The drainage ditch in the Robinhood Hills of West Memphis, Arkansas, where the bodies of three eight year old boys were found.
"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." - Martin Luther King, Jr.
The Evidence -
A Reason to Kill? -
The Timeline - The Victims - The Crime Scene - The Suspects
The Evidence - A Reason to Kill? - Author's Note
America is a country founded on principles that promise us all that we are entitled to certain inborn, irrevokable rights. The writers of Constitution, those who penned the Bill of Rights, wanted to make sure that as Americans, we were free to speak our mind, to worship as we wish, to assemble as we see fit. Those documents also promised that when a crime occured, justice would be handed out fairly, without prejudice, with punishment for the guilty and exoneration for the innocent.
As noble as our founders were in there intentions, over the years we have seen much injustice in America. We are a country built on immigrants who took the land from those who were already native to what is now the United States. We come from all cultures and beliefs. It's nice to think that among all this diversity, we could see past one another's differences, and let everyone live and believe as they see fit. America is a young nation, but over the centuries we have seen injustice. It was not that long ago that the color of one's skin decided where one could go to school, work, church - even where one could sit on a city bus.
The unfairness and prejudice in American goes beyond the civil rights movement. It encompasses nearly everything - from religious beliefs to the inanities of everyday life. It seems that the way one dresses, the way a person wears their hair, even the books a kid checks out from the library, can cause all but a modern-day witch hunt. It seems at times that if one's beliefs, habits, and hobbies don't fit into the mainstream, then there is a risk of intolerance, even hatred, from the so-called mainstream.
In America, you can find twenty-five different kinds of breakfast cereal at the grocery store. You can choose from dozens of fast-food restaurants, drive a nice, new car, live in a clean, perfectly landscaped neighborhood in the suburbs. In everyday American life, there are a dizzying number of choices to be made. This is what we call freedom, and we call ourselves the greatest nation in the world.
But America, for all its pomp and pride, is guilty of violating its people's inborn, irrevokable rights.
In America, the way you dress, the music you listen to, your religious beliefs, can make you a murder suspect. It can even get you convicted by a 'jury of your peers' and sentenced to life in prison - or death.
Arkansas is hardly a place we view as synonymous with brutal crime. Parts of the state are very beautiful, serene in their rolling hills and green trees. Little Rock, its capital, is the former home of the current president. It is borded by Oklahoma to the west, Tennessee and Kentucky to the east, Missouri to the north, and the sprawling state of Texas to the south. Arkansas is huddled in the middle of the Bible Belt, where families go to church on Sundays and drawl their words with a slight southern accent.
Despite its benign appearance, some still view Arkansas as a back woods, narrow-minded place full of good ole boys with gunracks in the backs of their muddy pickups. West Memphis, Arkansas, a small town bordering Tennessee, was one of these rural places. It was also the site of a heinous, controversial crime that is still being battled out in the courts to this day.
Three eight year old boys were found in an area of West Memphis called the Robinhood Hills. Nestled behind a carwash and cut through by a drainage ditch, the naked, beaten, drowned, and maimed bodies of Christopher Byers, Steven Branch, and Michael Moore were found. The boys were bound wrists to ankles with their own shoelaces, savagely beaten, and Christopher Byer's genitals were violated in hideous ways. The boys bore deep bite marks, (indicating that the murder was sexual in nature or was a product of battered child syndrome,) stab wounds, and all three showed signs of having been brutally beaten about the head, torso, arms, and legs.
In West Memphis, as in probably every other town in America, large and small, there was a 'Gothic' subculture. Gothic style has been around since after the Italian Renaissance, and many famous cathedrals are 'Gothic' cathedrals. In the early eighties with bands like Joy Division, the Cure, Concrete Blonde, and Bauhaus, Goth experienced a revival. Bands like Type O Negative, Marilyn Manson, and others resuscitated the attitude a decade later.
All stereotypes aside, the gothic lifestyle has been a target of much confusion and fear since it first appeared. Black is a color in the spectrum, and therefore no more evil than, say, yellow. Still yet, the general public has deemed the style as evil, Satanic, and dangerous. This was, I believe, a major factor in the case of the Robinhood Hills Murders.
Apparently in Arkansas, wearing black and listening to underground music is a crime. Three then-teenage boys-Jason Baldwin, Jessie Misskelley, and Damien Echols-were convicted of the murders with no physical evidence linking them to the crime. Jessie and Jason are imprisoned for life. Damien is on Death Row.
Injuries such as those found on the boys give investigators major clues. The violence the children were subjected to indicated that they were killed by someone close to them. The extent of the injuries Christopher Byers suffered indicate the person was probably a family member or someone who knew them very well, someone who could steal them away in silence.
