This isn’t the only case I’m familiar with where a famous movie star has taken up the cause of a convicted murderer. Unfortunately, I can’t remember the names and in that case, after a year of being released, the killer murdered another human being. Oops. In this case, the headlines blazed with the case of the West Memphis Three for a number of reasons: it involved a supposedly Satanic ritual that ended in the murder of three young children; three youths were accused of the murder; and, for several years, Johnny Depp became involved in the convicted youths’ defence against the state. Eventually the case was resolved but in a perplexing legal move that added to the intrigue of the strange crime and that left plenty of room for doubt about the youths’ innocence.
West Memphis – Arkansas – May 6, 1993 – 1:45 p.m. A search party was dispatched looking for three young boys named Steve Branch, Michael Moore, and Christopher Byers, three second-grade children at Weaver Elementary School, who’d been reported missing by their families the day before. The three boys were best friends. A police officer found a boy’s black shoe floating in a muddy creek leading to a drainage canal in Robin Hood Hills. The murder site was Devil’s Den, a glen near the creek. Nearby, police found the boys’ bodies: naked and hogtied with their own shoelaces. The children had died horribly. They were in full rigor mortis when their bodies were discovered. Their bodies were “frozen” in what appeared to be a sitting down position. This was caused by the hog-ties between their wrists and ankles; their arms were pulled behind the bodies, and the wrists were tied behind the bodies to the ankles. It would have been an agonizing position while the boys were alive.
Someone, or several somebodies, beat the hapless victims with fists, sticks, hogtied them, tortured Branch and Byers with a knife, cut off Byers’ genitals, then dumped their bodies in a ditch. Among other injuries, the boys had been mutilated with a knife around the face and neck, and a bite mark imprint was found in Branch’s skin although whether this was caused by animal predation was never determined. Byers’ genitals had been mutilated. Prosecution experts claimed Byers’ wounds were the results of a knife attack and that he had been purposely castrated by the murderer. Defense experts claimed the injuries were more probably the result of post-mortem animal predation.
Dr. Werner Spitz, a well-known forensic pathologist and forensic scientist, provided asserted that the pathologist who examined the victim’s bodies was not Board Certified, and therefore was incapable of seeing evidence that would have been instantly obvious to a more experienced medical examiner. Spitz noted injuries on the bodies that could only have been caused by animal predation. These wounds had been previously attributed to a stabbing weapon.
This pathologist proclaimed that the boys hadn’t been sexually assaulted in spite of semen that had been found in a pair of the boy’s underwear. Byers died of multiple injuries. Moore and Branch died of multiple injuries and drowning. The deaths would have been prolonged and agonizing. The three 8-year-old boys had met with a horrendous fate, simply because they’d been lured to their deaths by a psychopath.
Three teenagers who became known as the West Memphis Three, Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, Jr and Jason Baldwin were arrested for the murders on May 17, 1993, after two of the teens had abruptly left down four days after the murders. The teenagers stood out in the banal township: they wore black clothes, strange haircuts and listened to Metallica. Although these are common rebellious teenaged behaviours, now that three children had been murdered, the boys’ antics placed them under suspicion. The picture above is Steve Branch.
Police officers felt that the crime had “cult” overtones, and that Damien Echols might be a suspect because he had an interest in occultism. It’s possible that the Satanic theory was also the result of the murders having taken place in Devil’s Den. The police interviewed Echols on May 7, two days after the bodies were discovered. During a polygraph examination, he denied any involvement but the polygraph examiner claimed that Echols’ chart indicated deception. On May 9, during a formal interview Echols mentioned that one of the victims had wounds to the genitals; law enforcement viewed this knowledge as incriminating since this evidence hadn’t been released to the public.
On June 3, the police interrogated Misskelley. Despite his reported IQ of 72 (categorizing him as borderline intellectual functioning) and his status as a minor, Misskelley was questioned alone. His parents were not present during the interrogation. Misskelley’s father gave permission for Misskelley to go with police but did not give permission for his son to be questioned or interrogated. His father may not have known that he had the right to refuse to allow his son to be brought to the police station.
