Echoes of Salem: The story of the West Memphis Three and killing of a trio of boys

west memphis three killed arkansas murder boys
Source: Police photos

Jul. 31 2021, Published 3:16 p.m. ET

Link to FacebookShare to TwitterShare to Email

To understand the story of the “West Memphis Three,” it's important to remember the cultural atmosphere that was prevalent throughout America in the mid-1990s. There was a sense of disconnect from society amongst many young people, with the counter-culture that produced grunge giving way to the metal of Rob Zombie, Korn, Marilyn Manson and Nine Inch Nails. Goths, punks and skaters were in the ascendency, and Middle America was horrified.

Article continues below advertisement

However, it wasn't just about the music with many embracing rebellious philosophies that were inherently offensive to the traditions of Christianity, respect and patriotism that have always defined small-town rural America. Generation X was seen as cynical slackers, beholden to social-tribal identity and influenced by the likes of MTV and the ever-growing internet.

In many respects, the reaction to these new youth movements was nothing new, with the metal bands of the 1970s and 80s having faced similar condemnation as "the Devil's music." Yet, the moral panic would culturally define the decade for many youths, lingering as the remnants of the "Satanic Panic" that led to many wrongful convictions a decade earlier.

From the murder of Shanda Sharer to the Columbine massacre, there was little that wasn't blamed on this new devilish culture.

Article continues below advertisement

Into this misunderstanding step Damien Echols, 18, Jessie Misskelley Jr., 17, and Jason Baldwin, 16. Echols and Baldwin were best friends and shared a profound distaste for Bible Belt life in West Memphis, Arkansas and were drawn toward the rebellion of metal music and associated books and movies.

Both knew Misskelley from school but were hardly considered friends, Misskelley having a reputation for violence.

Article continues below advertisement

Writing in his future memoir, "Life After Death," Echols would say, "Down here in the deep, dark South we know and live with the real world. Candy-Land idealism is quietly suffocated in the relentless humidity. This is the world where fist meets face. This is where the calluses on a man's hand are bigger than his conscience, and dreams get drowned in sweat and tears."

Both Echols and Misskelley had dropped out of high school, while Baldwin continued to achieve high grades, making the pair something of an odd couple, known for their involvement in petty crimes such as vandalism. Echols was generally seen as the dominant personality where Baldwin was concerned. While he remained immature, he was on an early road to adulthood as he worked part-time as a roofer and expecting a baby with his girlfriend, Domini Teer.

west memphis three killed arkansas murder boys
Source: Mega

Jessie Misskelley Jr

Article continues below advertisement

A popular perception is that in New York or Los Angeles, is the lifestyles of the West Memphis Three wouldn't have drawn comment, but in Arkansas, it was a different story. However, that isn't quite the truth. It is easy for many to look at the South as “hillbilly central,” full of prejudice and backward attitudes, with somewhat elitist attitudes often prevalent when discussing the case.

Yet, while Arkansas certainly has problems seen throughout the South, such as poor wages, West Memphis was then a city of 30,000 with a wide variety of cultures. There is a strong Christian identity, and crime is an issue, but the behavior of Echols, in particular, would have drawn comment everywhere.

Article continues below advertisement

Echols was from a poor background and struggled both with poverty and his mental health, having been institutionalized for several months after considering suicide. He suffered from "grandiose and persecutory delusions, auditory and visual hallucinations, disordered thought processes, substantial lack of insight, and chronic, incapacitating mood swings." At one point, he told locals he obtained superpowers from consuming human blood and was often seen to have sharpened his fingernails and drawn deliberately provocative tattoos on himself.

The story will be familiar to many working-class American youths, with Echols' poverty and mental health struggles disconnecting him from society, writing that "As I grew older I learned to be ashamed of being poor, too. It became humiliating, something I'd do everything I could to hide from the rest of the world. I developed an overwhelming sense of being excluded from everything. Everywhere you look, you see people with things that you do not have, and it has a profound mental effect. That's mostly during the teenage years."