The investigation was horribly inept, fueled by rumors of blood-lust Satanic cults and hearsay. 'Satanic panic', an American phenomenon not unlike the 1600's Salem witch hunts, was a large factor. Statements and testimonials were taken from children as young as eight, who had heard something from someone who knew their sister's cousin's in laws, and things to that effect. Dental impressions of Damien, Jessie, and Jason's teeth were proven not to match the bite marks on the murdered boys...yet the evidence was not introduced. (Strangely, the father of Christopher Byers had his teeth pulled before an impression could be taken.) DNA samples were mysteriously lost.
The reason why the case of the West Memphis Three/Robinhood Hills murders has caused such a furor is that three innocent people have been condemnded for a crime they say they did not commit. Damien, Jessie, and Jason were the only three kids in West Memphis who wore black and listened to heavy metal. (Metallica was one of their favorites-a band considered tame by today's standards.) Many, many people, myself included, have pored over the evidence, interviews, and testimonies and come upon the same conclusion. Even after studying the evidence-or lack thereof-the case of the West Memphis Three is an intriguing one. It is also frightening that in a country that prides itself on 'justice for all', one can be convicted of a crime based on evidence in the form of rumors and hysteria.
Damien Echols held his child for the first time...in a courtroom. His child may never know him. (Echols' most recent appeal to the Arkansas State Supreme Court was rejected.) Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley will probably never see the outside world, or spend time with their loved ones outside prison walls. They will never have a chance to live, thanks to an inept, biased investigation, and a jury who failed to see the truth.
The following is a timeline of what allegedly happened on May 6th, 1993, beginning at 3 p.m. The timeline has been compiled through police interviews and courtroom testimony.
3:00 P.M.: Steven Branch, Michael Moore, and Christopher Byers left Weave Elementary school. According to his mother, Pam, Hobbs, Steven went home after his school day ended but left shortly afterward.
3:10 P.M.: Christopher Byers' stepfather, John Mark Byers, arrived home, but states that Christopher was not there.
3:30 P.M.: The boy's brother, Ryan, arrived home. Christopher did not have a key to his home and was supposed to have waited on his brother to let him inside the house.
4:00 - 5:30 P.M.: John Byers dropped Ryan off at the courthouse for an appointment, He then picked up Christopher's mother, Melissa Byers, from her place of employment. Upon their arrival home at 5:20, they discovered that Christopher was not present, although there was evidence indicating that he had been home. Shortly afterward, John Byers left to pick up Ryan from the courthouse. On the way, he spotted Christopher playing with a skateboard. He took the boy home, and by his own accounts gave him 'two or three licks' with a belt as punishment for not staying home as he was told. He then told Christopher to clean up the carport. The child did as he was told, and was last seen by John Mark Byers at 5:30 p.m.
6:00 P.M.: Diane Moore, mother of Michael Moore, saw her son, Steven Branch, and Christopher Byers riding bicycles. The boys rode away before she could stop them.
6:30 P.M.: John Byers claims he and Ryan returned from the courthouse to find Christopher gone. Melissa was on the telephone at the time and did not her child had left the home. A few minutes later, Melissa, John, and Ryan left to drive around the neighborhood to look for Christopher. Sometime afterward, John Byers says he told a police officer of his son's disappearnce. According to Byers, he was told to wait until 8 p.m. before police would take an official report. Byers claims he told authorities that Chris had 'never disappeared' before and that he was very worried about the boy. The statement is one of John Mark Byers' first mistakes. While cases of missing adults are given a standard 24 hour waiting period, missing children are considered top priority with police departments, especially a child as young as Christopher Byers. (Several weeks later, Melissa Byers would tell police that Christopher had, in fact, left home without warning on several occasions, for hours at a time.)
8:00 P.M. - 11:00 P.M.: John Byers again contacted the West Memphis police to report Christopher missing. Officer Regina Meek was sent to the home to take the report. At 8:45, Diane Moore told John Byers that she had last seen the boys at around 6 p.m, to which Mr. Byers said that this was the first time he had been aware this Chris was not along. Diane Moore, Melissa, Ryan, and John Byers set out on a search in the Robinhood Hills area, where Moore last saw the boys. By this night had fallen. Between 8:30 and 10, Mr. Byers went home alone to change clothes, from a pair of shorts and thongs to a pair of overalls and boots. At the time of his departure, the search party has grown to include friends and neighbors. Officer Moore from the West Memphis police joins the search from 10:20 to 11:00 p.m. At about 11, John Byers goes home to call the Sheriff and ask for a search and rescue team. He claims he was told to call Denver Reed, leader of the Crittenden County team, the following morning. Byers left the house and drove to the Blue Beacon Truck Wash. He tells the people there that he is looking for Chris and two other boys. He pulls his truck behind the building, where he and Ryan shout for the boys and honk the horn. After an undetermined amount of time, the two go home. They meet Melissa Byers, Steven Branch's grandfather Terry Hobbs, and Diane Moore at the home. They decide to search the woods again.
