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"West Memphis Three" May Go Free

Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, Jr. and Jason Baldwin are known as the “West Memphis Three.” In 1994, two different juries found the three men, who were only teenagers at the time, guilty of murdering three eight-year-old boys (Stevie Branch, Michael Moore and Christopher Byers) in May 1993 in West Memphis. Echols got the death sentence, while Baldwin and Misskelley got life without parole.
Misskelley was the first of the “West Memphis three” to go to trial in 1994. He was only 17 at the time. The reason he was tried separately from the other two men is because he had confessed to the crime, and implicated Echols and Baldwin in a statement tape-recorded by police. Misskelley later retracted the statement but was convicted after prosecutors played it at his trial anyway. prosecutors wanted the death penalty for Misskelley, but jurors sentenced Misskelley to life in prison instead.
Echols and Baldwin went on trial immediately after Misskelley. Prosecutors wanted Misskelley to testify at their trial, but he refused, despite the district attorneys offering him a reduced sentence if he would say that he’d seen them kill the children. Echols and Baldwin have always maintained their innocence.
The case gained media attention after the teenagers’ arrests, when news was leaked that the boys committed the murders as part of a satanic ritual. A prosecution witness in the second trial was a self-proclaimed cult expert, who stated that the murders bore “trappings” of the occult. This testimony, combined with testimony about books Echols read and some of his writings, plus evidence that he and Baldwin liked heavy-metal music, and that a number of black t-shirts were found in Baldwin’s closet, helped to convict the two.
Prosecutors wanted jurors to sentence both the boys to death. Jurors gave the death penalty to Echols, who was the oldest of the three, at 18, and the accused mastermind of the plan. Baldwin, 16, was sentenced to life in prison. Shortly before the trial, prosecutors had offered not to seek the death penalty against Baldwin, if he would say he’d seen Echols kill the boys. Baldwin refused.
In 1996, the Arkansas Supreme Court unanimously affirmed all three convictions. Years of appeals followed, and evidence from the crime was subjected to scientific testing not available in the early ’90s. No physical evidence — at the trials or discovered since — has been linked to any of the three convicted. Recent tests, however, did establish that a hair found inside a knot used to bind one of the boys may have come from the stepfather of another of the victims. Additionally, a hair found in the bark of a tree near where the bodies were found was identified as probably belonging to a friend of that stepfather.

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