If you ever watched the riveting HBO documentary “Paradise Lost” and its sequel, you know the three teenagers convicted of killing three 8-year-old boys in a small Arkansas town 14 years ago were most likely framed.
Now there’s conclusive proof: New evidence filed Monday shows there was no DNA from the three defendants found at the scene. Nothing links them to the crime.
Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley are serving life in prison while alleged ringleader Damien W. Echols is on death row.
The three victims — Christopher, Steve Branch and James Michael Moore — were last seen riding their bikes on May 5, 1993. They were found the next day in a drainage ditch in Robin Hood Hills, near West Memphis, a low-rent town across the Mississippi River from Memphis. The boys were naked and hogtied with shoelaces.
The police quickly zeroed in on Mr. Echols, then 18, who was familiar to them because he was on probation for trying to run away with his girlfriend. They also believed he was involved in cult activities.
But they could find little evidence against him until Mr. Misskelley, mildly retarded and with a history of substance abuse, came in to speak with them. At the time there was a $30,000 reward.
After hours of questioning, Mr. Misskelley, 17, gave the police a taped statement that implicated himself, Mr. Baldwin, then 16, and Mr. Echols, then 19. Despite coaching by the investigators, Mr. Misskelley was incorrect in several significant details, including the time of the crime, the way the victims were tied and the manner of death. He said the children had been sodomized, an assertion that even the state medical examiner’s testimony appears to refute.
Besides Misskelly’s confession, the prosecution relied on a Satanic cult expert with a mail-order degree, apparently enough to put someone on death row in Arkansas.
The real surprise among the new evidence is who isn’t implicated.
Many viewers who watched the sequel, in fact, concluded that the police should have been investigating John Mark Byers, the stepfather of one of the children, who made seemingly drug-addled, messianic speeches on camera, gave the filmmakers a blood-stained knife, and had a history of violence and run-ins with the police. His child, Christopher Byers, was the most badly mutilated of the three.
But there was a surprise in the new forensic report filed by Mr. Echols’s lawyers: a hair found in one of the knots binding the children belonged most likely to the stepfather of another of the victims, not to Mr. Byers.
Regardless, Byers remains one of the scariest fucks ever captured on film (as seen here, here and here).
We’re left with an enduring mystery and a serious miscarriage of justice. While I’m not completely convinced of their innocence, there’s no denying the West Memphis 3 — social outcasts with a fondness for heavy metal and black trenchcoats — were convicted largely because of who they were, not for what they might have done.