Thursday, May 7th, 1:30 - 3:00 A.M.: Sergenat Ball of WMPD drives to the Byers' home to inform them that a police search is underway. Sgt. Ball leaves the home at 2:00 a.m. Tony Hudson, a friend of John Byers, and Byers leave to search the Mid-Continent building, which was being rebuilt. They see a black van parked nearby on their arrival, and assume it belongs to one of the workers at the site. Hudson and Byers return home at 3:00 a.m. and intend to resume their search in the morning.
6:30 A.M.: John Mark Byers called Denver Reed and arranges a meeting at 8 a.m. The search allegedly resumes in this hour and a half time frame.
1:45 P.M.: The first body is found in the woods behind the Blue Beacon.
2:45 P.M. - 4:00 P.M.: The second and third bodies are found, twenty-five and 30 feet away from the first body. The county coroner arrives at 3:05 and finds that the bodies have been removed from the scene. The removal of the bodies before the arrival of the coroner never should have happened - viewing a body in the state it was found is vital to an investigation, and moving a body too early can destoy evidence. At 4:00 p.m. the boys are pronounced dead. Althought their body temperatures are not taken, the time of death is estimated at around dawn. One important fact to remember here is that pinpointing the time of death is nearly impossible, particularly when a body is left outside in an ever-changing environment. The closest one can come to fixing a reliable time of death is within about twelve hours. Keeping this in mind, the boys could have been killed much earlier in the evening or night of May 6th.
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James Michael Moore, born July 27th, 1984: The cause of death is listed as multiple traumatic injuries to the head, torso, and extremities, along with drowning. Moore's body was found in a drainage ditch in about two feet of water. He was found completely nude, with his wrists bound to his ankles with his own shoelaces. There is minimal evidence that Michael had defended himself and did not struggle after he was bound, indicating he was rendered unconscious early on. There is no evidene of sexual assault.
Steven Branch, born November 26th, 1984: Cause of death is multiple traumatic injuries to the head, torso, and extremities, with drowning. The injuries to Steven's face and head similar to Michael Moore's, but are much more violent. Unlike Moore, Steven has superficial scratches, abrasions, and contusions covering his body. There is a three-inch fracture at the base of the skull, and extensive defensive wounds. He too was found in two feet of water in the drainage ditch. Steven was also completely undressed and bound wrist-to-ankles with his shoelaces. There is no evidence supporting sexual assault.
Christopher Byers, born June 23rd, 1984: The injuries inflicted on Christopher Byers are the most violent. Christopher died of multiple traumatic injuries to the head, and his gential area was mutilated, cut, and stabbed. The child was found in the same drainage ditch as Michael and Steven, and he too was found naked and bound wrist-to-ankles with his shoelaces. Christopher was lying in 2 inches of water, but did not drown. A toxicology report revealed non-therapeutic, (overly high) levels of Carbamazepine in his blood. The autopsy also uncovered several healed injuried and defensive wounds, along with three sets of wounds to his behind.
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THE CRIME SCENE
There is no evidence of blood or a weapon at the scene. The boys' bicycles and clothing were in the drainage ditch as well, effectively washing away any trace evidence that may have been present. The boys' clothing had been held down with sticks, but these were not taken in as evidence by authorities. (Six months later, police would find two sticks in the woods and claim they were the same sticks used to weigh down the boy's clothing.)Two pairs of the boy's underwear were also missing. The only blood present was where authorities had removed the bodies from the ditch. An area of the drainage ditch's bank and had deliberately cleared, and an impression of a tennis shoe was found. The boys were probably killed elsewhere and then dumped in the drainage ditch in an attempt to conceal evidence.
Crime Scene #1
Crime Scene #2
The Boys' Bicycles
Sticks Allegedly Used to Weigh Down Boy's Clothing
Cloth Found in Victim's Hand (Never Admitted as Evidence)
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The investigation into the child murders at Robinhood Hills seemed doomed from the beginning - an investigation so inept, so biased, that it could never have held together in a court of law.
But it did - and now Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley are behind bars. Baldwin and Misskelley and both serving life sentences. Echols is on Death Row.