Echols interest in the occult as an outlet led him to Wicca, and he was a reader of Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey and English occultist Aleister Crowley. He had an extensive collection of animal skulls, including dogs and cats and local rumors said that he had killed a dog, while no evidence was ever provided. Equally, it was widely known he threatened to kill his ex-girlfriend's father, yet those who had taken against him left out that this was through a fear that the father was going to assault his daughter.

Article continues below advertisement

Speaking about Echols to The New York Times in 1993, high school teacher Jim Ferguson said, "he's like some wacko cult member."

Yet, none of this makes a murderer, and Echols, like most readers of LaVey and Crowley, believed that their work had been unfairly maligned as evil, instead calling to libertarian freedom away from the confines of Christian morality. There is a vast difference between what most Satanists believe Satanism is and the popular perception of Satanism.

Echols, by most accounts, didn't even consider himself one.

Article continues below advertisement

How much of Echols reputation came down to his mental illness and how much teenage desire to shock is open to debate. They drew pentagrams, skulls, and snakes on art materials and surprised those at a football game by arriving dressed in black with black tears painted on their faces.

Yet, it is a giant leap toward murder. All three spent most of their days as any other mid-1990s teenagers - listening to rock music, watching pro wrestling on television, and either poking around under the hood of a car or simply hanging out and causing trouble.

On May 5, 1993, that trouble for Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley, seemed to have got indescribably more severe.

Article continues below advertisement

HORROR IN THE WOODS

Steve Edward Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore were all good kids. All three were second-grade pupils at Weaver Elementary School, with Branch being an honor student. Moore was the group leader and, like his best friends, a proud cub scout, wearing his uniform even when not at meetings. All three achieved the rank of "Wolf," and Moore had his blue Boy Scouts of America shirt and Boy Scout hat on as he ventured out on his bicycle. While they showed the bravado and sense of adventure associated with many scouts, they were still innocent, with Byers said by his mother to still "[believe] in the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus."

On May 5, 1993, Branch was at home with his mother, Pamela Hobbs, and shortly after the end of school, Moore rode over on his bike and asked if his friend could take a ride with him. His mother told him to be home by 4:45 p.m., and the two set off around 3:40 p.m. The friends rode over to Bobby Posey's house, where they learned Christopher had been whipped by his adoptive father, John Mark Byers, and planned to run away.

Soon after, witness, Narlene Hollingsworth, reported she saw three boys riding bikes, almost hitting one when he rode out in front of her car. However, her description of the boy she nearly hit was inconsistent with either Branch, Byers or Moore, and it was, in fact, a fourth boy by the name of George Taylor. Taylor's presence suggests that at 4:30 p.m., Branch and Moore had not yet found their friend Byers.

Article continues below advertisement

The three would be confirmed to be together between 5:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m., with the boys spotted headed toward Robin Hood Hills; Terry Hobbs, Branch's stepfather, calling out for them to return. When they didn't, the first phone call would be made to police not long afterward, John Mark Byers raising the alarm with police close to 8 p.m. The alert was assigned to Officer Regenia Meek, who filled out reports and, with Officer John Moore, did a brief search, but nothing more expansive.

Friends and family tried in vain to find the missing boys.

The following morning, May 6, a far more thorough search throughout West Memphis began, Crittenden County Search and Rescue personnel leading the effort, including the use of a helicopter. Meanwhile, at the Marion Police Department, Detective Don Bray was attempting to administer a polygraph test to Vicki Hutcheson, who had recently moved to the city.

Article continues below advertisement
west memphis three killed arkansas murder boys
Source: Mega

Jason Baldwin

Hutcheson was accused of settling from her employer and forced to bring her young son, Aaron Hutcheson, to the interview. Aaron was restless, and Bray was unable to properly administer the polygraph. However, during his time at the station, Aaron mentioned that his three friends had been killed at "the playhouse."

