Featured photo: Damien Echols and actor Johnny Depp in Little Rock
On this day 11 years ago an Arkansas man walked off death row and was freed, but technically he remains convicted of the murders he profusely claims he didn’t commit. Damien Echols, along with cohorts Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr. made Alford pleas on this day in 2011, and it ended 18 years of incarceration for the men collectively known as the “West Memphis Three.”
The three have claimed for decades they had nothing to do with the brutal murders of three boys – Stevie Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore – who vanished from their West Memphis neighborhood May 5, 1993. Echols has been in a recent fight with the state to get advanced, touch DNA testing done.
A judge denied the request in June, and Echols recently filed an appeal. Journalist George Jared spent time with Echols and Baldwin before the June hearing. Jared has written more than 100 stories about the case and a book, “Witches in West Memphis.”
Echols told Jared that the day he set foot in West Memphis was the first time he’d done so since his arrest June 4, 1993. Prosecutors claimed the three eight-year-old boys, who were found nude and tied ankle to wrist with their own shoelaces in a drainage ditch, were killed in an occult ceremony. They had been bludgeoned and drowned in the watery creek.
The man, who was identified by authorities as the ringleader, told Jared he spent years dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder in the years that followed his prison release.
He was stunned when Circuit Court Judge Tonya Alexander denied the testing.
“We are extremely disappointed in the judge’s decision which was based upon a narrow interpretation of the law and one that failed to allow justice to be served. All I asked for was the right to seek to identify the DNA of the real killer (s). We are appealing that decision and are confident that the Arkansas Supreme Court will see it differently. The sad fact is that those responsible for the murders of three children in 1993 have breathed a sigh of relief now that the state of Arkansas is once again in their corner,” Echols said.
Prosecutors have been fighting the testing and have never given a public statement as to why they oppose further evidence gathering in the internationally famous case. In fact, Prosecutor Keith Crestman told Jared in April 2021 that he was going to ask a court to order the evidence to be destroyed. Authorities later that year claimed the evidence had been destroyed in a fire or lost. That proved to be untrue and all the evidence was found in the West Memphis Police’s Department’s evidence room in December 2021.
Why authorities made those claims has never been divulged.
Jared interviewed all three while they were incarcerated including a Death Row interview with Echols in 2010. Baldwin told Jared in June he’s in good spirits and hopes that his and his cohorts names will be cleared and the killer or killers in the case will finally be brought to justice.
The journalist has written about many murder cases through the years, and he just recently released a book about the unsolved murder of 18-year-old Deborah Sue Williamson.
“Silent Silhouette” details his and former Army counterintelligence officer Jennifer Bucholtz’s investigation into the case. It includes interviews, case files, interviews with witnesses and persons of interest. The case has haunted the city of Lubbock, Texas for many years and has surprising connections to Northeast Arkansas.
“Debbie’s case is solvable and we need the public’s help,” Jared said. “We have to create the largest web of people possible to catch this killer. We developed some powerful leads in this case.”
Another person that Jared recently interviewed in the West Memphis Three case is Stevie’s stepfather, Terry Hobbs. WM3 supporters have grilled Hobbs through the years after a hair that is a likely mitochondrial DNA match for him was found in the ligature that bound Michael.
Hobbs told Jared he didn’t kill his step son or his friends. When asked if wanted the evidence tested, Hobbs first said, “If the West Memphis Three want it tested then I don’t.” He later clarified his position by saying he could support testing if all the evidence in the case was tested, not just the ligatures.
In an interview on the Mysterious Circumstances podcast hosted by Justin Rimmel, Hobbs said he hopes the judge “does the right thing” and orders the evidence destroyed. Hobbs has never been identified as a suspect in the case, and police admit the hair is likely his, but say it could have gotten on the victim through secondary hair transfer.
A timetable for the appeal to be heard has not been released.