Eighteen years ago, three West Memphis teenagers were falsely accused of the 1993 murders of a trio of 8-year-old boys, even though there was no physical evidence to tie them to the killings. All the prosecution had was a coerced then recanted confession from one teen, Jessie Misskelley, a trailer park boy with an IQ of 70—and the fact that another of the teens, Damien Echols, listened to heavy metal music and was considered weird by the grown-ups. Nevertheless, the three were convicted a year later, and Echols, supposedly the Satan-worshiping ringleader, was sentenced to death.
Then, through an extremely unlikely confluence of events that involves two flukey HBO documentaries that, in turn, drew to the case a string of determined advocates, some of them famous, the so-called West Memphis 3 were released this summer. However, in order for their increasingly obvious innocence to recognized, they had to plead guilty to the killings they didn’t commit.
The story of the three—Jessie Misskelley, Jason Baldwin and Damien Echols—appears in the December issue of GQ magazine, written by GQ correspondent, Sean Flynn.
It is a deeply troubling tale of justice miscarried, made even more disturbing because the confluence of events that needed to produce freedom for the threesome was so unlikely.
Here’s a clip—but do be sure to read the rest of this exceptionally well-written story:
Stevie Branch, Michael Moore, and Christopher Byers disappeared on the evening of Wednesday, May 5, 1993. The next afternoon, their bodies, naked and bound ankle-to-wrist with shoelaces in the same way a hunter ties a dead deer, were found submerged in a drainage ditch in a patch of woods bordered by the boys’ neighborhood, an interstate highway, and a twenty-four-hour truck wash. All of the boys had been beaten. Byers’s penis was missing.
Weeks passed. Terror of a sadistic sex killer quickly spiraled into panic. By early June, under enormous pressure to make an arrest, the West Memphis Police picked up Jessie, Jason, and Damien. They would seem to have been unlikely suspects. To begin with, though they became known as the West Memphis Three, they weren’t all really friends. Jessie, a short and wiry high school dropout with stripes shaved into the side of his head, knew Damien but didn’t spend any time with him. “I like to go out in the sun and stuff, and he don’t,” Jessie told me. “He likes to come out at night, when I want to go to bed. I don’t like to go out at night. That’s where the trouble is.” He was friendlier with Jason, whom he’d known since Jason moved to Marion in the sixth grade, but not much. “The first time I met Jessie,” Jason told me in September, “he tried to beat me up.”
Jason and Damien, on the other hand, were best friends, though in some ways a mismatched pair. Damien was a high school dropout with a history of mental illness and minor delinquency. But he was also intelligent and shy, the kid who read books other people in his Bible Belt town didn’t and listened to music other kids didn’t like and wore clothes other people found odd. “He looked like one of the slasher-movie-type guys—boots, coat, long stringy black hair, though he cut it short sometimes,” the local juvenile officer told Mara Leveritt, an Arkansas journalist, for her 2002 book, Devil’s Knot: The True Story of the West Memphis Three.Jason, a slight boy of 112 pounds with small, crooked teeth and matchstick arms, went to school every day, got good grades, was a talented artist, and never did anything more sinister than shoplift a bag of chips. “I had a mullet,” he jokes now, as if to confess the worst of his sins.
There was no physical evidence connecting any of the three to the killings. At the time of the arrests, the police had only Jessie’s rambling statement and the general consensus that Damien was a weirdo. So in order to paper over the lack of reputable facts in their case, the police and prosecutors created a motive: satanic worship.
Filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky made the 1996 documentary Paradise Lost and a 2000 sequel, Paradise Lost 2: Revelations. Without these films, the three men would never have gained their supporters, never have been released. The filmmakers’ third documentary on the case, Paradise Lost: Purgatory, is scheduled to debut on HBO on January 12