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Knowledge of our past is our inheritance. What we do with that knowledge will shape our destinies...

Monday, June 23, 2014

Crime Tidbit: The Case of the West Memphis Three

Do you know...about the 1993 West Memphis Murders?

It's really a fascinating--and of course tragic--case. I first heard about it when I read that Peter Jackson made a documentary called West of Memphis which lays out the case. 

The Facts: Three eight-year-old boys, Stevie Branch, Michael Moore and Christopher Byers, went missing. Their bodies were found the next day in a creek in Robin Hood woods, near their homes in West Memphis, Arkansas. The boys were nude, their ankles and wrists hogtied with their own shoe laces. 

Three teenage boys, Damian Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelly, were accused and eventually convicted of the crimes. 

Now, here's the thing. There was a plethora of sloppy police work in this case, and everyone in the court system seemed to have it out for these teenagers as well. There was a great deal of talk about the occult and how these may have been Satanic killings. 

These three teenage boys were not saints. They had problems that would make mainstream, christian society very suspicious of them. (Bear in mind West Memphis is right smack in the middle of the bible belt.) Damian was interested in the Wicken religion. He was also interested in drinking blood and was an admitted cutter.  Jessie Misskelly had a reputation for his temper and often got into fights at school. Jason Baldwin had a record for shoplifting and vandalism. And all three of them listened to the dreaded, "demonic," hard rock music. Obviously, they were kids with problems. But they just so happened to also be innocent of the murders.

Grave of Steve Branch, one of the victims. (Source)
After rather one-sided trials, in which the fact that there was absolutely no hard evidence to tie the boys to the bodies, the murder scene, or the crime, came to light, as well as the fact that the police had blundered several times, trampling evidence at the crime scene, not sending DNA samples of viable suspects to the lab and losing still others, the boys were all convicted on all counts.

They served eighteen years before being (semi-) exonerated and released. Echols, Baldwin and Miskelly entered into an Alford Plea in August 2011, which allowed them to be released.

Here are some other facts that came to light in the years the boys were serving time:

John Mark Byers, Christopher Byers' adoptive father, had a hunting knife he gifted to the camera man of a crew doing a documentary. The man later found blood on the knife and was instructed by HBO to return it to the police. With what technology was available then, and the small amount of the DNA sample, they couldn't determine for certain whether the blood belonged to Christopher, but it definitely could have. Also, there were bite marks on one of the victim's foreheads, which didn't match the dental records of any of the accused. John Mark Byers had all his teeth pulled shortly after the first trial. He gave inconsistent reasons as to both why there might have been blood on his knife and why he had his teeth removed.

Eventually, a DNA sample of Terry Hobbs (Stevie Branch's stepfather) was analyzed and found to match a hair that had been found in one of the boys' bindings. 

And the strangest aspect of the case: on the night the boys disappeared, at a restaurant a mile from where the bodies were found called Bojangles, a black man stumbled in. He was covered in mud, bleeding quite heavily, and seemed to be disoriented. He stumbled into the ladies' bathroom, leaving blood streaks all over the walls. The police were called, but by the time officers arrived, he was gone. The next day, police came and took samples from the walls of the bathroom. These were among the DNA samples lost by the police department. To this day, we have no idea who this "Mr. Bojangles" was or if he was tied to the case. However, a hair identified as belonging to an African American male was found in a sheet which was used to wrap one of the bodies.

I took an interest in this case because I rented and watched a fictionalized film called Devil's Knot about the case. I'll be reviewing the film on Wednesday, so stick around for that. Meanwhile, the case is an interesting and tragic one. While the innocent accused have finally been exonerated, the case of who actually killed the three boys is still open.

What do you think of this case? Who do you think did it? Someone named here, or someone else entirely, perhaps?

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