and that he actually had an alibi on the night of the murder.
On June 8, 1993 Detective Bill Durham and investigator Shane Griffith questioned Echols and Baldwin about their whereabouts on the night of the murder. A local woman, Narlene Hollingsworth claimed that she saw Echols and Baldwin leaving Robin Hood Hills around 9:30 p.m. on the night of the murder; she stated that they were both covered in mud. However, all three boys had alibi’s for that night. Misskelley claimed he was at a wrestling match in Dyess, Arkansas and both Echols and Baldwin were home with their families. When questioned, Echols’ mother confirmed that he was home on the night of the murders and it was also confirmed that Baldwin was at school all afternoon despite initially claiming he was at Robin Hood Hills that day. On June 10, Detective Durham administered a polygraph test to Echols without the presence of a lawyer and claimed that he noticed deception during the test.
At the beginning of Misskelley’s trial, prosecutors immediately played the taped confession Misskelley gave inspector Gitchell during the 12 hour interrogation. Investigators in the case admitted to pulling out a photo of one of the victim’s autopsies to ‘invoke a response.’ Cross examination of inspector Gitchell proved that there were multiple inconsistencies in Misskelley’s confession that should have warranted further investigation; after Misskelley initially told them they were at the park at noon, Gitchell said ‘Okay, so was it after school had let out?’ to which Misskelley agreed. There were eight separate times Gitchell insinuated the correct answer to Misskelley throughout the course of the ‘confession.’ Misskelley’s testimony also claimed that they used rope, not the boys’ shoelaces to hog-tie them. The defense brought false confession expert Dr. Richard Ofshe on the stand who stated that the defining traits of someone who would give a false confession was a low I.Q. and incorrect descriptions of the crime scene; inspector Gitchell claimed Misskelley must have just been ‘confused’ about the details of the crime. Closing statements from Misskelley’s defense attorney drove home the fact that there was 12 hours of interrogation that there was no audio or written record of and prosecutors ended their arguments with showing a picture of Michael Moore claiming if Misskelley had not chased down Moore when he allegedly escaped, he would still be alive. Misskelley’s defense team’s final attempt to prove his innocence was the use of the testimony of criminal profiler, Brent Turvey who created a criminal profile on who he suspected committed the murders. Turvey claimed the wounds inflicted to the victims were ‘reactionary’ and only someone who was very familiar with the area would have known to bring the boys here. He also stated that this person was unlikely a serial killer due to choosing children as victims, knowing their presence would be missed immediately. When looking at crime scene photos of Christopher Byers injuries to his pelvic region, he claimed the abrasions on the edges of the wounds leads him to believe there was movement of the blade once inside the skin, whether that was Christopher moving or the killer moving the blade around. He stated the bruising from the hilt of the knife suggested sharp, forceful stabs, and seemingly an act of anger. There was also testimony from a forensic pathologist that the bite marks on the boys’ faces are often committed by mothers in abuse cases, and if a child was brought into the emergency room with injuries like these, the mother would be arrested; he believed at some point, these teeth impressions would prove to be very important in the conviction of the real killer.
Misskelley was found guilty of first degree murder of Michael Moore, second degree murder of Stevie Branch, and second degree murder of Christopher Byers. He was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of Michael Moore plus forty years for the assistance in the murders of Stevie Branch and Christopher Byers.
In opening statements from the prosecution in the trial against Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin, a picture was painted for how the prosecutors believe the crime was committed. Due to the lack of blood at the crime scene and the nature of their injuries, it was hypothesized that the murders occurred on the creek bank around 10 p.m. and the murderer washed away the blood after committing the murders. However, cross examination of these statements revealed that if this hypothesis was correct, the killer would have had to hogtie three young boys, sexually assault them, beat them, then mutilate them before washing over 10 liters of blood off of the creek bank all in pitch blackness. Another crucial piece of evidence revealed at their autopsies to discount the creek bank as the site of the murder was the fact that none of the boys had mosquito bites on their bodies; if they were outside during the attack, they would have been covered in mosquito bites.