Few towns as sparsely populated as West Memphis have to worry about homicide investigations. When a murder does occur, it is usually a domestic dispute turned ugly or a robbery gone wrong. The leads are often both numerous and obvious. A case like that of the West Memphis 3 is something a small-town cop will stumble upon perhaps once in his life - if at all.
But stumble onto a horrific crime is what the West Memphis Police Department did, with emphasis on the word stumble. From the minute the boys' bodies were found, pontentially valuable evidence was destroyed, lost, or seemingly disregarded. Here is how the case of the West Memphis 3 - the child murders at Robinhood Hills - unfolded.
When word came out that the boys' bodies had been found, officers and curiousity seekers came out in droves. The WMPD had had no prior experience with such a horrendous crime, and as a result the crime scene was hopelessly compromised. Either through negligence or a lack of knowledge, the crime was not properly preserved, evidence not collected, and notes not taken. In the opening scenes of the documentary Paradise Lost, Chief Investigator Gary Gitchell can be seen smoking a cigarette - within the perimeter of the crime scene. Such foibles would compromise a complex investigation.
One of the first mistakes made was the removal of the bodies from the creek bed before the arrival of Crittenden County coroner, Kent Hale. (Hale himself was nearly two hours later arriving at the scene.) Not only did prematurely removing the bodies from the drainage ditch destroy any possible evidence, it also exposed the bodies to sunlight and dry air, which can throw any estimation as to the time of death way off track. (Before the trial of Jessie Misskelley, the medical examiner would state that it was impossible to even estimate a time of death, because Hale had done such a poor job of supplying the necessary information. Through further research, however, the time of death was narrowed down to between 1:00 a.m. and 5:00 a.m. on May sixth.) Secondly, investigators did not keep the facts of the crime scene confidential, most nostably the extent of the boys' injuries and the positions in which they were found. By withholding, for example, the mutiliation of Christopher Byers and the shoestring ligatures, police would have had key bits of information that would have helped them eliminate potential suspects. As it were, the information leaked to the general public caused rumors to begin flying, and eventually the media and the townspeople came to take erroneous information at truth. At first, it was believed that Christopher Byers had been emasculated, and that the act was carried out in a meticulous, tidy fashion. Adult human bitemarks on the boys' were initally mistaken as cuts and puncture wounds. Normal postmortem relaxation of the bodies' muscles was mistaken for evidence of sexual assault.
With the bodies discovered and the crime scene secured, so to speak, the search for suspects began with a vengeance. The day after the bodies were discovered, police questioned Damien Echols, then 18, for the first time. Echols voluntarily gave hair and blood samples for comparison - samples that were later lost by authorities.
Damien Echols became a suspect in the Robinhood Hills murders because of the bias of the Crittenden County juvenile officer, Jerry Driver, whose past run-ins with Echols had somehow conviced him that Damien was a violent person, not to mention the leader of a non-existent local 'Satanic cult'. Driver contacted the West Memphis police, and from there the investigation into Damien Echols took off.
The police had no real leads, no real clues, on which to base their investigation. In a rush to judgement and under intense pressure to solve the murders, they focused their attention on Echols. He professed his innocence, so the police began rounding up anyone and everyone who even hinted at knowing Echols. This is where Vicki Hutcheson comes into the picture.
Hutcheson had not lived in West Memhpis for very long before the crime occured, although her son Aaron was a playmate of Steven Branch, Christopher Byers, and Michael Moore. In fact, she had moved to West Memphis from Fayetville, Arkansas to avoid outstanding warrants for her arrest for bad checks. On the day the boys' bodies were discovered, Hutcheson was in the nearby Marioin, Arkansas police department for a polygraph test, after money had come up missing from the cash reigster at her place of employment. Her son was with her at the time of the test, and the officer conducting the test struck up a conversation with the little boy. Aaron Hutcheson told the officer, Don Bray, that the missing children were at 'the playhouse'. Bray called the West Memphis police and heard that the bodies had been found near where Aaron described. However, when the police took the boy to the place where the playhouse was supposed to be, no playhouse was found. To complicate matters, Aaron also told police that he witnessed the murders, and described seeing men speaking Spanish in the woods. He also told authorities that he had seen John Mark Byers kill the boys. The boy could also not identify Jason, Damien, or Jessie from a line-up. His wild, ever-changing stories were eventually discredited, but not before his 'eye-witness account' could be leaked to the press.
