Was the West Memphis Three case a modern day witch hunt? The Trials.
On June 6th, 1993 only one month after the horrific murders of Michael Moore, Christopher Byers and Steve Branch, three teenagers, Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelly Jr and Jason Baldwin are arrested and charged with their murders.
This section looks at the pre-trial, trials. post-trial and the criticism over the police investigation.
Jessie, Damien and Jason during pre-trial hearing
Pre-trial Motions and Trial Dates
On August 4th, 1993 Jessie, Jason and Damien were formally arraigned and charged. Each of the defendants were charged with three counts of capital murder. Each entered a plea of not guilty.
Due to the fact Jessie had confessed, the "Burton Rule" came into effect. This meant that this confession could not be admitted into evidence and could not be used against Jason and Damien. This also meant Jessie would be tried separately. His trial was set to begin on January 18th, 1994. Although the defence argued strongly, Judge Burnett denied their motions for Jason and Damien to also be tried separately.
It was also argued that Jason and Jessie should be tried as juveniles and due to mental retardation the death penalty should not be considered if Jessie was convicted. Judge Burnett denied both requests. Jason and Jessie would be tried as adults and all three could face the death penalty if convicted.
Judge Burnett agreed to a change of location for the trials. Jessie's trial was to be held in Clay County and begin on the 18th of January, 1994. Jason and Damien were to be tried in Jonesboro and begin on February 22nd, 1994.
Evidence Against the Defendants
Jessie Miskelley Jr
Confession to the police
A hunting knife found in the lake behind Jason's home
Two notebooks which appeared to have satanic or cult writtings.
Statement given to the police by Vikky Hutchenson
A red fiber found on Michael Moore's shirt which was similar to the fibers in Jason's mother's bath robe
Green polyester fiber found on Michael Moore's hat.
A necklace with possible blood spots on it (not presented at trial)
Polyester fiber found on Michael Moore's pants.
Cotton finer found on Michael Moore's pants.
A necklace with possible blood spots on it (not presented at trial)
A number of people reported hearing Damien say that he committed the murders in the days after the bodies were discovered.
Several witnesses claiming to see Damien and his girlfriend walking in the area on the night of May 5th, 1993.
Jessie Outside the Court During His Trial
Newspaper Article About Vicky Hutchenson's Testimony
Jessie During His Trial
The Trial of Jessie Misskelley Jr
Jury selection for Jessie's trial began on January 19th and concluded on January 20th, 1994. A jury of seven women and five men, along with two male alternate jury members were selected.
Jessie's trial began on Wednesday January 26th, 1994. The defence strategy was Jessie had given a false confession, the prosecution strategy was the confession and the statement giving to the police by Vicky Huchenson. There was no other evidence linking Jessie to the murders.
The defence called Dr Richard Ofshe, Professor of Sociology at US Burkeley, he was also and expert in false confessions and police coercion. He testified the inconsistencies in Jessie's statement and the police had only recorded a small amount of Jessie's interrogation strongly indicated there was police coercion.
There were also a number of witnesses called all testifying Jessie was with them at a wrestling match, in another town at the time of the murders.
During the State's argument, Vicky Huchenson was called to the stand. She testified that she had asked Jessie if he would be able to introduce her to Damien and that she attended a satanic meeting with Damien and Jessie.
On February 3rd, 1994, after a seven day trial, both the State and the defence rested their case and the jury was excused to deliberate. The following morning, February 4th, 1994, the jury returned with a verdict. Jessie was found guilty on one count murder in the first degree in the death of Michael Moore and guilty on two counts of murder in the second degree in the deaths of Christopher Byers and Steve Branch.
Jessie was sentenced to life in prison for the death of Michael Moore and an extra forty years for the deaths of Christopher Byers and Steve Branch.
Damien and Jason during their trial
Dale W Griffis Giving Evidence
The Trial of Jason Baldwin and Damien Echols
Upon learning of the verdict past down to Jessie, Jason's defence team once again petitioned in front of Judge Burnett for Jason to be tried separately. Once again, Judge Burnett denied the petition and ruled Jason and Damien would be tried together.
