West Memphis 3: Free
Damien Echols, left, Jessie Misskelley, Jr., center, and Jason Baldwin sit at a table before a news conference at the Craighead County Court House in Jonesboro, Ark., Friday, Aug. 19, 2011, after the three were released after pleading guilty to the 1993 deaths of three West Memphis, Ark., children. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston)
The fates of the West Memphis 3 were sealed just one month after the three 8-year-old boys were found dead in the woods. In June 1993, there were arrests.
In custody were 17-year-old Jessie Misskelley, 16-year-old Jason Baldwin, and the alleged ringleader, 18-year-old Damien Echols.
Stevie Branch's mother, Pam, was consumed with anger.
Asked what he was feeling, Damien replied, "Anger. Fear. ...everything in the world just went wrong...and there's absolutely nothing you can do about it."
The police were confident they had the killers. The key evidence: a statement that Jessie Misskelley gave them. In it, he said he saw Damien and Damien's best friend, Jason, abuse the three boys in a devil worshipping ritual.
"Did you consider Jesse Misskelley a friend?" Moriarty asked in a jailhouse interview.
"To be honest, I didn't really think of him at all," he said. "He was just someone that was sort of on the fringes of mine and Jason's life."
"The best way to describe Mr. Misskelley's -- capabilities -- is he is operating at about the level of a 5-year-old child," said Dan Stidham.
Stidham, now a state judge, was Jessie Misskelley's lawyer. He says it was clear his client knew very little about occult rituals.
"He walked in one day and he hands me this book...on the cover, it had a picture of the devil and said, 'Dan, who is Satin?' ...Here's a kid who's supposed to have committed the very first ever satanic ritualistic homicide, yet he didn't know who Satan was."
At first, Jessie told the police he knew nothing. But after hours of pressure, he finally implicated Damien and Jason. "I saw Damien hit this one boy real bad. Then Jason hit Steve Branch," confessed Jessie.
And then, Jessie implicated himself by saying he chased down a boy who ran away.
"He thought he was helping by adding to the story, but he...turned himself from a witness to an accomplice," said Stidham.
A lot of what Jessie said was just wrong. For example, he first said the crime took place early in the morning, but the victims were at school all day. Nevertheless, all three teens were charged with murder. In January, 1994 -- eight months after the crime -- Jessie Misskelley was the first to go on trial.
Defense attorney Stidham attacked the police -- not only for the tactics they used on Jessie, but for the major mistake they made.
"On the night that the homicides occurred, someone had stumbled into a fast food restaurant, covered in mud and blood."
That night, the Bojangles' restaurant manager reported the bloody man to police.
But detectives waited until the next day to collect evidence. And then, they lost it.
"They had actually taken a blood sample. Never got to the crime lab," said Stidham.
Police never identified or found that potential suspect. But, at trial, their blunder was overshadowed by Jessie's own words.
Jurors heard the recorded parts of his statement:
Officer: Did you see any of the boys being killed?
Jessie: Yes, that one right there.
It was enough. Jessie was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
Less than three weeks later, Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin went on trial together.
"I had people standing out there screaming, telling me every morning when I went into court how I was going to die, how the state was going to fry me," Damien recalled.
Jessie Misskelley refused to testify against Damien and Jason. Prosecutors could not use his confession, because it would have violated the defendants' right to face their accuser.
But the two girls who were at that softball game that Damien attended testified that they overheard him admit to the murders.
"I don't remember saying that at the time because to me, it - I didn't actually do it. It would have been like a joke," he told Moriarty.
"Help me understand why you would think that's a joke back then."
"It's the person I was and it's the way I thought at that time in my life, and I - I can't make excuses for it."
There was no physical evidence to connect Damien and Jason to the crime, but the state had Dale Griffis, a self-professed satanic cult expert.
"This guy had a mail order mail order Ph.D," said Stidham.
During the trial, Griffis was asked, "Are you saying that this murder was held at an occult service?" His reply: "Yes."
There were no signs of any service - satanic or otherwise - at the scene. Still, Griffis noted that the moon was full and he offered an opinion about why the police didn't find much blood: "They will take it and store it. They will use it to bathe in. They will use it to drink."
But police didn't find any blood in Jason and Damien's homes.
"You can't believe that anybody's gonna take that kind of stuff seriously when you're going through it, but evidently they did," Damien says. "Dale Griffis was the gasoline that they threw on the fire."
Damien decided to take the stand.
"I behaved in ways that were very, very stupid," Damien admitted to Moriarty. "There were times when I was really inappropriate."
Unlike Damien, Jason Baldwin never took the stand. Prosecutors had tried to get him to testify against Damien in exchange for a 5-year sentence, but Jason refused.
"In essence, that would actually make me guilty of murder," he told Moriarty. "I'd be guilty of murdering Damien, 'cause that's what it woulda done. It would have put him on death row, an innocent person. And I'd have committed murder, right there in my heart. ... I can't even contemplate doin' something like that."
But even without testimony from Jason, both Damien and Jason were convicted of first-degree murder. Jason got life; Damien, believed to be the mastermind, got death.
"That was the absolute worst, absolute crushing despair," Damien told Moriarty. "And knowing that you didn't do what they sent you here for."
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