Vicki Hutcheson was also a key player in the inital investigation of Damien Echols. She was told by the West Memphis police they would provide help with her own legal problems - if she would help them implicate Damien. She agreed to wear a wire, but her surveillance eventually proved fruitless. Damien never said a word to Hutcheson about the murders. Hutcheson also urged her young son to help with police with the investigation. The boy claimed to have been in the Robinhood Hills on May 5th, and told police he saw people speaking Spanish and riding motorcycles. The boy also told police that he had escaped by kicking the people in the woods and then running. Although he agreed with officers that Damien Echols had killed the three victims, police decided the boy was spinning tall tales and gave up on any reliable information. The boy's mother, Vicki Hutcheson, would also claim to have attended Esbats (which are pagan holiday celebrations,) with Damien Echols and Jessie Misskelley. Due to the ignorance of Hutcheson and the police, this was taken to mean that Vicki had attended cult meetings or Satanic rituals with the boys. After the trials were complete, she would say that on the night of the alleged Esbat she was so drunk that she woke up in her front yard and may have dreamed the entire incident. All of this brings us to the involvement of Jessie Misskelley, Jr.
According to Misskelley's attorney, Dan Stidham, Jessie was only four years old when he and his severely retarded older brother were abandoned by their mother. Jessie's father, Jessie Sr., went on to raise Jessie by himself, after the older brother was institutionalized. Jessie Jr. was later diagnosed as mentally retarded, and tests conducted after his arrest for the murders of Chris Byers, Michael Moore, and Steven Branch indicate that he functions at the level of a five year old child. His reading level, however, is considered severely retarded; his overall IQ tests in the range of 72. Further testing indicates that due to his handicap, Jessie was not able to understand any part of his Miranda Rights, which require a sixth grade reading level.
At about 9:30 a.m. on June 3rd, acting on Vicki Huchteson's tip, police took Jessie in for questioning. Police told his father that they wanted to speak with Jessie about Damien Echols, and also told Jessie Sr. that Jessie would receive the reward money if he helped in the investigation. Jessie Jr., while only 17 years of age at the time, was allowed to be questioned despite the fact that under Arkansas law, he could only be questioned if his father consented in writing to a waiver of his Miranda rights. This did not happen.
After about two and a half hours of interrogation, police officers told Jessie they thought he was lying, and asked him to take a polygraph (lie detector) test. At noon, Jessie was asked ten questions in the polygraph test. They included questions about the murders, and a question asking if he did drugs. The test results showed that Jessie was deceptive on only one question - the drug question. (He later admitted to smoking marijuana.) Despite the results that would have normally cleared a suspect, Office Durham of the West Memphis police department told Jessie he was "lying his ass off." Jessie admitted lying about the drug question, but Durham contended that Jessie was lying about the murders, and told the boy he knew he was lying because Jessie's brain had "told him so."
Police had to have understood that Jessie was a person of limited intellect, and people with mental handicaps are very suggestible, and will often try to solve their immediate problem - believing they can correct any further problems in the future. They will try to please authority figures such as parents, teachers, or the police - if only to avoid immediate trouble. They believe everything can be patched up later on.
Following the lie detector test, Jessie was questioned for two hours. He denied any role in the murder, and was not allowed to speak with his father. Officers Gary Gitchell and Bryn Ridge then showed Jessie a photograph of one of the boys' bodies, which terrified Jessie. Gitchell then showed Misskelley a diagram depicting three dots - one for himself, Damien, and Jason. Outside these three were dozens of other dots, which represented the police and the community. Gitchell asked Jessie if he wanted to be in the middle with Damien and Jason, or with the police and everyone else.
Jessie snapped under the intense pressure from investigators. With much coaching from the officers interrogating him, he told police he'd seen Damien and Jason rape and murder the boys. He also told the police that the Byers, Moore, and Branch boys had skipped school on the date of the murders; May 5th, 1993. School records proved that all three of the victims, along with Jason Baldwin, were in school that day. Misskelley also told officers that the boys were killed at noon - which was impossible, due not only to the fact that they were in school, but because they were not reported missing till the evening of May 5th. Jessie's claims of rape were also unsubstantiated, as the medical examiner found no evidence of rape or anal trauma. Along with other points that were either outright impossible or did not fit with what investigators already knew, Jessie also said that the victims were tied up with rope, when in actuality they were tied with their shoelaces. Pultizer prize winner, (and defense witness at Misskelley's trial,) Dr. Richard Ofshe, told Stidham that Jessie's confession was the worst false confession he'd ever seen. Polygraph expert Warren Holmes, a consultant for the FBI, Texas Rangers, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, reviewed Jessie's polygraph and agreed with Ofshe's opinion.
The entire questioning of Jessie Misskelley, Jr. had lasted twelve hours - with only twenty minutes of the interrogation recorded on audiotape.
Jessie was arrested and taken into custody. When he realized he wasn't going home, he recanted the entire confession.
