The West Memphis Three: Another Instance Where A Strong Pro-Guilt Case Is Being Garbled For Profit
Posted by The Machine
1. Overview of the series
In my last post on how media hype can badly tangle crime cases, I examined Sarah Koenig’s biased coverage of the Adnan Syed case for the Serial podcasts and her flawed approach to assessing the evidence against him.
In this post, I will analyse a critically acclaimed documentary about another alleged miscarriage of justice: West of Memphis and associated media hype.
The Peter Jackson documentary claims three men known as the West Memphis Three (the WM3) were wrongly convicted as child killers and points the finger at another man.
2. West Memphis 3 background
In May 1993, three eight-year-old boys - Steve Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore - were found dead in a ditch in West Memphis in the US state of Arkansas. There is a crimescene video at the bottom here.
They had been stripped and bound. Steve Branch and Michael Moore had drowned and Christopher Byers had bled to death after his genitals had been mutilated and partially removed.
Three teenagers - Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley - were arrested following a tip that Echols had been seen covered in mud the evening the boys disappeared and Misskelley gave a confession.
The WM3 were convicted of murder in 1994 (see the judge and courthouse below) and sent to prison.
However, they were freed in August 2011 after taking an Alford plea. This is a deal which allowed them to maintain their innocence while agreeing prosecutors had enough evidence to convict them.
3. The media campaigns
There have been high-profile campaigns to free the WM3 and cast doubt on their convictions. HBO Television made three films about the case: Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, Paradise Lost 2 Revelations and Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory. CBS News produced a documentary about the case entitled A Cry for Innocence.
A number of celebrities and musicians supported the WM3, including Eddie Vedder from Pearl Jam, James Hetfield from Metallica, Henry Rollins, actor Johnny Depp, Natalie Mains from The Dixie Chicks, and film director Peter Jackson. Do any of these celebrities put forward a compelling case for innocence?
In a word - no.
Johnny Depp and Henry Rollins basically say they could relate to Damian Echols.
“I immediately related to Damien and what he went through growing up. He comes from a small town from Arkansas. I come from a relatively small town in Kentucky. I can remember being kind of looked upon as a freak or, you know, different because I didn’t dress like everybody else. So I can empathize with being judged by how you look as opposed to who you are.” (Johnny Depp, A Cry for Innocence, CBS News).
“Damien liked to hang out alone and wrote he was depressed. Hello! He liked to listen to weird music. Check! He was a wise ass in the face of law enforcement. Are you kidding? It could have been me.” (Henry Rollins, West of Memphis)
After reading some of the comments in the media about the WM3 case, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Damien Echols was only a suspect because he wore black, listened to Metallica and read Stephen King books.
This comment by Guardian journalist Emma John is a typical comment by the supporters of the WM3
“At their subsequent trial, evidence introduced by the prosecution included the fact that Echols wore Metallica T-shirts and read Stephen King novels”
Several documentaries angled to exonerate the three have been widely promoted on HBO and Netflix including this one.
Emma John and countless other journalists, as well as the producers of Paradise Lost and West of Memphis, completely ignore Echols’ startling mental health records - Exhibit 500 - that show he was a seriously disturbed and violent individual.
He was sent to a mental health hospital on three separate occasions. He threatened a number of people with violence and on occasion attacked others. For example, he threatened to kill his parents and to eat his father alive and he admitted trying to “claw the eyes of out” of a student. According to a report, Echols sucked the blood from the wound of one of the boys in Arkansas Juvenile Detention Center.
Damien Echols’ lawyers presented his mental health records as evidence in the sentencing phase of his trial, presumably to convince the jury he was mentally ill and not fully responsible for his actions, in order to spare him from the death penalty.
4. The West of Memphis production
West of Memphis is available to watch on the streaming for-pay movie site Netflix. Netflix flatly states that the West Memphis Three are innocent.
“They spent 18 years in prison for a crime they didn’t commit—and the real killer is still out there.”
There’s no legal basis for such an unequivocal claim. The WM3 accepted the court’s judgement of guilt. They were not acquitted by a jury or exonerated by the Supreme Court of the United States.
West of Memphis doesn’t provide any credible exculpatory evidence to support Netflix’s categorial assertion that the WM3 are innocent. No-one should expect this to be the case because if there had been any exculpatory evidence, it would have been presented in court.
A couple of the prosecution’s witnesses recanted their testimony, but that doesn’t mean the entire case against the WM3 collapses. In the Perugia case Judge Massei didn’t find two of the prosecution’s witnesses to be credible, but he and the other judges still found Knox and Sollecito guilty of Meredith Kercher’s murder.
The Telegraph and Empire gave West of Memphis five stars out of five. The Guardian gave it four stars. Does the documentary deserve such high ratings from these mainstream media organisations?
