AMU Law Enforcement Legal Studies Original Public Safety

Controversial Ruling in West Memphis Three Case

By Jennifer Bucholtz
Faculty Member, Criminal Justice and Forensic Science 

On June 23, 2022, a highly anticipated court hearing occurred in the “West Memphis Three” case. A county Circuit Court judge handed down a ruling that was unexpected to most in attendance and which could have far-reaching effects for other criminal defendants and wrongly convicted persons.

Background on the West Memphis Three Case

In 1993, three eight-year-old boys went missing and were later found murdered in the town of West Memphis, Arkansas. On the afternoon of May 5, 1993, Stevie Branch, Michael Moore, and Christopher Byers hopped on their bikes to ride around their neighborhood, a common after-school activity for the three friends. They never returned home and were reported missing around 7 p.m. that evening. Searches commenced immediately and continued the following morning.

Early the next afternoon, the three boys’ lifeless bodies were found in a nearby creek. The boys had been stripped of their clothing and were found with ligatures tying each boy’s right hand to their right foot and their left hand to their left foot. The killer had removed the shoelaces from the sneakers of each child and used them to bind the boys’ limbs.

The forensic pathologist who conducted the autopsies discovered multiple injuries to all three boys and noted that Moore and Branch also succumbed to drowning. Investigators initially suspected the boys had been raped, but experts at trial testified that sexual assault was unlikely. Byers had also been subjected to several knife wounds and his penis had been de-gloved. There is still argument as to whether the damage to the genital area was caused by the killer or if postmortem animal predation was responsible.

Three Teens are Arrested and Convicted

Over the course of the months after the murders, investigators with the West Memphis Police Department narrowed their focus of suspects to three teenagers, Damian Echols (18), Jessie Misskelley (17), and Jason Baldwin (16). Echols reportedly had an interest in occultism which fell in line with one police theory that the eight-year-olds had been killed as part of a cult ritual. Echols had also been in trouble with the law for petty crimes, such as vandalism and shoplifting.

Misskelley had an IQ of 72 at the time, which constitutes borderline intellectual functioning, and he was a minor. Despite this, he was questioned by police for many hours without his parents or a lawyer and eventually confessed. Although he quickly recanted his confession, police ignored this and used the confession, in part, to obtain an arrest warrant.

A local resident, Vicki Hutcheson, claimed to police that she’d been at an Esbat (witches gathering) with Echols and Misskelley a couple weeks after the murders and overheard them discussing the crime. She, too, later recanted her account and said she’d made false statements as a result of being coerced by police.

Hutcheson’s son, Aaron, further exacerbated the suspicion upon Echols, Misskelley, and Baldwin as he was a friend of the three murder victims and told police he’d witnessed the murders and heard the crimes had been perpetrated by Satanists. Aaron’s statements were consistently contradictory, and he never could identify any of the three teenagers in a line-up but police leaked portions of his claims to the press anyway.

Echols, Misskelley, and Baldwin were all arrested in June 1993 and stood trial the following year. Each was charged with three counts of capital murder. All three were ultimately convicted of each count. Misskelley was handed a sentence of life in prison plus 40 years; Baldwin was sentenced to life; and Echols was sent to death row.

Appeals Through the Years

All three defendants immediately appealed their convictions, but those convictions were upheld by the court and all three remained in prison.

In 2007, the court approved a motion for DNA testing of evidence found at the crime scene. Ultimately, none of the DNA results matched Echols, Misskelley, or Baldwin. Despite this, the state of Arkansas continued to stand by the convictions. In various hearings between 2007 and 2011, several pertinent legal issues were presented to the court including the DNA findings, jury misconduct, and ineffective assistance of counsel.

West Memphis Three
(L to R): Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley and Jason Baldwin at a 2011 court hearing just prior to the men’s release from prison. Image credit and permission from George Jared.

Finally, in 2011, a plea deal was offered by the state and accepted by the now convicted felons. In exchange for them agreeing to an Alford plea (a guilty plea in which the defendant maintains their innocence but agrees the prosecution could achieve a guilty verdict by jury if the case went to court), they were released from prison after the judge sentenced them anew to 18 years and 78 days, which equated to the amount of time that each man had already served.  The Alford plea deal also prevented any of the men from bringing charges against the state for wrongful conviction.

The West Memphis Three Moniker

The years of incarceration and subsequent appeals endured by Echols, Misskelley, and Baldwin caught the attention of media outlets and celebrities around the world. Hollywood and music stars, such as Johnny Depp and the Dixie Chicks took great interest in the Alford Plea proceedings. The “West Memphis Three” became a household moniker and is still well-known today. The case has been featured in several documentaries, podcast episodes, and across every other media platform.

Efforts to Obtain Additional DNA Testing

In recent years, Echols, his defense team and widespread group of supporters, has led the charge to obtain new testing of the crime scene evidence with cutting-edge DNA technology. Initially, the West Memphis Police Department claimed the evidence had been lost. In December 2021, it was discovered this was a false claim, as the evidence was found intact in the department’s evidence room.

Echols petitioned the court for new testing in an effort to clear himself and his two co-defendants. He was finally awarded a court hearing on June 23, 2022. The judge would decide whether to permit retesting of the evidence.