Article continues below advertisement

Back with the search, the main focus was Robin Hood Hills near where witnesses last saw the trio, and that morning Branch andMoore's bikes were found next to a pipe bridge that crossed the bayou. Increasingly alarmed, searchers saw a black shoe floating in a muddy creek that afternoon. A subsequent search quickly found the bodies of Branch, Byers and Moore.

All three boys were naked and hogtied using their shoelaces, each ankle tied with a wrist behind their backs. Their clothing was found tied to sticks implanted into the creek bed, with two pairs of underwear missing. The condition of the bodies led to the initial belief the three had been raped and then killed.

Article continues below advertisement

How the three died wasn't the same, with Moore and Branch being killed by multiple injuries and then drowning, with Byers dying of blood loss and not being drowned. The autopsy in full is harrowing reading, with Moore receiving 63 specific wounds, including ten skull fractures.

He tried to fight back and showed defensive injuries. Branch had 21 particular wounds, including a large gouge to the left side of his face, with Byers having 62 differing injuries.

Curiously, most of the injuries suffered by Byers were to the lower body, whereas the damage inflicted on Branch and Moore was primarily to the upper body. He showed several old scars from prior injuries. The varying wounds included unrecognized bites, and possible stab wounds to his groin and castration, with some putting this down to animal predation.

Article continues below advertisement

Medical examiners were split on whether the three boys died the night they went missing or the morning after, and the bite marks wouldn't even be noticed until photographs were examined years later.

Working at the crime scene, police made a series of errors that would significantly impede the case. All three bodies were immediately removed from the water before the coroner arrived, meaning that they were exposed to sunlight and insects before judgments could be made surrounding rigor mortis and the time of death. They allowed police and other workers to walk through the creek, trampling possible evidence such as footprints, and equally failed to drain the water quickly to preserve other evidence.

At the scene, Steve Jones, assistant juvenile probation officer, openly speculated that Echols was capable of the crime, saying, "it looks like Damien Echols finally killed someone."

Article continues below advertisement

THE SHADOW OF THE OCCULT

Police almost immediately turned their attention to Baldwin, Echols and Misskelley and suspected them of killing the boys. But, those were far from the only three suspects in the case.

Some believe the police immediately thought there was some level of occult involvement in the triple homicide, yet this isn't the case. There is no mention of Santic overtones or symbolism in the early written reports by police, nor correspondence with the FBI. No ritual paraphernalia or markings were found at the scene, and many in the police believed those responsible had been sexual predators or strangers from outside the town.

Article continues below advertisement

One individual on the police radar was convicted pedophile James K. Martin. Martin molested both of his stepchildren— a son and a daughter — over four years, serving just three years in the Colorado State Penitentiary. Police noted he knew at least one of the victims by name and was on vacation the week the murders took place. Undertaking a polygraph, Martin seemingly showed deception when asked, "Do you know what was used to tie up those three boys?" and "Do you know who killed those three boys?"

Explaining why the test may have indicated this, Martin suggested he believed "the father of Steve Branch killed the boys" and that he suspected shoelaces would have been used to tie up the victims, as "logic tells him that the killer would use something already there." The use of shoelaces had yet to be revealed to the public, yet Martin was eventually cleared of any involvement.

Meanwhile, patrons at the Blue Beacon, a truck wash close to the scene, all had their credit card receipts collected, and the first suspects brought in were transients, with information being sought about two "dirty-looking" hitchhikers. However, this approach was countered by other officers who believed firmly the occult must be involved at some level, looking immediately toward Damien Echols, who had built a reputation in the local community.

Article continues below advertisement

Jones, the assistant juvenile probation officer, was one of the chief voices pushing the line alongside his supervisor Jerry Blackwood Driver. Driver was the kind of individual who saw Satanism in every corner, blaming campfires, dead animal carcasses and pentagram graffiti on the dark arts.

