On a balmy and sun-drenched May day, three young boys, each eight years of age, embarked on a bicycle excursion around their native town of West Memphis, Arkansas. The ensuing afternoon bore witness to the discovery of their battered and naked bodies, cruelly bound and discarded in a stream. This tragic event ignited an exhaustive endeavor to uncover their killers. In less than a month’s time, investigators held firm in their belief that they had identified the culprits – three unconventional adolescents who would ultimately be christened as “The West Memphis Three.” The trials and legal clashes that ensued served as a sobering narrative, cautioning law enforcement and prosecutors against excessive certainty in their instincts and undue reliance on dubious evidence.
The Investigative Process Around 8 P.M. on May 5, 1993, the West Memphis police department received a call from John Mark Byers, a distressed father reporting his son Christopher Byers as missing. John and his wife Melissa shared with a patrol officer that Chris had been last spotted around 5:30 that evening, working in their yard. Over the next ninety minutes, the police received two more calls from anxious parents. Dana Moore recounted seeing her son, Michael, riding off on bicycles with two companions around six o’clock, yet he never returned for supper. Pamela Hobbs expressed concern as she hadn’t seen her son, Stevie Branch, since he left for school. The news of the three young boys’ disappearance prompted a search of a mosquito-infested four-acre forest near Interstate 40, a spot frequented by local children. This woodland, named Robin Hood Hills, was scoured for evidence, but that night, the search yielded nothing.
The subsequent morning, Chief Inspector Gary Gitchell declared his leadership of the effort to locate the missing boys. In the early afternoon, Steve Jones, a juvenile officer, noticed a black tennis shoe floating in the water of a ditch near Robin Hood Hills. A quarter of an hour later, Sergeant Mike Allen from the West Memphis Police Department retrieved the unclothed body of a child from the banks of the ditch. The area was promptly cordoned off with yellow crime tape. Within an hour, two more children’s bodies were retrieved by the police, both unclothed and bound with shoelaces securing wrists to ankles. Among them was Chris Byers, whose body displayed evidence of violence with the scrotum missing and the genitals mutilated. Gitchell addressed the gathered crowd on the edge of the woods, sharing the grim news of the discovery. At this point, Terry Hobbs, Stevie Branch’s stepfather, crumbled to the ground, consumed by grief.
Soon after the removal of the bodies from Robin Hood Hills, rumors began to circulate suggesting that the murders might be linked to devil worship. Inspector Gitchell neither refuted nor dampened these speculations when he revealed that his department was investigating potential ties to “cult activity.” The West Memphis Police Department assigned the case the number 93-05-0666, further fuelling these sinister conjectures.
On May 7, Steve Jones, the juvenile officer who initially encountered the bodies, interviewed a troubled local teenager, Damien Echols, who had been under the watchful eye of another juvenile officer, Jerry Driver. Echols, a seventeen-year-old dropout plagued by psychological struggles including major depression, emerged as a person of interest. His dark poetry, penchant for dark clothing, long hair, and identification as a Wiccan set him apart. In the years leading up to the events, Echols had reportedly threatened individuals close to him, and he had a history of psychiatric confinement. Jerry Driver’s belief in Echols’ possible involvement in the murders drove him to communicate his suspicions to the West Memphis Police Department.
Echols underwent several interrogations between May 7 and May 10. He initially claimed ignorance of the three boys but described the perpetrator as “sick.” He stated that he had been at home on the evening of May 5, conversing with girlfriends in Memphis over the phone. During these interviews, Echols’ references to authors such as Stephen King and his “EVIL” knuckle tattoos raised concerns. He also voluntarily took a polygraph test, the results of which were deemed deceptive. Jason Baldwin, a friend of Damien’s, also faced increased scrutiny due to his “EVIL” tattoos. Both Echols and Baldwin asserted their innocence.
The Investigation’s Progress The investigation could have stalled were it not for the intervention of a local waitress, Vicki Hutcheson. She believed the murders could be cult-related and offered to assist in the investigation. She turned her attention to a seventeen-year-old neighbor, Jesse Misskelley, who occasionally babysat her children. Vicki suspected that Jesse might have insights into Damien Echols’ secretive life. Jesse agreed to introduce her to Damien. In the end, Vicki’s encounter with Echols bore significant consequences.
Subsequent developments and arrests As the case progressed, Jesse Misskelley was taken into custody and interrogated by the police. His confession, though fraught with inconsistencies, was recorded and presented as evidence. Based on this confession and other circumstantial evidence, Jesse, along with Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin, was charged with the capital murders. The trial, laden with emotional testimonies and evidence, ultimately led to Jesse’s conviction. He was found guilty of first-degree murder on all three counts and subsequently sentenced to life in prison.
The trial marked a turning point in the West Memphis Three case, leaving a legacy of controversy and raising concerns about the reliability of confessions, the justice system, and the complexities of truth-seeking in criminal investigations.