If you compare West of Memphis to Andrea Vogt’s documentary about the Meredith Kercher case is Amanda Knox Guilty? (which is the gold standard for true crime documentaries because it’s balanced and factually accurate) you have to conclude that it’s light years away from being anywhere near as good as Andrea Vogt’s documentary.
The producers haven’t made a balanced and objective documentary that lets the audience make up their own minds. As with all documentaries about people who have been convicted of murders they allegedly didn’t commit, the cherrypicked story is told primarily from the defence point of view.
This isn’t surprising - Damian Echols and his wife were two of the producers.
I strongly suspect this is also the reason why most of the evidence that led to the convictions of the WM3 is completely ignored. When I found this out, I felt that the producers had been sly and dishonest. Their commitment is clearly to the WM3 - and not the truth.
If you want to have an informed opinion on the WM3 and to understand why they were convicted, you need to read the official court documents and witness statements, and then consider all the pieces of evidence as a whole.
When you research the case for yourself, you will discover that Damian Echols didn’t become a suspect because he wore black, was different, and a bit of an outsider.
When he was questioned in connection with the murder of the three boys, he failed a polygraph test.
A ten question polygraph test was formulated and three polygraph charts were conducted. The test contained the following relevant questions:
Q.#3. At any time wednesday or wednesday night, were you in robin hood hills? “No”
Q.#5. Were you present when those boys were killed? “No”
Q.#7. Did you kill any of those three boys? “No”
Q.#9. Do you know who killed those three boys? “No”
Q.#10.do you suspect anyone of having killed those three boys? “No”
It is the opinion of this polygraph examiner that this subject recorded significant responses indicative of deception when he answered the above listed relevant questions in the manner noted.
Conclusion: deception indicated.
By reading the official court documents, you will also discover that Echols knew specific details about the crime.
“Detective Bryn Ridge testified that Echols said he understood the victims had been mutilated, with one being cut up more than the others, and that they had drowned. Ridge testified that when Echols made the statement, the fact that Christopher Byers had been mutilated more than the other two victims was not known by the public. The jury could have reasonably concluded that Echols would not have known this fact unless he were involved in some manner.
“Echols took the witness stand, and his testimony contained additional evidence of guilt. When asked about his statement that one victim was mutilated more than the others, he said he learned the fact from newspaper accounts. His attorney showed him the newspaper articles about the murders. On cross-examination, Echols admitted that the articles did not mention one victim being mutilated more than the others, and he admitted that he did not read such a fact in a newspaper.”
The police obtained further corroboration that Damian Echols had been involved in the murder of Steve Branch, Michael Moore and Chris Byers when his friend Jessie Misskelley told them that he, Echols and Jason Baldwin had attacked and killed the boys.
“On June 3, or almost one month after the murders, Detective Mike Allen asked Jessie Lloyd Misskelley, Jr., about the murders. Misskelley was not a suspect at the time, but Echols was, and it was thought that Misskelley might give some valuable information about Echols. Detective Allen had been told all three engaged in cult-like activities. Misskelley made two statements to the detective that implicated Echols and Baldwin, as well as himself. The statements can be found in Misskelley v. State, 323 Ark. 449, 459-61, 915 S.W.2d 702, 707-08 (1996).”
(Damien Wayne ECHOLS and Charles Jason Baldwin v. STATE of Arkansas,Supreme Court of Arkansas).
It should be noted that Jessie Misskelley repeatedly claimed that he, Echols and Baldwin had killed the boys before and after he was convicted. On one occasion, he confessed despite being warned not to by his lawyer.
This should trouble anyone who believes the WM3 are innocent because Misskelley wasn’t threatened or promised any deal by the investigators.
He may have a low IQ, but he wasn’t hallucinating when he made these confessions. In short, they were voluntary statements made over a significant period of time - from 3 June 1993 to 17 February 1994.
Furthermore, Misskelley also knew specific details about the crime. He told the police that Christopher Byers had been castrated in an interview on 3 June 1993.
RIDGES: Cutting him in the face. Alright, another boy was cut I understand. Where was he cut at?
JESSIE: At the bottom
RIDGE: On his bottom? Was he faced down and he was cutting on him, or
JESSIE: He was
GITCHELL: Now you’re talking about bottom, do you mean right here?
GITCHELL: In his groin area?
RIDGE: Do you know what his penis is?
JESSIE: Yeah, that’s where he was cut at.
RIDGE: That’s where he was cut.
GITCHELL: Which boy was that?
JESSIE: That one right there.
GITCHELL: You’re talking about the Byers boy again?
RIDGE: Are you sure that he was the one that was cut?
JESSIE: That’s the one that I seen them cutting on.