My investigative partner, George Jared, is a long-time investigative journalist, and has written more articles on the case than any other media member. He also penned a book dedicated to the case, called “Witches in West Memphis.” Jared, along with Bob Ruff, host of the Truth and Justice podcast, and Jim Clemente, retired FBI profiler, joined together and gave an hour-long presentation on the West Memphis Three case at CrimeCon 2022. They are all subject matter experts on the case.

Reflections on the June 23 Hearing

Jared and Ruff were in attendance at the courthouse the morning of the hearing. Aside from Echols and Baldwin and their defense teams and family members, Jared and Ruff were at the front of the line to gain access to the courtroom. They have both known Echols for years and dined with him the night before. Unfortunately, Jared and Ruff were denied entry and had to wait outside, along with scores of other supporters.

The hearing was short-lived. Judge Tonya Alexander ruled that she would not permit further DNA testing of the evidence. In her reasoning, she cited a state law that requires persons petitioning for new DNA testing to be incarcerated. Because all three men have been released from prison, additional testing is not allowed under the law.

Jared noted that the police presence outside the courthouse was indicative of the type of planning a department would conduct in anticipation of a protest. Knowing now that the judge ruled against further DNA testing, it appears she had decided upon her ruling prior to the hearing and gave local law enforcement a warning.

I reached out to Jared and Ruff for their thoughts and reflections. “My brain is still swimming,” Jared told me. “Where’s the humanity in our justice system? Three young boys were murdered and three slightly older boys were wrongfully convicted despite obvious false confessions and widespread mishandling of the case. All six of these people are victims. They, their families, and the community deserve to know the truth of what happened, no matter what some technical aspect of the law states. There’s someone still walking around who is a child predator and murderer.”

Ruff was dismayed as well. “Supporters were not allowed in the courtroom, and if they wanted to stay, they were forced to stand outside in the blazing heat. The judge ordered the officers on scene to make people leave the premises if they got into their cars to cool off.”

Ruff continued, “To me, it seemed as though this entire hearing was intended to do nothing but dissuade supporters,” he said. “We were made to believe this was our chance to finally argue for truth and justice. In reality, the judge’s mind was already made up, and she never had any intention of hearing arguments. This should have been a summary judgement, rather than waste everyone’s time and hope. What we witnessed today was an attack on justice. After 29 years, the state still thinks they can scare us away. They have no idea who they’re messing with. As Admiral Yamamoto once said, “All we have done is awaken a sleeping giant.’”

Following the hearing, Damien Echols expressed his frustration on Twitter.

Implications of the Ruling

Echols’ defense team stated they plan to appeal Judge Alexander’s ruling. Although Judge Alexander is following state law in her decision, the law does not support the ultimate goal of the justice system: seeking and uncovering the truth about a crime.

I recently interviewed one of our country’s leading experts in DNA extraction, Francine Bardole. She provided me detailed insight on the use of M-VAC and her own patented extraction methodology, named the Bardole Method. Either of these new technologies could be utilized on the evidence from the West Memphis Three case. Both have been used in countless criminal cases and held up in court.

[Podcast: Break the Case: Advancements in DNA Could Help Solve Debbie Williamson’s Case]

In preparation for the June 23 hearing, George Jared interviewed Jared Bradley, President of the M-Vac DNA Systems. Bradley explained how his technology is directly applicable to finding the truth behind the murder of the three 8-year-old boys in West Memphis.

In speaking with George Jared about the elements of the crime he opined to me, “I think the killer utilized the ligatures not to subdue and control the boys, but to more easily transport their bodies to where they were found.” No matter what the purpose of the bindings were, the killer was the last person to touch them and surely left touch DNA on the shoelaces. That touch DNA is likely still present on the shoelaces and can be extracted by a forensic expert and matched to the killer – and could lead to the arrest and conviction of a dangerous predator – clearing Echols, Misskelley and Baldwin of any wrongdoing.

Unfortunately, with the state of Arkansas refusing to provide an exception to their law, these answers will not be uncovered any time soon. The judge’s ruling also sets a dangerous precedence for future cases in which wrongly convicted persons seek the legal reversal of false convictions. The pursuit of answers in unsolved homicides should rank highest when considering the totality of circumstances surrounding a case in which someone was wrongly convicted.

The person(s) who murdered Stevie Branch, Michael Moore, and Christopher Byers must be sought out and identified, at all costs. Otherwise, a child killer faces no consequences and is free to kill again. The community remains in danger, innocent persons are forced to carry an undue lifelong burden, and justice remains unserved.

Jennifer Bucholtz is a former U.S. Army Counterintelligence Agent and a decorated veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. She holds a bachelor of science in criminal justice, a master of arts in criminal justice and a master of science in forensic sciences. Bucholtz has an extensive background in U.S. military and Department of Defense counterintelligence operations. Bucholtz has also worked for the Arizona Department of Corrections and Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in New York City. She is currently an adjunct faculty member and teaches courses in criminal justice and forensic sciences. Additionally, she is a sworn civilian investigator for the El Paso County Sheriff’s Department and host of AMU’s investigative podcast Break the Case. You can contact her at Jennifer.Bucholtz@mycampus.apus.edu.

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