Jury selection began on February 22nd, 1994, but was suspended due to a motion submitted regarding possible misconduct by the prosecution in their attempt to convince Jessie to testify against Jason and Damien. Judge Burnett ruled there had been no misconduct, and jury selection continued. Jury selection concluded on February 25th, 1994 with the selection of eight women, four men and two male alternative jury members selected. Despite attempts by the prosecution, Jessie decided he would not testify against Jason and Damien.
The trial against Jason and Damien began on February 28th, 1994.
The prosecution's star witness was Dale W Griffis, whom they considered to be an expert in the Occult. He testified that the murders were a result of Satanic ritual. The Defence worked on discrediting the witness, who received this graduate certified from Columbia Pacific University, which was a mail order university.
The prosecution also called a number of witnesses who claimed to have heard Damien Echols boast about committing the murders and was planning to commit two more.
The Defence argued Damien's knowledge of the crime came from the news reports that had been on television, or from internal police sources, such as Detective Ridge and Detective Gitchell. In response, the prosecution argued that Damien had knowledge of the murders that had not been released to the media and therefore must have had self-knowledge of the crime.
While Jason chose not to take the stand, Damien on the other hand did. He was asked about his past violent behaviour and Wicca. While on the stand, Damien came across as cocky and unemotional, which did not help his position to prove his innocence.
The trial lasted three weeks. On March 19th, 1994 the jury found Jason Baldwin and Damien Echols guilty of the murders of Christopher Byers, Michael Moore and Steve Branch.
Jason Baldwin was sentenced to life in prison and Damien Echols was sentenced to death by lethal injection.
The Knife Allegedly Used in the Murders
The Sticks Allegedly Used to Hold the Clothing Down in the Creek
Luminol Test Showing the Alleged Blood Trace at the Crime Scene
Critism of the Investigation
The West Memphis Police Department has been widely critised for the way they handled and conducted the investigation. Particularly the handling of the crime scene.
- The police literally trampled the crime scene, particularly the creek bed.
- The bodies were removed from the water at least 2 hours before the coroner was called.
- The bodies were placed on the creek bank and allowed to deteriorate for approximately 2 hours before the coroner arrived, being exposed to sunlight and insect activity and affecting the effects of rigor mortise.
- The police failed to secure possible evidence in the water and failed to drain the creek in a timely manner.
- The police failed to follow up a number for leads.
- Police failed to interview all of the members of the victims families.
- A small amount of blood evidence found at the crime scene was never tested.
- Evidence recovered from Bojangles Restaurant was lost and never tested.
- The coroner's investigation was considered substandard.
- Jessie Misskelley's statements were not recorded fully and were full of inconsistencies.
- The police failed to disclose the location the bodies were found may not have been the location the murders occurred.
- The sticks which held the clothing down in the creek were not collected until several months after. Question arise as to whether the sticks introduced into evidence during the trials were in fact the sticks from the crime scene.
- The police records were extremely disorderly.
- The West Memphis Police Department refused help offered by the violent crimes experts in the Arkansas State Police.
- Some of the physical evidence was stored in paper bags from a local supermarket rather than correct evidence bags.
- The police became solely interested in Damien Echols after his probation officer stated that Damien was more than capable of committing the murders.
- Police divers find a hunting knife in the lake behind the trailer park Jason Baldwin lived in at the time of the murders. The knife was found in less than one hour. The police are convinced this is the knife that inflicted several of the injuries on the bodies.
Post Trial Motions, Appeals
In May 1994, Jason, Jessie and Damien appealed their convictions in front of Judge Burnett. Judge Burnett upheld their convictions. He also dismissed all other appeals and motions filed by the defendants, including the 2007 request for a re-trial based on new DNA evidence.
Please Feel Free to Comment
As this case is still receiving a large amount of attention and emotions and opinions about it can still become volatile, I ask that all comments be respectful.