Misskelley was questioned for roughly 12 hours. Only two segments, totaling 46 minutes, were recorded. Misskelley recanted his confession, citing intimidation, coercion, fatigue, and veiled threats from police. Misskelley specifically said he was “scared of the police” during this confession. Portions of Misskelley’s statements were leaked to the press and reported on the front page of the Memphis Commercial Appeal before any of the trials began. This made securing a jury that was without prior knowledge of the event and therefore without prejudice nearly impossible. After Misskelley’s first confession, police arrested Echols and his close friend Baldwin. Eight months after his original confession, on February 17, 1994, Misskelley made another statement to police. Misskelley detailed how the boys were abused and murdered. He stated he didn’t partake in the murders but he prevented a child who tried to escape. This statement was the basis for the arrest of the three boys. The picture on the left shows Michael Moore’s left side neck, face and ear.
In the days after her son’s murder, Branch’s mother, Pam Cobbs, rail-thin and dressed in a striking, red dress, shrieked with delight as she was interviewed by a reporter. “I’m on TV!” She placed her dead son’s Boy Scout scarf around her head like a crown. “I’ve been wearin’ it around town, like this,” she smiled, as her key chain made clanging noises. The reporter ever so graciously asked her if she “contemplated joining Stevie before her natural time.” She agreed that the killers worshipped Satan by stating the perspective most of the community held about the teens. “Just look at the freaks. Look at em’,” she chomped her gum loudly as she gave her statement to the camera. “They look like punks.”
Damien Echols was given the death sentence for the murders of all three boys. He lived in isolation on death row for 18 year until his release in 2009. Jesse Misskelley was given life plus 20 years for the murders and Jason Baldwin received life with no possibility of parole.
18 years later, in 2009, the men, now in their 30’s who had spent half their lives in prison, were freed under the Alford plea. The plea allows the men to contest their innocence while accepting the state’s conviction of guilty. They were given time served plus a suspended sentence of 10 years, meaning if they violate their parole in any way, they will return to prison.
Johnny Depp became involved in a massive campaign know as Free the West Memphis Three believing stoically in the innocence of the accuseds. He discussed the case on a number of television shows including Larry King Live, 48 Hours and 20/20.
“Before I saw anything else or read anything else, I was instantly struck by how heinous a crime [it was], but also the wave of injustice that followed it…As a person I couldn’t stand by and allow that to happen….I truly, firmly, 1000% believe that Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jason Misskelley are truly innocent….There was a need for swift justice at the time to placate an understandably frightened and angry community.”
I believe Depp was swayed by a script he was offered about the murders. This was how the case was brought to his attention. Naturally the script touted the teens’ supposed innocence. Had Depp read a script about their guilt, he might have believed they were guilty and not become involved in the campaign to release the men, who have served 18 year in prison for the crimes. Perhaps supporting a colleague and seeking an additional 5 minutes of fame, other celebrities hopped on board the Depp campaign, including the Dixie Chicks and Pearl Jam. Of course the DC’s are known for their controversial stance in a variety of political issues, including their controversial statements against George W. Bush after the 9-1-1 tragedy.
Seeds of Doubt
Many people believe in Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley’s innocence. They list the myths that have led millions to believe in the boys’ guilt:
- Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley were targeted because they looked different, listened to heavy metal music and read Stephen King novels.
- The cops bullied a mentally handicapped kid into making a false confession.
- There was no solid evidence tying Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley to the crime.
- The Bible Belt community was swept up in “Satanic panic”, and the investigation and trial were a modern-day witch hunt.
- DNA tests involving dozens of items related to the crime have failed to link any of the three defendants to the crime scene.
- A hair found at the site has been shown to be a positive DNA to a man who was with Moore’s stepfather on the day of the crimes.
- Questionable “cult expert” Dale Griffis contended the murders had been a part of a satanic cult ritual human sacrifice however this claim has been proven false.
Traits of Teenage Killers
These traits may or may not exonerate the teens.
- they are inept at hiding or destroying evidence including bodies
- they have no plan of action after the murder (eg. establish an alibi)
- they admit guilt in a relatively short period of time during an interrogation
- these youth often have prior criminal records or have displayed criminal behavior
- they tend to be loners with few friends
- they are often high school drop-outs and involved with drugs and alcohol – Echols was indeed a drug user with a criminal history.