Damien Echols, named by Misskelley in his hopelessly coerced confession, was one of those kids who stands out in a crowd. And in West Memphis, the crowds are decidedly smaller - and perhaps Damien stood out just a little bit more. In reality, at nearly 28, he still seems to have some of teenage baby fat clinging to his face, rounding out his features under a mop of naturally dark hair. His eyes are somewhat sad, and if he were still a child one could say Damien has mournful puppy-dog eyes.
Damien was born on December 11th, 1974 - by his own admission, he does not the location of his birth. His parents, along with their son, then named Michael Wayne Hutchinson, moved often. In an interview with the Arkansas Times, Damien says the family lived in Arkansas, Tennessee, Maryland, Texas, Louisiana, and other places, often moving at a moment's notice. As a result, Damien grew up a loner, never running with a pack of childhood friends. When he was eight, his mother divorced his father, remarrying a man named Jack Echols. Echols adopted Damien, who, at the age of thirteen, took his last name.
Damien, by then in junior high school, was already being labelled a 'witch' by his classmates, thanks to his dark hair, eyes, and black clothes. He set himself apart from the crowd by favoring authors such as Anne Rice, Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and J.R.R. Tolkien, and listening to heavy metal music, although his tastes run the gamut from Megadeth and Slayer to the more mainstream Pink Floyd and R.E.M.
Whether it was teenage angst, the throes of puberty, or something else, Damien and his mother, once very close, began clashing around the time Damien turned fifteen. He was very possibly going through what every teenager goes through - an identity crisis. He plunged himself into religion, studying Buddhism, Islam, and Hinduism before finding a faith where he felt he belonged - Catholicism.
Damien became devout in his faith, attending Mass regularly, being baptized, and receiving the Catholic rite of communion. He also changed his name to Damien, after a Catholic priest named Father Damien, who lived and worked with lepers until his death.
Religion alone didn't bring an end to Damien's internal conflicts, though. Between 1991 and 1993, he attempted suicide several times. During this period, in 1992, he and a girlfriend ran away on the last day of school. With nowhere to go and no way to get there, they ended up not far from home, and sought refuge by breaking into an abandoned house in West Memphis. Within a hour, police were on the scene, and Damien was arrested.
After a series of mental health examinations, Damien was sent to Charter Hospital, where he was diagnosed as manic depressive, with suicidal tendencies. Now, years later, Damien confirms that he was both very depressed and suicidal.
His problems may have been compounded by the breakdown of his mother's marriage to Jack Echols. The two divorced, and Damien's mother remarried his natural father and moved to Portlnd, Oregon. At around the same time, Damien was discharged from Charter Hospital, now on prescription antidepressants.
His problems worsened. Damien began abusing alcohol, drinking heavily and spending much of his time alone. While still on probation for breaking into the abandoned home, he moved in with a friend. It was then that he arrested for violating his probation. (Authorities claim Damien never notified them of the move, Damien says otherwise.) He found himself back at Charter Hospital, and Damien says his second stay helped immensely, perhaps due to his excellent rapport with his therapist.
Upon his second release from Charter, Damien passed the G.E.D. exam and moved in with his girlfriend, a thin redhead called Domini Teer. Teer soon became pregnant, and Damien was thrilled at the prospect of being a father. Better still, his parents moved back to Arkansas at about the time Domini was four months pregnant. She and Damien planned to marry and raise their child together.
Instead, Damien Echols would hold his son for the first time in a courtroom.
At the time of his arrest, Jason Badlwin, also singled out in Misskelley's 'confession', was sixteen, but he looked all of twelve or thirteen. Born on April 11th, 1977, he has known Damien Echols since he was in the seventh grade, Misskelley since the sixth grade. In the documentary Paradise Lost, Jason looks awfully small sitting in the courtroom, his rail-thin arms folded in front of him. He appears uncomfortable in a button-up shirt, his hair cut short for the proceedings. He looks every bit the child that he is.
On June 3rd, 1993 - the same day Jessie Misskelley was taken into custody - Jason and Damien were arrested. Due to Misskelley's 'confession', Jason and Damien would be tried together. Jessie would go to trial first, on January 19th, 1994. A little more than two weeks later, on February 4th, he was convicted of three counts of capital murder. He was sentenced to life without parole.
About three weeks later, on February 22nd, the trial of Jason Baldwin and Damien Echols began. On March 18th, they were both found guilty. Jason was sentenced to life plus forty years. Damien was sentenced to die.
Unfortunately, the courts did not see Damien, Jessie, and Jason as children, or even young adults. They saw them as monsters, and treated them as such.