In the trials against Echols and Baldwin, prosecutors brought an occult specialist to testify on the stand with the purpose of discussing the possible ritualistic aspects of the murders. He testified that he received a P.h.D in the field and studied dozens of crimes that were satanic ritualistic murders. He stated that the murder had occult undertones due to the age of the victims and the fact that there were multiple satanic holidays that landed on the week of the murders. He claimed that in his time studying occultism, he often saw occultists wearing all black and listening to metal music. The occult specialist used a book that was discovered in Echols’ bedroom as proof of Echols’ involvement with the occult; he claimed that the upside down crosses that were drawn surrounding a pentagram was a symbol of both the Wicca religion and satanism. There was also a section in the book that was underlined that was referring to the power of ‘young blood’ in ritualistic sacrifices. However, when Damien was cross examined he claimed he bought the book used at the library and there was already highlighted portions. After the prosecution finished questioning the occult specialist, Damien’s defense attorney cross examined the specialist and brought to light the fact that the supposed P.h.D. he received in the related field was a toll free P.h.D. hotline where he took zero classes to receive this degree.
The prosecution brought two key witnesses to the stand in the trial against Echols and Baldwin. One witness was a girl from their high school who reportedly overheard Echols confess to killing the three boys and claiming he had plans to kill more; in the same breath, she testified that he was ‘weird’ because he wore black. Another key witness for the prosecution was an inmate who was incarcerated with Jessie Misskelley at the time of the trials who claimed that only weeks after knowing him, Miskelley confessed to him that he committed the murders. He testified that Misskelley told him he dismembered one of the boys after he sucked blood from his penis and put his testicles in his mouth. However, during cross examination of this inmate, it was revealed that his prison counselor notified the judge that he was a notorious liar and was not a credible witness; despite this, he was still brought to the stand to testify.
A crucial piece of forensic evidence used in the conviction of Echols and Baldwin was a serrated hunting knife that was discovered in a lake behind Jason Baldwin’s trailer home. Prosecutors brought Medical Examiner Dr. Frank Perretti to the stand who testified that this knife could have caused injuries similar to the victims injuries, but without blood evidence there’s no way to be totally sure this was the murder weapon.
Despite a lack of forensic evidence and the entire case being brought upon circumstantial evidence, Damien Echols was found guilty of three counts of first degree murder and sentenced to die by lethal injection. Jason Baldwin was found guilty of three counts of first degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Although a conviction was passed down, more and more people who sympathized with the three boys as being ‘outcasts’ from society came forward with their belief that they were innocent and the West Memphis Police not only coerced a false confession out of Misskelley but also arrested the wrong people, allowing a sadistic child murderer to walk free.
One major lead that was never fully investigated came from a local restaurant in the area of West Memphis called ‘Bojangles.’ On the night of the murder, while a mass search was erected for the boys by the local community, Bojangles manager called local police to report a suspicious man in the restaurant who was covered in blood and acting extremely disoriented. Female officer Regina Meek responded to the call but did not go into the restaurant to take a proper report; instead, she walked up to the drive-thru window to have a casual conversation with an employee. When brought to the stand to testify, she also admitted that she did not make a written report either. It wasn’t until two days after the initial call came in that two investigators went to Bojangles to take an official statement and collect DNA evidence from the blood smear left behind by the man employees saw. When this was brought up during the trial, investigators stated that this DNA was never tested because it was ‘lost.’
During the filming of HBO’s documentary series ‘Paradise Lost,’ Mark Byers, Christopher Byers’ stepfather, gifted the production crew a serrated hunting knife that appeared to have dried blood on it. In response to his questionable behavior leading up to the crime, this knife was handed over to investigators who proceeded to test the blood using new DNA testing and the results were astonishing; despite Mark Byers staunchly denying ever using the knife to hunt or ever possibly cutting himself with it, there was DNA that matched both his blood and Christopher Byers blood. In the years following his son’s death, many aspects of the Byers’ home life came to light that made the public take a second look at his innocence. Christopher Byers reportedly struggled with behavioral issues and was being treated by a neurologist for attention deficit disorder and was prescribed ritalin; however, the neurologist claimed that despite months of treatment, there was no improvement and he had suspicions that his parents were abusing his prescription. Melissa Byers struggled with a heroin addiction for a large chunk of her life in order to cope with the effects of manic depressive disorder, PTSD, and severe anxiety. Mark Byers was sued by previous employers at a jewelry store he worked at for allegedly stealing $65,000 worth of property and he was also arrested alongside his wife, Melissa Byers for stealing property from their neighbors. Neighbors of Byers came forward requesting a restraining order against Mark Byers after he allegedly spanked their five-year-old for being a ‘bad boy.’ A disturbing incident occurred in town when he came across a fight between two young boys; he proceeded to hand one a knife and stood by, holding them at gunpoint while he forced them to fight. The most disturbing bit of Mark Byers’ life following his son Christopher’s death was when his wife, Melissa died under mysterious circumstances on March 26, 1996, only two years after her son’s death. An autopsy was performed and there were a number of prescription drugs in her system along with numerous ‘unknown’ drugs.’ Outside of this, she seemed perfectly healthy; her cause of death was therefore listed as ‘unknown.’ After the death of Melissa, public concern began to grow that West Memphis police arrested the wrong person. In order to clear his name once and for all, Byers requested to take a polygraph test at which time he admitted to being tortured by five people when he was younger in a similar fashion that his son was tortured and when he was shown crime scene pictures, “It was like they were reading off what happened to me and I lived through it instead of what happened to Christopher… I basically just had a mental breakdown… it was like I was living it all over again.” Mark Byers was arrested on June 2, 1999 for selling drugs to an undercover narcotics officer and sentenced to eight years in prison.