Driver's comments surrounding the case raised troubling questions over his competence to serve, stating he believed Echols and his girlfriend intended to sacrifice their expectant child to Satan. He kept a calendar of the lunar cycle so he and Jones could patrol the county and check for covens. Both men were increasingly concerned about the potential for human sacrifices when it was a full moon.

Article continues below advertisement

How seriously anyone took the “Mulder and Scully” of West Memphis is uncertain, but they certainly took Echols seriously. They'd first come into contact almost precisely a year before Echols was arrested alongside his then-girlfriend Deanna Holcomb. Attempting to shelter from a storm, the two broke into a trailer and were charged with burglary and sexual misconduct.

Echols unwisely began to tell the fanatical Driver tall tales about local cults and animal sacrifices when Driver became his parole officer, telling him that he followed Wicca. It was likely the teenager was deliberately provoking Driver and exaggerating his lifestyle, leading the officer to become convinced that Echols was involved in a Satanic cult straight from a horror film.

The belief in a Satanic aspect to the crime was aided by Vicki Hutcheson and her son, when after discovering the bodies, Aaron claimed he'd witnessed the killings. The child claimed they were committed by Spanish-speaking Satanists. However, Aaron's story constantly changed, saying on one occasion he saw a victim bundled into a car by a Black man and on another stated that he witnessed the killings but didn't know who the killers were. He even said that he saw John Mark Byers assisting in the killings.

Article continues below advertisement
west memphis three killed arkansas murder boys
Source: Mega

Damien Echols

Subsequent interviews with Vicki Hutcheson were just as contradictory. She described a cult meeting involving Echols, Misskelley and about eight other youths. Another story claimed Aaron saw a mass of "The Dragons," an alleged coven with five members, spoke Spanish and sang about Satan. Despite claiming to know Echols well, she denied knowing his close friend Baldwin. On one occasion, she said she was with her son all day; on another that he left home around 4 p.m.

Article continues below advertisement

Despite the falsehoods in the testimony, Echols was pulled in for questioning two days after the bodies were discovered, denying any involvement. A polygraph indicated some level of deception in his statements to police, yet it should be noted that a heart condition may have affected the results.

A formal interview on May 9 led to further suspicion against the young man when he mentioned the damage to Byer's genitals, something seen as incriminating. Public opinion against him would only grow more robust when the testimony of Aaron Hutcheson was leaked to the press.

During the weeks that followed, law enforcement would only state that Echols was a source of information, not officially designating him a suspect despite looking at him more than anyone else. However, he was far from the only person of intense interest with two other teenagers, Chris Morgan and Brian Holland, attracting early interest.

Article continues below advertisement

Morgan and Holland left town on May 10 and headed to Oceanside in California, their departure shocking many who knew them. Morgan was an ice cream truck driver and would likely have been familiar with all three victims. Interested, police arrested both of them on May 17, placing them under a polygraph which indicated they were deceptive when denying involvement in the killings.

Both had histories of drug offenses, and Morgan claimed to police he suffered from memory loss and blackouts, stating he "might have" killed the three boys. He quickly retracted the statement, and police aren't believed to have considered them suspects any longer than the period of their arrest.

One of the few pieces of forensic evidence recovered at the scene was a hair belonging to a Black male found on a sheet that had been used to wrap one of the victims. The hair would tie in with a reported sighting of a "disoriented" man on the night of the boys' disappearance.

Article continues below advertisement

Workers at the Bojangles restaurant just a mile from the crime scene reported that at 8:42 p.m., a Black male had entered the premises and went into the women's bathroom. He was muddy, bleeding, and brushed against the walls, leaving behind blood stains and feces on the walls, stall, and floor. A roll of toilet paper was soaked through with blood. The police were called, but he had left by the time they arrived, and nobody from law enforcement entered the bathroom until the next day after the discovery of the bodies. Police detective Bryn Ridge would later testify he somehow lost the samples from Bojangles' wall.

