This story is the twenty-fourth in a series, Unrequited Innocence, that looks at cases where people were sentenced to die and have not been exonerated despite significant evidence of innocence.
The nude, bound and mutilated bodies of three eight-year-old Cub Scouts were found in a water-filled ditch in a forest near their West Memphis, Ark., homes, one day after they disappeared in May, 1993.
Police suspected the murders of Michael Moore, Christopher Byers and Steve Branch, all second-graders, were the work of a satanic cult.
Echols, an 18-year-old high school dropout who lived in a trailer park in nearby Marian, seemed a logical suspect because, as he would acknowledge, he had delved into the occult and was familiar with its practices. Echols and his friend Charles Jason Baldwin, 16, were questioned in the early days of the investigation, and police claim Echols said in an unrecorded conversation that he knew details of the murders.
But they only were arrested when police took Jessie Lloyd Misskelley Jr., 17, into questioning and, during 12 hours of questioning, he implicated Echols and Baldwin as well as himself.
Days after the arrests, the Commercial Appeal in Memphis published an account of Misskelley’s confession attributing the murders to a cult ritual and stating that he’d watched as Echols and Baldwin choked the boys until they fell unconscious, then raped one boy and sexually mutilated another.
Misskelley had a measured IQ of 72, and there were reasons to doubt his account. Misskelley asserted that the murders had occurred the morning of May 5, 1993, but neighbors saw the boys alive that evening. In his confession, Misskelley said the victims had skipped school that day, when in fact they had not. And he said the victims’ hands had been bound with brown rope, when their hands and feet had been hogtied with their black and white shoelaces. There was also no indication any of the victims had been raped.
Whatever the shortcomings of his confession, a jury found it persuasive and convicted Misskelley, who was tried first, of the first-degree murder of Michael Moore and the second-degree murder of Christopher Byers and Steve Branch. Though the prosecutors sought the death sentence, the jury recommended life in prison, after which the prosecutors proposed a potentially reduced sentence if he testified against Echols and Baldwin.
Misskelley did not take the bait, and later was quoted in a book crediting his father and stepmother with helping him understand that lying to help prosecutors convict his friends was “something I’d have to live with the rest of my life.”
The trial judge ruled that Misskelley’s confession was not proper for the jury to hear at the trial against Echols and Baldwin. But, the defense later noted, jury foreman Kent Arnold discussed it with other jurors in deliberations and termed it the “primary and deciding factor” in his concurrence in the guilty finding in the face of “scanty” and “extremely circumstantial” evidence.
The jury heard from a number of witnesses. Two girls claimed to have overheard Echols say he had killed the boys. The state medical examiner told the jury that a knife found in a lake behind Baldwin’s parents’ home could have been the murder weapon. A witness claimed to have seen Echols with a knife similar to the one that had been found. Two witnesses claimed to have seen Echols near the crime scene the night of the murders. A state criminalist claimed that fibers found on the victims’ clothing were microscopically similar to fibers recovered from Echols’ home. And a witness alleged that Echols and Baldwin were members of a cult.
Further, a former Ohio police officer named Dale Griffis, who held what the defense characterized as a mail-order Ph.D. degree from an unaccredited university, was permitted to testify as a prosecution expert that the crime bore the “trappings of occultism,” including that it had occurred under a full moon near a pagan holiday and that the number of victims and their ages – 3 and 8 – were significant in occultism and witchcraft.
Both Echols and Baldwin were found guilty, with Echols sentenced to death and Baldwin to life in prison without parole. The Arkansas Supreme Court ruled that Misskelley’s confession had been voluntary and upheld all three convictions, finding also that Echols’s conviction rested on “substantial evidence of [his] guilt.”
In 2004 the state Supreme Court granted Echols’s motion, and similar motions by Baldwin and Misskelley, for DNA testing of genetic evidence recovered from the victims and the crime scene. The testing eliminated all three youths as sources of recovered material and linked some of it to Steven Branch’s stepfather, Terry Hobbs, and a man named David Jacoby, who had been with Hobbs when the boys disappeared.
(Hobbs later sued Natalie Maines, a member of the Dixie Chicks band, for defamation for implicating him as a suspect, and Jacoby gave a deposition in that case on behalf of Hobbs. A federal judge dismissed Hobbs’ lawsuit.)
In 2010 the state Supreme Court ordered a state trial judge to determine whether the DNA evidence invalidated their convictions.
But before that hearing ever took place, the prosecutors offered all three defendants a deal: In return for not contesting their guilt, they would be immediately released. They took the deal, enabling them to walk free on Aug. 19, 2011, more than 18 years after their arrest.
“I am innocent, as are Jason and Jessie,” said Echols, “but I made this decision because I did not want to spend another day of my life behind those bars. I want to live and to continue to fight for our innocence.”