For two decades Jessie Misskelley, Damien Echols, and Jason Baldwin filed appeals for their sentences, and all were denied. It wasn’t until a press conference in 2007 was held by Echols’ defense attorneys in the accompaniment of United States leading pathologist, Dr. Werner Spitz, the forensic odontologist who aided in convicting Theodore Bundy, Richard Souviron, D.N.A expert Tom Fedor and John Douglas, the previous head of the criminal analysis unit of the F.B.I. for 25 years that the case was blown wide open when new forensic evidence was presented.
Forensic testing that was unavailable in 1993 showed that the hair found in the knot of Michael Moore’s binding excluded all three boys from being potential suspects; in fact, the DNA found matched that of Terry Hobbs, Steve Branch’s stepfather. Dr. Werner Spitz also stated that in reviewing all of the evidence, autopsy reports, and crime scene photos, he concluded that the ‘serrated knife’ pattern that prosecution claimed was caused by the knife found in the lake behind Baldwin’s house was in fact caused by carnivorous animals scavenging on the bodies and the emasculation of Christopher Byers was also caused by animals. With this new testimony, the Arkansas Supreme Court granted an acquittal hearing to hear this new evidence under official court settings.
During the acquittal hearings, an FBI profiler testified that the perpetrator of these crimes was ‘criminally sophisticated,’ in their use of hog-ties and the submerging of the clothing items in the creek to destroy forensic evidence and also stated that the use of bindings and the undressing of the children was a form of ‘punishment or humiliation.’ He said this perpetrator was a psychopath with zero remorse and would have the ability to pass a polygraph when being questioned about the murders because of this fact. All three boys were released from prison after this hearing after spending almost nineteen years in prison.
When the public heard the news of Terry Hobbs’ DNA being found in Michael Moore’s binding, outrage ensued. Many celebrity members of the public came forward in their belief of the innocence of the three boys and Terry Hobbs’ guilt. One of these public figures was the Dixie Chicks, and Terry Hobbs decided to sue the band for defamation. Due to this defamation case, Terry Hobbs was legally required to answer questions about his whereabouts on the night of the murder, as well as answer questions about his violent past.
When asked about his alibi for the night of the murder, Steve Hobbs claimed he dropped his wife, Pam Hobbs off at work at 5:30 p.m. and went to his friends house to play guitar for the rest of the night and didn’t see the boys at all the day. However, when his friend was asked to confirm this fact, he stated that Hobbs left twice that evening. At 6:30 p.m. neighbors of Hobbs saw him walking down the sidewalk telling Steve Branch to get home, and the last she saw of the boys was when all three of them were laughing and having a great time on their way back to Stevie Branch’s house. If this is all true, Terry Hobbs was the last person to see any of the boys alive. At the end of the defamation case, the Dixie Chicks attorney asked Hobbs about the time Pam Hobbs cheated on him; he immediately went silent. When asked when this occurred, he meekly admitted that it was only two weeks prior to the murders. In interviews following Stevie Branch’s death, Pam Hobbs was seen admitting that Terry wasn’t the type to get angry; he got even.
The ‘West Memphis 3’ trial spanned the course of decades, captivating an audience around the world. The murders of Christopher Byers, Michael Moore and Stevie Branch were so horrific the details are unfathomable. The conviction of three young boys on purely circumstantial evidence, the repeated denial for a retrial by the same judge who convicted them, and the mass suffering of all of the families involved left an indelible mark on our society and leaves an intriguing question: if satanic panic was not at the forefront of the human collective, would Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley still have been suspected of killing these children?