While Morgan, Holland and "Mr. Bojangles" already seem to have more against them than Echols, the police were now focusing solely on the one angle and one suspect, getting Vicki Hutcheson to agree to have her home wired. Meeting with Echols, Hutcheson reported that nothing incriminating was said. The police contended the tapes couldn't confirm this, with interference masking conversations.

Article continues below advertisement

However, the day afterward, Hutcheson would tell police that she, Echols and Misskelley had all attended a Wicca meeting in Turrell, Arkansas, where Echols became drunk and started to loudly brag about having committed the killings of Branch, Byers and Moore. She was unable to say where this meeting was or who else was present. Equally, Wiccans reject their beliefs are a form of Satanism, with the movement being closer to Neo-Paganism and nature religions and almost exclusively pacifistic in nature.

Despite the continuing doubts over the testimony, police pulled in Misskelley on June 3 alongside two other alleged cult members, Ricky Climer and Alvis Bly. All three would be happy to talk, with Bly saying that Misskelley was the leader of a Satanic cult that also involved Baldwin, Echols, his girlfriend Domini Teer, and others — 20 in all. Climber only named Misskelley, Baldwin and Echols.

They wouldn't be alone, and witness after witness would state they had heard there was a Satanic cult in the area. Yet, few could give details. It was rumor and innuendo, overheard gossip and allegations. Residents talked of strange smells in the woods, painted children, and even alleged to have seen a baby sacrificed. As the rumors increased throughout the community, a Salem-like air descended as names continued to be associated with the alleged cult.

Article continues below advertisement

However, police thought they had their culprits and were willing to ignore Ricky Climer and Avis Bly's severe mental illnesses. Beyond his tales about Misskelley, Baldwin and Echols, Climber claimed to have beaten a police officer, hung a woman and sacrificed a second lady. Neither Climer nor Bly would be considered competent witnesses at the eventual trial.

Meanwhile, police questioned Misskelley alone, despite the suspect only having an IQ of 72. He was interrogated for 12 hours with only two segments running to 46 minutes being recorded, and although he was read his Miranda rights, he later said that he hadn't understood them. Stating that he was "scared of the police," Misskelley confessed to murder.

There are significant issues with the confession, with his claims not aligning with the autopsy and crime scene evidence, seemingly changing his story depending on who he was talking with. He failed to recognize where the crime scene actually was, mixed up the timeline and confused the victims. There were even witnesses who placed Misskelley at his trailer until 6:30 p.m., the time the boys went missing, with one revealing he picked him up to go wrestling around 7:30 p.m. This would give him no time to meet his Echols and Baldwin, get drunk as he claimed, and then kill three children in an extended attack in the woods.

Article continues below advertisement

However, Misskelley wouldn't only confess in that police interview room. He admitted the crime on June 3, June 11 and Aug. 19 and implicated others. Despite the alarming inconsistencies and recanting his confession, saying that he was fatigued, threatened and intimidated, police quickly arrested Echols and Baldwin.

A FIGHT FOR JUSTICE

Misskelley's confession couldn't be utilized if he had stood trial alongside Echols and Baldwin under what is known as the Bruton rule stemming from Bruton v. United States. The Supreme Court ruled that a defendant would be deprived of his rights if a confession was introduced in a joint trial under the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment, stating that "in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right…to be confronted with the witnesses against him." Therefore, Misskelley had to be tried alone.

Article continues below advertisement

Entering a plea of not guilty, Richard Ofshe testified that Misskelley's confession had been a "classic example" of police coercion. Serving as professor emeritus of sociology at the University of California, it was expert testimony. Yet Misskelley kept talking, confessing again on Feb. 4.

A prime example of the issues with the confession was that Misskelley was giving false information that was believed accurate by police at the time, stating that he saw Echols and Baldwin go into the woods with the three boys and rape them. While police initially suspected rape, there was no evidence for it. Misskelley was found guilty of one count of first-degree murder and two counts of second-degree murder. He was sentenced to life plus 40 years.