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Due to the massive volumes of evidence presented in the trials of Jessie Misskelley, Jason Baldwin, and Damien Echols, I've opted to provide a link to a very detailed evidence analysis. The link is not an off-site link, so visitors may return to this site easily.
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To many people, the case of the Robinhood Hills child murders came to a close with the conviction of Jessie Misskelley, Jason Baldwin, and Damien Echols. To some, however, the suspect is still at large...and may remain so for the rest of his or her life.
John Mark Byers, the stepfather of Christopher Byers, is one such suspect. Currently incarcerated on drug charges, he is, in my opinion, one shady character who most certainly had a motive to possibly commit the killings.
The autopsy performed on Chris Byers shows the markings of a belt, including the metal clasp. When questioned under oath about spanking the boy with a belt, Byers stated that he had given Christopher two or three swats, with his blue jeans on. Wouldn't one have to strike a child with excessive force to leave belt marks through denim? The autopsy also suggested signs of child abuse, including old bruises and other wounds. A concrete determination of these wounds cannot be made, for what eight year old boy doesn't like to roughhouse and play?
John Mark Byers was also a jewelry maker by trade. Such work requires great skill and precision. The wounds to Chris Byers' genitals would have required painstaking skill, such as that of a professional butcher, surgeon....or perhaps one who patiently cuts stones and gems into certain, precise shapes.
Also, assuming the boys were conscious and alert when they met with their killer, wouldn't they have put up a screaming, vicious fight against an attacker? Investigators and authorities themselves have said that the boys most likely knew their killer, which would explain the lack of witnesses hearing screaming or struggling. Also, the injuries inflicted were characteristic of crimes committed by family members or individuals close to them. The wounds were violent, 'overkill' type injuries, fueled by a deep seated rage.
John Mark Byers, I believe, has behaved rather strangely since the murders. (And, by some accounts, before the murders.) He presented a folding-blade knife to the filmmakers of Paradise Lost, which was found to have human blood on it. Even so, John Mark Byers told authorities that he had never used the knife. When questioned further on the stand, he said he could not remember cutting himself with the knife, but may have accidentally sliced himself with it. Even more frightening, the blood type was that of both John Mark Byers and Christopher Byers. Thus, test results were ruled inconclusive.
In the documentary Paradise Lost, Byers is filmed shooting pumpkins, pretending they are Misskelley, Baldwin, and Echols. He is using a black powder gun, and is clearly heard saying that a black powder firearm leaves no ballistic evidence. In layman's terms, a bullet fired from such a weapon cannot be identified as being fired from a certain weapon. (When bullets exit the barrel, striations, or grooves, are present in the bullet. Scientists are able to determine the caliber and type of firearm used by studying this and other evidence.) A strange thing to be saying in front of a film crew? A strange thing to be saying while still under police scrutiny? I believe so.
After the death of Christopher Byers, John and his wife Melissa moved. Melissa Byers, however, died mysteriously. Her death certificate puts the cause of death as 'undetermined'. John Mark Byers suggests in various interviews that his wife died of a broken heart over the loss of her son, overdosed on drugs, committed suicide, or was murdered.
Even more damning-and odd-is the removal of Mark Byers' teeth. Dental impressions were taken from Jessie Misskelley, Jason Baldwin, and Damien Echols. The comparison of the dental impressions and the bite marks found on the victims did not match. Mysteriously, Byers' teeth were pulled before a dental impression could be taken. His reasons for doing so? A fight, medication, and a gum disease. If it were me, and knew I was innocent and wished to prove that I was, I would have done anything possible to obtain dental impressions and clear my name.
Another alarming point is that Mark Byers had a wide gap between his bottom front teeth. I advise everyone to look at the bite mark evidence on the West Mepmhis Three.org site. Perhaps you will notice what I noticed.
Were the police so involved in convicting three boys who dressed in black that they overlooked key contradictions in the case, and with John Mark Byers' answers and statements? Or are they satisfied that they have destroyed three more lives, proud that the rumored 'Satan worshippers' are off the street?
I feel I cannot express my opinion on who committed the murders, for fear of legal reprimand. If you question the West Memphis Three's guilt, however, look no farther than those closely involved with the case. There may be answers right before your eyes.
Note: John Mark Byers, after being sentenced to 96 months in prison (Byers violated his parole by selling Xanax to an undercover policeman in Jonesboro, Arkansas,) has been paroled after serving only 15 months.
The following is a newspaper article on the death of Melissa Byers. The article comes from the Arkansas Times.
The mother of one of the three boys murdered in West Memphis died, but investigators have yet to figure out how.
