Johnny Depp: Free The West Memphis Three

Actor Tells "48 Hours" He's Convinced of Innocence of Trio Many Say Were Wrongly Convicted of 1993 Murders

On June 6, 1993, just one month after the three 8-year-old boys were found dead in the woods, 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.

Damien says he was angry and scared. "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 asks Damien.

"To be honest, I didn't really think of him at all," he replies. "He was just someone that was sort of on the fringes of mine and Jason's life."

Dan Stidham, now a state judge, was Jessie Misskelley's lawyer.

"The best way to describe Mr. Misskelley's capabilities is he is operating at about the level of a 5-year-old child," says Stidham.

He says it was clear his client knew very little about occult rituals.

"[Jessie] walked in one day and he hands me this book. On the cover, it had a picture of the devil and [he] said, 'Dan, who is Satin.' Satin," Stidham recalls. "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, Jessie finally implicated Damien and Jason, saying, "I saw Damien hit this one boy real bad. Then Jason hit Steve Branch."

Then, Jessie implicated himself by saying he chased down a boy who ran away.
"He thought he was helping by adding to the story," says Stidham, "but he turned himself from a witness to an accomplice."

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," he tells Moriarty.

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," says Stidham.

Police never identified or found that potential suspect. 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 recalls.

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 says.

"Help me understand why you would think that's a joke back then," says Moriarty.

"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."

The state also introduced a knife found in the lake behind Jason Baldwin's home. Nothing connected that knife to the crime or the defendants.

But the state pathologist testified that some of the wounds could have been made with a knife like it.

More disturbing, the pathologist said one boy was sexually mutilated. That fit with the state's belief that the crime was occult related.

Witness Dale Griffis claimed to be an expert on the occult.

"This guy had a mail order mail order Ph.D," says 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 - occult 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 took the stand at his trial and was asked, "Have you ever participated in any human sacrifice?" His reply: "No, I have not. I'm not a Satanist. I don't believe in human sacrifices or anything like that."

Chris' father, Mark Byers, watched as Damien explained himself. Byers described Damien's demeanor at trial as "arrogant… like a big game to him, kind of."

"I behaved in ways that were very, very stupid," Damien admits. "There were times when I was really inappropriate."

Jason Baldwin didn't take the stand, but everyone knew he was Damien's best friend. Although no physical evidence linked them to the crime, Damien and Jason were convicted.

Jason got life. Damien, believed to be the mastermind, got death.

"That was the absolute worst, absolute crushing despair," Damien tells Moriarty. "And knowing that you didn't do what they sent you here for."