On May 5th, 1993, three eight-year-old boys from West Memphis, Arkansas — Christopher Byers, Stevie Branch and Michael Moore — disappeared. They were reported missing around 7 p.m. by Byers’s stepfather, John Mark Byers. The next day, the three boys’ mutilated bodies were found in the Robin Hood Hills, where the boys were last seen.
Three teenage boys — Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jesse Miskelly Jr. — were arrested and charged with three counts of first-degree murder. Investigators immediately assumed that they were guilty. The theory was that Echols, Baldwin and Miskelly had killed Byers, Branch and Moore as part of some satanic ritual, a ritual that exists only in the minds of fundamentalist Christians. The boys’ trials turned into 1990s versions of the Salem Witch Trials.
At pretrial hearings, Circuit Judge David Burnett severed Echols’s and Baldwin’s trial from Miskelly’s. Since Miskelly, who had been coerced into a false confession, would not be taking the stand, his false confession was not allowed to be considered as evidence against Echols or Baldwin.
By the time jury selection began for Miskelly’s trial, the public had already made up its mind. Miskelly, a mentally challenged man with an IQ of just 72 who had given a disjointed confession after being browbeaten by detectives for hours, was convicted of first-degree murder. Judge Burnett sentenced him to life without parole. Miskelly is now 36.
The trial of Echols and Baldwin commenced in February of 1994. Judge Burnett allowed all kinds of statements at trial that were of no probative value and were meant to inflame a jury whose heads had been filled for months with inaccurate information leaked by the police and garbage that the press had reported. Not only was there no physical evidence of Echols’s and Baldwin’s guilt, but the prosecution suborned perjury from witnesses who’ve now recanted. In addition, it has since come to light that juror Kent Arnold disobeyed the judge’s orders by discussing the case with his attorney. Arnold also pushed for the jury to consider Miskelly’s confession, which had been excluded in pretrial. From the beginning, Arnold wanted to convict, despite the lack of evidence.
After one of the most unfair trials ever, Echols and Baldwin were convicted of three counts of first-degree murder. Because Baldwin was 17 at the time of the arrest, he was sentenced to life without parole. Echols, however, was 18 at the time of the arrest and was sentenced to death by lethal injection on March 19th, 1994. Baldwin is still in the state penitentiary and Echols still sits on Arkansas’s death row.
The men appealed the decision after a forensic odontologist concluded that the bite marks on Christopher Byers’s forehead weren’t theirs. Burnett denied their appeal, saying, “I ain’t never heard of no forensic odontologist.”
In 2002, punk rock icon/writer/actor Henry Rollins organized a reunion tour of the band “Black Flag” and used the proceeds to pay for DNA testing of the genetic material recovered at the crime scene. The Bubba the Sponge Show was privileged to have Rollins on the show during that tour to promote it and the cause of paying for the DNA testing that would clear these innocent men.
In 2007, the DNA was finally tested. None of the crime-scene DNA matched any of the men’s DNA. Judge Burnett now had two pieces of exculpatory evidence. But, predictably, on September 10th, 2008, Burnett denied the motion for a new trial, saying the DNA was inconclusive. The case was appealed to the Arkansas Supreme Court.
The Arkansas Supreme Court reversed Burnett’s moronic ruling in September of 2010. It directed the lower court to not only consider the exculpatory DNA evidence, but to also consider the misconduct on the part of the jurors in both trials.
Shortly thereafter, the dolts in Arkansas elected Burnett to the state senate. Judge David Laser replaced him on the case.
On July 26th, 2011, the final DNA results were released to the public. The mitochondrial DNA conclusively excludes Echols, Baldwin and Miskelly. The hair found in the ligatures used to bind the victims belongs to Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of victim Stevie Branch. Also, three eye witnesses say that they saw the three murdered boys with Hobbs at 6:30 p.m. on the day they were last seen alive.
HBO has aired two documentaries about the case, “Paradise Lost” and “Paradise Lost 2.” Erin Moriarty did an hour-long special on “48 Hours Investigates” this year in which Johnny Depp gave an interview on the subject. Aphrodite Jones did an hour on her show “True Crime” pointing out a lot of these facts. There’s also a book called “The Devil’s Knot” by Mara Leveritt that is very informative about the case. Metallica, Pearl Jam, Disturbed, The Dixie Chicks, Ozzy Osborne, Marilyn Manson, Henry Rollins, The Bubba the Love Sponge Show, HBO, Johnny Depp and many other people and groups who care about the injustice done to these innocent men have donated money, time and their voices to attempt to get a new trial — a fair trial — for the West Memphis Three.
I would be remiss to ignore the incredible effort put forth by Burk Sauls, Kathy Bakken, Grove Pashley and Lisa Fancher, who have always believed in these men’s innocence. They convinced me of it many years ago. They’ve done all the heavy lifting and refused to give up. Our world is a better place because of their kindness and unwavering determination.
The injustice continues to this day. These men should be released pending their December 5th hearing for a new trial. They shouldn’t spend another moment in prison. To help, donate or just write a letter to the West Memphis Three, I strongly encourage you to visit www.wm3.org.
America’s founders got it right when they wrote the Bill of Rights, which guarantees our right to due process. This right has been denied these men for 17 years. Justice has been denied these men from day one. It should offend every one of us. The state of Arkansas should be ashamed of its behavior in this case. State Senator David Burnett should be in prison for his inexcusable conduct.
Brent Hatley, a Marine Corps veteran, is the executive producer of The Bubba the Love Sponge Show.