Echols Criminal History
During the 1991-92 school year, Echols was repeatedly suspended for a range of offenses. A case file dated 6/1/92 reports that Echols “admits to having been suspended 7x this past semester for inciting fights at school, starting small fires, cussing. States in one fight he almost gouged out the victim’s eyes.” A handwritten note on a hospital form described one fire starting incident: “Wet toilet paper roll threw it against a light bulb it exploded started a fire rolled himself in a blanket and set [cut] der a chair watching bec [cut] was bored.” Echols was sent to the East Arkansas Regional Mental Health Center, then to the Charter Hospital of Little Rock. Charter admission papers noted, “There were also major concerns that this young man was exhibiting disturbed thinking. He has a history of extreme physical aggression toward others.” Decades later Echols dismissed his behaviour by stating he was “young and going through a phase.”
Possible Innocence There will always be the nagging question as to the mens’ guilt.
- teenagers tend to brag about their acts to friends – the boys told no one about their part in the murders. However, it was reported that in the days following the crime, several of Damien Echols’ peers came forward to police claiming that Echols had been wearing an “I Killed Those Kids (And I’m a Satanist)” t-shirt to a softball game. This information was not introduced during the trial, as the shirt was never recovered, and some disagreement remains as to what the exact wording was; some contend that it actually read “I Killed Those Kids (And I’m a Homo).”
- initially the boys had no access to legal advocacy
- their families were unaware of their children’s rights
- their alibis, albeit weak, checked out on the day of the murders
In 2011, four new suspects were named as the possible killers of the three little boys, one being Steve Branch’s stepfather, Terry Cobbs. DNA evidence was, found that matches a pair of individuals who had been together on the day the children disappeared. One of these individuals was Cobbs. Cobbs’ alibi on the day of the murder has been called into question. He claimed he spent the evening visiting a friend, David Jacoby for several hours.
In 2011, new suspects were named in the murders of the three children. Among them were the aforementioned Terry Cobbs, David Jacoby, LG Hollingsworth and Buddy Lucas. Their names emerged after a witness stepped forward to claim that Lucas told him he had been part of the murders, years after they had taken place. The witness said he learned that Cobbs and Jacoby invited the two teenagers to meet with them to buy drugs. When the men were smoking pot, they saw the three boys spying on them. Jacoby grabbed one of the boys and beat him while Cobbs ordered Lucas and Hollingsworth to grab and hold the other two boys, according to the affidavit.
I find it very difficult to believe that the three children were tortured, hogtied and murdered because they happened upon four men smoking marijuana. That seems just a bit excessive, wouldn’t you agree? Whether the aforementioned suspects are the killers still remains to be seen. At this point, it could be just about anyone in Texas.
Todd Moore, Michael Moore’s father, rejected the possibility that Cobbs killed the boys. “Terry Cobbs did not murder my son.” He explained that the presence of Cobbs’ hair at the scene could have been caused during one of Moore’s visits to his friend, Steve, at the Cobbs’ residence. Branch’s mother had changed her mind about the “punks” she vehemently stated years earlier had murdered the children. ‘I am content in my heart that Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley did not murder my son,” Pam Hobbs said as she pleaded for investigators to look at new evidence.
A number of films, including 2 documentaries entitled Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills I and II.
A film entitled West of Memphis strongly implicated Terry Cobbs as the killer, and David Jacoby. The film claimed that Cobbs often abused Branch and his mother, and forced the child to watch him masturbate. Further, the stated Cobbs sexually molested Branch’s sister Amanda although Amanda herself doesn’t recall any sexual abuse.
Devil’s Knot, named for the hog-ties found on the corpses, starring Reese Witherspoon, was released in 2014. The film implied that the teens were innocent.
The case, although officially declared solved, continues to be investigated by police. The sad reality is that it may never be solved and the little boys’ killers will live out their pathetic lives unpunished. Then again some murders have been solved decades after the killings. There is always hope this will happen with the Memphis murders.