By: Callie Douthit – 2014
The United States Department of Justice defines their duties as “To enforce the law and defend the interests of the United States according to the law; to ensure public safety against threats foreign and domestic; to provide federal leadership in preventing and controlling crime; to seek just punishment for those guilty of unlawful behavior; and to ensure fair and impartial administration of justice for all Americans” (The United States Department of Justice). With such a bold mission statement, one would conclude that our legal system is fair, just, and without question of error. However, there have been numerous cases that have proved flaws and even loopholes in the legal system. The court case that I believe to be a prime example of this is the trials of the West Memphis Three.
On May 6, 1993 tragic news spread of the discovery of the mutilated bodies of three eight-year-old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. These boys ended up being Steve Branch, Michael Moore, and Christopher Byers who were reported missing just a day before. The search for the missing boys had made no progress until an officer discovered a young boy’s shoe floating in a muddy creak leading to the Robin Hood Hills. The boys’ bodies were then found in a ditch where they had been stripped naked and hogtied with their own shoelaces (right ankles tied to right wrists behind their backs, same with left arms and legs). Christopher Byers was the only one found to have gashes to various parts of his body, and visible mutilation of his scrotum and penis. The autopsies revealed that Byers had died of those multiple injuries while Moore and Branch died of multiple injuries with drowning. At the time of investigation, it was suspected that the boys had been raped. Byers’ wounds were thought to have been the result of a purposeful knife attack while the defense believed it to be a result of post-mortem animal attacks. In addition, the police believed that the assault and murder was done on location where they were found.
After these details of the investigation were analyzed, suspects were drawn up and further questioned. The crime was thought to may have had cult overtones, and based on Damien Echols’ past of misdemeanor crimes, mental illness, and “devilish” tastes in music and fiction, the officers thought of him as a suspect. Two days after the crime, Echols was questioned by police and polygraph about his involvement in the crime. The polygraph indicated deception in that instance. Echols was continued to be the suspect of focus during the investigation. On June 3, police interrogated minor Jessie Misskelley Jr. with questionable parent permission. Misskelley was borderline intellectual functioning and was kept for questioning for roughly 12 hours where he recanted his confession based on intimidation, coercion, and fatigue. After Misskelley’s confession, police arrested Echols and his close friend Jason Baldwin, who shared similar interests as Echols.
Misskelley was tried separately from Echols and Baldwin in 1994. Misskelley’s trial included testimonies of experts on false confessions and police coercion, stating that the details of his confession were a classic example of police coercion. His confession was attempted to be voided through this testimony and based on the inconsistencies in his confession relating to details of the murder. But, the jury found Misskelley guilty of one count of first-degree murder and two counts of second-degree murder. The court sentenced Misskelley to life plus 40 years in prison.
Echols and Baldwin were tried together in 1994. Their trial was conducted on the accusation that the crime committed was part of a satanic ritual. Based on the strength of the testimony of the expert on satanic rituals, and the two friends’ interest in music and fiction that was deemed “satanic”, the two were found guilty of the satanic murder. Echols and Baldwin were found guilty on three counts of murder. Echols was sentenced to death while Baldwin was sentenced to life in prison.
Even though most of the town, and families of the victims, were satisfied with the end result of the trials, there were still many criticizing the way the police handled the investigation. Specifically, many had questioned if there had been indeed a coerced confession and whether or not the crime scene had been tainted because of improper procedure. Many questioned the innocence of these boys, and the media also got involved in investigating these questions. In May 1994, all three boys appealed their convictions and were upheld on direct appeal. But, in 2007, Echols requested for a retrial based on the new statute permitting post-conviction testing of DNA evidence after technological advances have made ways since 1994. The original trial judge disallowed the case in his court, and was thrown out by the Arkansas Supreme Court. Because of the technological advances, a few pieces of evidence were looked at more closely. After a documentary of the crime and cases had visited the town, John Mark Byers, adoptive father of Christopher Byers, gifted the cameraman with a folding, hunting knife. After the documentary filming had been finished, the film makers discovered blood remains on the knife and immediately sent it to the police for their investigation. Byers stated that the blood was from cutting deer meat, but the tests revealed that the blood on the knife actually belonged to Chris and his blood type. Because of the small sample, it was dismissed as inconclusive data. The second piece of evidence was teeth imprints that were found on Stevie Branch’s forehead but not mentioned in the original autopsy or trial. After the three convicts submitted their dental records, no matches were found. But, Byers suspiciously had his teeth removed in 1997, after the first trial. Adding to the suspicion, an expert revealed that he thought there may be an imprint of a belt buckle on young Byers’ body. Byers responded by claiming he had spanked his stepson shortly before he disappeared. Vicki Hutcheson, who originally spoke out against the three convicts and played part in the arrests, later revealed that it was all a lie fueled by police threatening to take her child away. In 2007, DNA was collected from the crime scene and tested as no match for the DNA of Echols, Baldwin, or Misskelley. In 2008, it was discovered that the jury foreman in the Echols/Baldwin trial, Kent Arnold, had discussed the trial with an attorney prior to the deliberation and supported the West Memphis Three as guilty. The judge of the trials also was accused of making improper communication with the jury during deliberations. It wasn’t until that judge was replaced by Judge David Laser in December 2010 that the West Memphis Three got their appeal and evidentiary hearing. On August 19, 2011 Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley struck a deal with prosecution by entering an Alford plea. The Alford plea basically allowed the three to plead guilty only on the grounds that the prosecution probably had enough evidence to convict them, while they still don’t admit to actually committing the crime. This deal allowed the three to be released from prison as the sentencing was ruled as time served by Judge David Laser.
What I believe to be testament to the flaws in the justice system is exactly what the defense presented as new evidence in the appeals of the West Memphis Three. Though the system has definitely improved as our technology advances and evidence is able to be more accurately analyzed and tested because of it, there is always room for improvement. For this reason, the legal system is certainly not perfect. Evidence we may consider to incriminate somebody now could be ruled out upon further technological analysis in the future. The same goes with evidence to that finds somebody innocent—future scrutiny could prove the evidence in question to be incriminating. For this reason, our courts can certainly be flawed in their convictions; the case of the West Memphis Three is evidence to this.
“About Department of Justice.” The United States Department of Justice. The United States Department of Justice, n.d. Web. 9 Feb. 2014. http://www.justice.gov/about/about.html>.
Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills. Dir. Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky. Home Box Office (HBO), 1996.
Paradise Lost 2: Revelations. Dir. Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky. Home Box Office (HBO), 2000.
Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory. Dir. Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky. Home Box Office (HBO), 2011.