On Feb. 8, Misskelley claimed he had been drunk at the time of the killings and was drinking Evan Williams whiskey, claiming that he had thrown a bottle away under a bridge in West Memphis, swearing on the Bible as to the truth of his latest claims. Investigators found the bottle exactly where he said it would be. However, once again, Misskelley claimed Baldwin pulled out a knife, despite the evidence presented by experts that no knife had ever been used. He also initially claimed Echols had choked one victim until he was told that none of the boys had been strangled. He again repeated the incorrect police suspicion that Echols had sexually violated one of the boys, claiming this time his friend had ejaculated on the victim's trousers. No semen was found at the scene, and there was no evidence of molestation.

Article continues below advertisement

Tape recorded, Misskelley would claim that "When the boys came up, Damien grabbed one of them, I don't know which one and the other two tried to get Damien to stop, and then me and Jason come out and started grabbing them, started hitting them." Adding, "Then, uh, Jason pulled out a knife. He took one of them – I don't know which one – cut him on – I think it was on this side of his face."

Nine days later, Misskelley would confess again. Talking with police and his lawyer present in the room, he would ignore advice from his counsel to remain silent and detailed how the West Memphis Three had abused and murdered the victims. It was just days before the trial of Echols and Baldwin.

west memphis three killed arkansas murder boys
Source: MEGA
Article continues below advertisement

While his repeated confessions may seem incriminating, Lawyer Dan Stidman would say in a 1999 letter to the court that "Absolutely nothing Misskelley told the officers or prosecutors would ever be admissible against him. Prosecutors would only give up harassing Misskelley for his testimony when I threatened to hold a press conference and disclose their efforts to entice his testimony." Adding that his client was "a mentally handicapped person who is quite suggestible. It doesn't take much effort to get him to say or do anything at all."

At the trial, the prosecution continued the claims of Satanic overtones, calling Dale W. Griffis of the unaccredited Columbia Pacific University distance learning school as an "expert" witness to affirm the killings were definitely occult related. Despite the defense stating that Echols' statements on Byers genitals and the boys being drowned could have been public knowledge locally, particularly considering known leaks had been made, both Echols and Baldwin were found guilty on three counts of murder. Baldwin got life behind bars, and Echols was sentenced to death by lethal injection.

During the trial, Echols blew kisses to the victim's family, a sign taken by many as a sure sign of guilt. In contrast, others contend he remained severely mentally ill and an immature teenager.

Article continues below advertisement

WERE THEY GUILTY?

All three appealed the convictions. New evidence immediately began to come to light that cast even further doubts on the already shaky judgment and presented new and surprising suspects.

Starting in the weeks that followed the killings, documentary filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky began to investigate the circumstances surrounding the case for their film "Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills," airing in June 1996 on HBO. The documentary was filmed on 79 days over ten months up to the point of the West Memphis Three's conviction.

During the filming, cameraman Doug Cooper would be given a folding hunting knife by John Mark Byers, Christopher Byers' stepfather. The blade had blood on the hinge, and HBO ordered Berlinger and Sinofsky to hand the knife to West Memphis police. Byers claimed the knife had never even been used, changing his story to say he'd used it to cut deer meat after the presence of blood was found. Whose blood was on the knife was uncertain as it matched both Byers and the victim, both having the same HLA-DQα genotype.

Article continues below advertisement

Standing 6-feet-5-inches tall and weighing 238 pounds, Byers was an imposing and threatening presence. A self-identified white supremacist and freemason, his personality and affiliations led many to suspect that he was the kind of man who may have been involved in the killings. The Brotherhood group he identified himself as being associated with had committed multiple homicides. Meanwhile, Byers himself had a long history of drug use and violent criminal behavior, including domestic violence and threats to kill.