RIDGE: Alright, you know what a penis is?
RIDGE: Alright, is that where he was cutting?
JESSIE: That’s where I seen them going down at, and he was on his back. I seen them going down right there real close to his penis and stuff and I saw some blood and that’s when I took off.
Jessie Misskelley’s claim that Christopher Byers was castrated was corroborated by the autopsy report.
“The skin of the penis, scrotal sac and testes were missing. There was a large gaping defect measuring 2 3/4 inch by 1 1/2 inch. The shaft of the penis was present and measured 2 inches in length. The gaping defect was surrounded by multiple and extensive irregular punctate gouging type injuries measuring from 1/8 inch to 3/4 inch and had a depth of penetration of 1/4 inch to 1/2 inch.”
In West of Memphis, it’s claimed that turtles might be responsible for the missing genitals. I found this theory to be fanciful to say the least.
According to the medical examiner, Chris Byers bled to death because his genitals had been mutilated and partially removed. I believe Jessie Miskelley that this happened before he was thrown into the ditch.
In the same interview, Jessie Misskelley told the police officers that one of the boys was cut in his face.
RIDGE: Okay, now when this is going on, when this is taking place, you saw somebody with a knife. Who had a knife?
RIDGE: Jason had a knife, what did he cut with the knife. What did you see him cut or who did you see him cut?
JESSIE: I saw him cut one of the little boys
RIDGE: Alright, where did he cut him at?
JESSIE: He was cutting him in the face.
Prosecutor John Fogleman highlighted the fact that Jessie Misskelley knew facts that nobody else knew in his closing argument. He pointed out that Misskelley knew one of the boys had been cut in the fact and that this specific detail wasn’t mentioned in any of the newspapers.
Nothing in there [the newspapers] about a boy being cut in the face. Said they were beat up real bad, but nothing, nothing in there about somebody being cut in the face. He [Jessie Misskelley] says, “Yes, one of them was cut in the face.”
Jessie Misskelley also claimed that Damian Echols grabbed one of the boys by the ear and that the ear was discoloured as a result.
MISSKELLEY: He [Damian Echols] grabbed one of’m by the ear, I don’t know which one, he grabbed on of’m by the ear trying to pull his ear off or something. He grabbed’m pretty tight. It turned kind of red.
This was also corroborated by the autopsy report for Chris Byers. According to the report, he suffered injuries to his right ear:
The right ear was abraded and contused. The inferior aspect of the right ear showed multiple linear abrasions measuring 1/2 inch to 1 1/4 inch.”
When you find out the three boys were stripped and two of them had injuries to their genitals, it’s natural to assume there must have been a sexual motive. Jessie Misskelley told the police that Damian Echols and Jason Baldwin sexually assaulted two of the boys.
JESSIE: Then they [Damian Echols and Jason Baldwin] tied them up, tied their hands up, they started screwing them and stuff, cutting them and stuff, and I saw it and turned around and looked, and then I took off running, I went home, then they called me and asked me, how come I didn’t stay, I told them, I just couldn’t.
John Fogleman also drew the jury’s attention to the fact that Jessie Misskelley knew that two of the boys had been sexually assaulted - something that was also corroborated by the autopsy reports. Chris Byers and Steve Branch had injuries to their genitals.
Finally, in talking about the boys being sexually abused, Inspector Gitchell says, “So they both did it to all three of the boys?” Jessie: “Just them two as far as I know.”
According to Lisa Sakevicius - a criminalist from the state lab - the three victims were tied with three different knots.
Her testimony would seem to rule out that the three boys were killed by a single attacker and indicate there were three attackers.
Jessie Misskelley didn’t just confess to the police. According to his friend Buddy Lucas, Misskelley also confessed to him.
Lucas - so we sit there, sit there, and I said, he said man me jason and damien we went walking last night in the town of west memphis, I said why didn’t you all come by and get me? we will we uh, we were in a hurry and everything go up there and come back home. I said alright I understand (inaudible) now since I found out I’m kinda glad he didn’t come by and get me
Ridge - okay, what did he tell you he do?
Lucas - we…. he told me that uh, that he got in a fight, that’s what he told me at first
Ridge - okay
Lucas - I said damien and jason they helped you? He said um-yea and everything so I said well did you all hurt anybody? And he said yea, I didn’t think it was those 8 year old kids or anything, so I turn around and come to found out that jason he was with jason and damien when they sacrificed them little kids. I was come and tell you all
Ridge - he tells you he’s in some trouble?
Lucas - uh-huh
Ridge - and what did he tell you he was in trouble over?
