Wednesday, September 8, 2010
The West Memphis 3: Injustice 4 All (Part 1)
New evidence has surfaced in the West Memphis Three murders that have caused a public resurgence of the case. Led by Pearl Jam’s, Eddie Vedder, actor, Johnny Depp, and Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks; the public outcry to overrule the 1994 convictions of three teens for the murder of three second-graders has reached a fevered pitch, and a new hearing on the case is scheduled for September 30, 2010. But if the three were not the killers then who was? Moreover, should they have even been convicted in the first place or were they railroaded by a corrupt and unjust group of individuals?
On May 5, 1993, West Memphis, Arkansas, was left in shock by just about the worst type of crime that could ever be committed. It was the day when three eight-year-old boys [Christopher Byers, Michael Moore, and Steve Branch] were brutally murdered. Their bodies were later discovered in the woods of Robin Hood Hills badly beaten; with Byers found with his testicles removed and the skin on his penis carved-away. During a completely botched investigation and pressure from the community to apprehend the perpetrator(s), police announced on June 3, 1993, that they had arrested three suspects: Damien Echols , Jason Baldwin , and Jessie Misskelley . The three boys were typical heavy-metal, problem children who appeared to be dead-ringers for the murders. The alleged killers were dubbed “The West Memphis Three” (WM3), and the town quickly went into an uproar, calling for the boys’ heads; and a modern day witch trial followed.
The arrest, and the entire case for that matter, rested primarily on the coerced confession from Jessie Misskelley. With a 72 IQ—bordering on mental retardation—police interrogated Misskelley for 12 hours, recording only the last 45 minutes. During the ‘confession,’ Misskelley said that Echols beat the kids, had sex with them, and then killed them. Misskelley said that one victim, Steven Branch, began to run away, so he ran after him and brought him back to the scene in the woods and then left. Police accepted the confession, although Misskelley’s statement was filled with contradictions. For instance, Misskelley claimed that this happened at 12 noon, although the victims were in school until about 4p.m. Also, there were no signs of sexual abuse, according to the medical examiner. Dr. Richard Ofshe, a Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, and an expert witnesses for Misskelley’s defense, testified that the brief recording was a “classic example” of police coercion. Ofshe has described Misskelley’s statement saying, “[It is] the stupidest fucking confession I’ve ever seen.”
The evidence against the WM3 included:
• Jessie’s confession (June 3, 1993)
• A fiber found on Steven Branch’s shirt that matched a fiber from Jason Baldwin’s mother (secondary transfer)
• A couple of fibers from a shirt found at Damien Echols house (one on Michael’s cub scout cap and one on his shirt)
• The Hollingsworth Clan told police that they witnessed Damien on the Service Road near the crime scene
• Two girls (Christy VanVickle & Jodee Medford) claimed that they overheard Echols say at a kids softball game that he had killed the boys and that he was going to kill two more before he turned himself in
• Michael Ray Carson, who was in the Craighead County Juvenile Detention Center (for burglary) with Jason Baldwin, claimed that Jason told him that they killed the boys and ate their testicles
• Serrated knife found in the lake behind Jason Baldwin’s home
The evidence against the WM3 has always been in question. The most decisive evidence-violation in the trial was the jury’s use of Jessie Misskelley’s confession. Misskelley refused to testify at the Echols/Baldwin trial and his confession was ruled inadmissible by the judge. However, jury foreman, Kent Arnold, admitted that he was trying to convince other jurors to convict based upon news reports of the confession. Not only is this considered hearsay-evidence, but it clearly indicates jury-misconduct, and this alone should warrant a mistrial, and Arnold should’ve been held in contempt of court. In regard to the fiber evidence, specialists claimed that none of the fibers found could be attributed to Echols or Baldwin to the exclusion of all others. In essence meaning, authorities could not give a definitive answer whether those fibers came from Echols or Baldwin.
Danny Williams had been a counselor at the Craighead County Juvenile Detention Center at the same time that Jason Baldwin and Michael Ray Carson had been there. Williams told Baldwin’s defense that several months prior to the trial, Carson was one of the boys that he had been counseling. Williams said that during one conversation he had informed Carson of the details of the murder. Williams claimed that Carson—who was a medically-diagnosed LSD addict—was lying and the only reason that he had this information about Baldwin was because he himself informed Carson of the details. Councilor Williams also informed the prosecution of this story, yet they still used Carson as a witness. The presiding judge, David Burnett, ruled that this information was a violation of Carson’s right to patient-counselor confidentiality and did not allow the jury to hear Mr. Williams’ testimony.
In December 1993, John Mark Byers (stepfather of victim Christopher Byers) gave the makers of the film Paradise Lost a used hunting knife as a Christmas gift. The knife appeared to have dried blood on it, so they handed it over to police on 8 January 1994 (folding-lockable Kershaw knife – exhibit # E6). DNA expert for the prosecution, Michael DeGuglielmo, testified that the blood on the knife was the same type as Mark and Chris Byers. Since they both had the same DNA type, the test was inconclusive. Forensic pathologist, Dr. Frank Peretti, testified that some of the wounds found on Chris Byers were consistent with Byers’ knife. Private investigator for Damien’s defense team, Ron Lax, was told by Mr. Byers that no one had ever been cut with that particular knife.
On 26 January 1994, WMPD inspector, Gary Gitchell, asked Mr. Byers during a taped conversation if he had ever taken the knife hunting. Mr. Byers answered, “No,” claiming that “the knife had not been used at all; it has just been in my dresser.” During that same recorded conversation, Mr. Byers also stated, “I have no idea how it could have any blood on it…I don’t ever remember nicking myself with it.”
However, during the trial Mr. Byers testified that he did not remember telling the inspector this, and his new claim was that he had used the knife around Thanksgiving to cut venison. Moreover, Mr. Byers told the court that he had “cut his thumb with the knife.” Conveniently for the prosecution, the blood evidence has since been destroyed, preventing any further analysis.
During the trial, Christy VanVickle testified that she did not remember how close or how far away that she was from Damien Echols when he admitted to the murders, nor whether he had said it softly or loudly. After the convictions, a sworn affidavit from Jodee Medford’s mother (of one of two girls who testified that she overheard Echols admit to the crime at a softball game) now says that Echols’ statement was not serious and that neither she nor her daughter believes he committed the crime.
Jason Misskelley was tried first in a separate trial. He was convicted and received a life sentence plus 40 years. In the next trial, Jason Baldwin was sentenced to life in prison without parole, and Damien Echols is on Death Row, sentenced to die by lethal injection. Despite week evidence, the 24 jurors convicted all three men “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
In spite of powerful new evidence presented in Craighead County Circuit Court, Judge David Burnett refused to grant Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley a new trial. The Arkansas Supreme Court is currently reviewing the new DNA and forensic evidence as well as juror misconduct to determine whether to grant Damien Echols a new trial.
Stay tuned for PART 2…
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