Suspicion toward John Mark Byers would only increase when the bite marks on Steve Branch's forehead were discovered. Never mentioned in the autopsy or at either trial, they didn't match for Echols, Misskelley or Baldwin. In 1997 Byers had all his teeth removed, claiming both that medication he was taking caused gum disease and he'd planned to remove them as he had suffered dental problems for years.

In 2000, Berlinger and Sinofsky would produce "Paradise Lost 2: Revelations," a sequel to their 1996 film. The new documentary focused on the bite marks, with the prosecution arguing that the marking seen on Christopher Byers' face in photographs is from a belt buckle and not teeth. The elder Byers admitted he whipped Christopher with a belt shortly before he went missing. Neighbors would recall that the abuse suffered by the boy was horrific, describing the whippings as a regular occurrence.

Article continues below advertisement

Byers submitted dental records that showed the marks on the body didn't match his original teeth and subsequently passed a polygraph during the documentary's filming. While he was on medication that may have affected the outcome, including Xanax, it seems that his suspected involvement in the killings was a complete dead end.

west memphis three killed arkansas murder boys
Source: Oxygen
Article continues below advertisement

Despite suspicion eventually falling away from Byers, Jason Baldwin praised the "Paradise Lost" documentaries as essential to their case, telling the "National Podcast of Texas" in 2019 that "The documentary saved my life, saved Damien's life, and saved Jessie's life. The state of Arkansas was hoping to do like they do in so many other cases with poor people, with people who are powerless to defend themselves. They wanted to overwhelm us, convict us, condemn us and sweep us under the rug."

Efforts to release the West Memphis Three would be aided in 2003 when Vicki Hutcheson ultimately recanted her testimony, telling the "Arkansas Times" that everything she told police was a lie. According to her new story, police had threatened to take her child if she didn't "cooperate." During one visit to the station, officers used photographs of Echols, Misskelley and Baldwin for dart practice, having made their minds up about their guilt long before their arrests.

Article continues below advertisement

With John Mark Byers ruled out, revelations in 2007 would point in a new direction equally close to home. Advances in DNA testing allowed forensics to be utilized on hairs found at the scene, with none again matching for the three imprisoned men. However, a hair "not inconsistent with" Steve Branch's stepfather, Terry Hobbs, was found, and crucially it was tied into the knots of the bindings that had hogtied one of the children. A second hair found at the scene was consistent with his friend, David Jacoby.

Quoted by WMC-TV in 2013, Jacoby said, "They said close to the crime scene because at one time I did walk near where they had found the kids with Terry Hobbs, his father-in-law, his wife," adding. "But I didn't wear hats back then; my hair could have blown around anywhere."

It wouldn't be the only evidence that linked Hobbs to the murders, with his wife Pamela finding a knife that her son had carried with him in her husband's nightstand. Steve had taken this knife everywhere and was never without it, with Pamela believing the killer had stolen it when it wasn't found at the scene. Equally, Pamela's sister Jo Lynn McCaughey saw Hobbs washing clothes, bed linens, and curtains from Steve's room around the time of the killings.

Article continues below advertisement

Like John Mark Byers, Hobbs was a wifebeater. On one occasion after the killings at Robin Hood Hills, he had beaten Pamela so severely that she told the family that she thought her jaw was broken, prompting them to drive to the Hobbs home to confront him. Hobbs retrieved a .357 magnum pistol from his truck and shot Jackie Hicks, Pamela Hobbs' brother.

West Memphis police brought Terry Hobbs in for questioning in June 2007, and coverage soon led to a widespread examination of the original verdict, with Hobbs even telling police that some of his relatives suspected him in the killings. One of those people would be Pamela Hobbs.

Pamela Hobbs gave numerous interviews to the press where she spoke about the knife, the DNA, and the events of May 5 and 6, 1994. She would state that her son had strangely said "I love you, mom" repeatedly on the way home from school on the day he vanished. She also revealed Terry hadn't informed her that her son was missing until she finished work, having significant concerns over his whereabouts on those days.