Lucas - that he really, he said um, we hurt, uh…. uh we hurt a couple of boys, that jason and damien killed
Ridge - okay
Lucas - couple, I said was you involved? He said yea, I said what did you do? I finally got it talked out of him what did he do, he said I hit uh, a couple in the back of the head
Ridge - okay, and
Lucas - and everything to keep them from running and everything
Ridge - and that’s what he told you?
Lucas - yes sir
Two witnesses claimed that Damian Echols admitted he had killing the three boys.
Twelve-year-old Christy VanVickle testified that she heard Echols say he “killed the three boys.” Fifteen-year-old Jackie Medford testified that she heard Echols say, “I killed the three little boys and before I turn myself in, I’m going to kill two more, and I already have one of them picked out.”
The testimony of these two independent witnesses was direct evidence of the statement by Echols. These witnesses were cross-examined by Echols counsel, and it was the jury’s province to weigh their credibility.
(Damien Wayne ECHOLS and Charles Jason Baldwin v. STATE of Arkansas,Supreme Court of Arkansas).
5. Alternative perp Terry Hobbs
The producers of West of Memphis make a case for Terry Hobbs - the stepfather of Steve Branch - being the killer and that his friend David Jacoby was a possible accomplice. However, Hamish McKenzie points out in an article for The Atlantic that the filmmakers are guilty of hypocrisy.
“But the rave reviews miss a dangerous hypocrisy at the heart of the film, which was paid for and produced by Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, and directed by Amy Berg. In their quest to clear the names of the “West Memphis Three"—Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley, Jr. who were teenagers when they were convicted for the 1993 killings—the filmmakers decide that they have found the actual murderer: Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of one of the murdered boys. And in publicly making the case against him, they perpetrate a similar sort of injustice to the one they originally set out to correct: relying on questionable evidence to prosecute in the court of public opinion.”
The producers of West of Memphis point the finger at Hobbs because he has a history of domestic violence, he gave inconistent alibis and they think two hairs found at the crime scene implicate him and his friend Jacoby. However, Thomas Fedor, one of the defence experts, called the hairs weak evidence.
“The two hairs that I know about – the one that could have in fact come from Mr. Hobbs and the one that could have in fact come from David Jacoby – constitute what I call weak evidence. Because there are other people it could have come from and there isn’t any way to really prove our selection of possible sources for that hair.
I don’t think – my personal opinion – I don’t think that that hair evidence would be enough to convict Mr. Hobbs or Mr. Jacoby or anyone that would be in a similar situation because it’s simply not strong enough.
The percentages I gave of people who could be the source of those hairs are 1.5% of the population in the respect to one hair and 7% in respect to the other hair. That’s not particularly strong evidence and especially in the context of what most people are accustomed to with DNA testing.” (Thomas Fedor, Forensic Serologist).
6. Some conclusions
Concluding the WM3 are innocent on the basis of watching West of Memphis would be like concluding Amanda Knox is innocent after reading Waiting to Be Heard. The documentary is clearly biased and one-sided.
The producers did not address most of the evidence that led to the convictions of the WM3 let alone refute it. This is not surprising when you consider the fact that Damian Echols is one of the producers.
The defence lawyers assessed the evidence and recommended that their clients accept a court judgement of guilt. Surely if there was no credible evidence against the WM3 they would have opted for a new trial. If they had been found not guilty, they would have been able to sue the state for millions of dollars.
The supposedly exculpatory evidence was that some DNA was recovered from the crime scene was not attributable to any of the victims or the WM3. Since it is not known to whom that DNA belongs, one cannot say what that person’s role, if any, was and whether the evidence would help the defendants.
Above: from freeway, crime scene is by a creek within trees in left background
7. Valuable Sources
Click: ‘West Memphis Three’ freed after 18 years in prison
Click: Damien Echols: Statements and Polygraph Reports (May 9-10, 1993)
Click: Supreme Court of Arkansas
Click: Closing Argument of John Fogleman
Click: Damien Echols - mental health records - Exhibit 500
Click: Peter Jackson’s West of Memphis: the tale of three wronged men
Click: Damien Echols: how I survived death row
Click: West Memphis Three Facts
Click: The Unsettling Recklessness of Peter Jackson’s ‘West of Memphis’
Click: Misskelley v. State
Click: Statement of Jessie L. Misskelley, Jr. (June 3, 1993 at 2:44 P.M.)
Click: Statement of Jessie Misskelley, Jr. February 17, 1994
Click: Autopsy report for Steven Branch
Click: Autopsy report for Chris Byers
Click: Autopsy report for Michael Moore
Click: Lisa Sakevicius’s testimony
Click: A Skeptic’s Guide To The West Memphis Three Documentaries
Click: Is Amanda Knox Guilty?
[Below: The crime scene about 1 mile west of Memphis - warning, images of the murdered boys are included]