Article continues below advertisement

Writing under penalty of perjury to the United States District Court, Eastern District of Arkansas, Pamela would say that he ex-husband kept dentures in a lock-box. She also revealed that her ex-husband had once asked her sister point-blank if she suspected him in the killings. After being told that she was questioning his involvement, Hobbs is alleged to have replied, "I could skin a man alive, I could cut him up."

With the new evidence in hand alongside expert testimony that suggested the knife wounds and mutilation had been animal predation, Echols petitioned for a retrial. Judge David Burnett, the original trial judge, disallowed the presentation of the new information in his court in 2008, citing the DNA tests as inconclusive. However, the matter was sent to appeal, and Burnett was elected to the Arkansas State Senate, with his replacement being David Laser.

Before the case could again reach the courts, Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley were allowed to enter Alford plea deals. The deal is a plea whereby a defendant maintains their innocence but recognizes that the evidence presented would be enough to convict them. Judge Laser vacated all previous convictions and ordered a new trial where the West Memphis Three would be allowed to make the plea, sentencing them to time served.

Article continues below advertisement

For the state, the Alford pleas were a face-saving exercise. They still had the convictions, but the men would be free. With the evidence mounting that all three accused had been innocent, the deal ensured that Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley would never be allowed to pursue civil action against the state of Arkansas for wrongful imprisonment.

The deals disappointed both those who still believed the three guilty and their supporters, with many feeling the bargain made them look guilty. Baldwin would later say that he had been resistant to the plea as a matter of principle, but turning it down would have kept Echols on death row. They were released on Aug. 19, 2011.

"I am innocent, as are Jason and Jessie, but I made this decision because I did not want to spend another day of my life behind those bars," Echols told the "Arkansas Times." "I want to live and to continue to fight for our innocence. Sometimes justice is neither pretty, nor is it perfect, but it was important to take this opportunity to be free."

Article continues below advertisement

Since his release, Echols has forged a career in the arts, moving to the infamous Salem, Massachusetts and publishing a memoir, "Almost Home: My Life Story Vol. 1." He has devoted himself to writing, music and art. Baldwin meanwhile has ambitions to become a lawyer and began work for a construction company, with Misskelley getting engaged to his high school girlfriend and training as a mechanic.

While Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley may have begun to rebuild their lives, there is still no solace or closure for the families of Steve Branch, Christopher Byers, and Michael Moore. Opinion remains divided on whether the right men were convicted or if the actual killers still walk the streets of West Memphis.

Christopher Byers' father, Rick Murray, was one of the early voices to speak out against the West Memphis Three's convictions, with Pamela Hobbs perhaps becoming the most vocal. Initially a suspect himself amongst some people, John Mark Byers added his voice to those doubts before being killed in a car crash last year. Terry Hobbs, meanwhile, still believes in the guilt of the West Memphis Three, telling Memphis ABC affiliate WATN in 2019 that "I still believe in my heart that Jessie, Jason, and Damion Echols are responsible for what happened to our children."

Article continues below advertisement

However, it wouldn't only be many of the victims' families who were dissatisfied, with former FBI criminal profiler John E. Douglas saying the killings were likely the work of one individual whose intent was to degrade the victims. They would have been local and have a violent history, be familiar with the victims, and were engaging in a personal cause when they killed the boys.

Whether justice has been done in the case of the West Memphis Three depends on entirely who you ask. The truth is, the ongoing debate over whether Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley were guilty has often clouded the undoubted fact that justice remains elusive for the other West Memphis Three, Steve Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore.

No matter who committed those terrible crimes at Robin Hood Hills, they still walk free 28 years later, and until the culprits are found, the case is far from over. With continuing advances in DNA testing, that day may finally be around the corner.

Advertisement
More Stories

© Copyright 2021 Empire Media Group, Inc. Front Page Detectives is a registered trademark. All Rights Reserved. People may receive compensation for some links to products and services on this website. Offers may be subject to change without notice.