By Mara Leveritt December 26, 1997
On March 29, 1996, at approximately 5:40 p.m, Sonny Powell, the sheriff of Sharp County, called Investigator Stan Witt of the Arkansas State Police to report a suspicious death.
Powell told Witt that a woman named Melissa Byers had been taken by ambulance from her residence in Cherokee Village to Eastern Ozarks Regional Hospital. She was pronounced dead after efforts to revive her failed.
Powell was acquainted with Melissa Byers. As most people in the area knew, she was the mother of one of three boys who were found murdered in West Memphis in 1993. The following year, three West Memphis teen-agers were convicted for the killings in a pair of sensational trials, which hinged on allegations of Satanism. Throughout the trials, Melissa Byers and her husband, John Mark Byers, were seen frequently on TV, often cursing the defendants.
Since moving to Cherokee Village in 1994, the couple had had frequent run-ins with police. In 1996 they appeared on television again, this time in a highly praised documentary about the West Memphis murder case that was shown on HBO.
Now, not quite three years after the murder of 8-year-old Christopher Byers--and with some criminal charges against her and her husband still pending--Melissa Byers was dead. The problem facing Sheriff Powell was that no one at the hospital could figure out why. That inability on the part of the doctors to determine the cause of Melissa Byers' death was what prompted Sheriff Powell to telephone Witt.
Melissa Byers was only 40 years old. Her body showed no visible signs of trauma. To Powell, her death looked like a possible homicide. Witt arrived at the hospital about 35 minutes later. There he met with local law enforcement officers and with John Mark Byers, Melissa's husband. While a Sharp County deputy took a statement from John Mark Byers and got his permission to search his home, Witt began taking notes about the condition of Melissa Byers' body. It was nude and lying on the stretcher where she had died. "A visual observation of Byers' body revealed IV puncture marks on the top of her right and left foot, on the inside of her right wrist, and on the upper right thoracic area," Witt noted. "The right thoracic puncture mark and the right wrist puncture mark were both covered by Band-Aids. The puncture marks on the top of her right and left foot were not covered. ... The victim had a silver-colored necklace with a cross around her neck."
The investigator entered several other observations and had the body photographed. While he did that, another state police investigator was questioning a woman who had contacted Cherokee Village police upon hearing that Melissa Byers had been taken to the hospital. The woman told Investigator Steve Huddleston that she had known the Byerses for years, that the couple had recently been estranged, and that Melissa had been taking Dilaudid, a powerful narcotic that, when diverted to the black market, is one of the most popular illegal drugs in the country.
At approximately 9:40 that night, Witt and eight other officers organized a search at the Byers' home. Before granting his permission for the search, John Mark Byers had told a deputy sheriff that police would probably find a small amount of marijuana in the house. The deputy signed an agreement stating that, if they did, Byers would not be charged with possession. Consent thus obtained, the team searched the small, two-bedroom house at 75 Skyline Drive, while Byers waited outside. They found marijuana in a closet of the master bedroom and on a night stand in the other bedroom. They seized the marijuana as evidence, along with a glass on the night stand which contained an alcoholic beverage, believed to be peach schnapps. In addition, they seized six types of medication that had been prescribed for Melissa Byers. Dilaudid was not among them.
At midnight, Witt went to the house next door to interview Norm Metz, a neighbor who had followed John Mark Byers to the hospital. Metz had been one of the last people to see Melissa Byers alive. He told Witt that at a little after 5 p.m. that evening, John Mark Byers had called him on the phone, saying that he could not awaken his wife. Byers asked Metz to come over and see if she had a pulse.
Metz responded by asking Byers why he didn't call an ambulance. The neighbor said Byers responded, "Well, come over. Come through the kitchen door."
As Witt later recorded: "Metz advised that he went to the Byers' residence and went inside through the door leading from the carport and saw the Byers' son, Ryan Clark, and his girlfriend nude on the couch. He advised he went immediately to the bedroom and saw that Melissa was totally naked lying on the far side of the bed on her back. He advised her mouth was wide open, her eyes were closed, she was totally limp, and her arms were down by her side. Metz advised he checked for a pulse, lifted her eyelids, and looked at her eyes. ... He told Mark he was going to call EMS."
When Metz returned to the room, Witt wrote, "Ryan was trying to help John Mark put some pants on Melissa, and he asked John Mark if Melissa was dead. He advised that John Mark advised no, and Ryan had a funny, eery [sic] look on his face�. He advised that when the EMTs got to the residence, Mark kept telling them, 'They've got to bring her back.' Metz advised that Ryan kept mumbling something and he did not seem coherent. He advised that when [Ryan] left, he almost flipped the car over he left so fast, spinning gravel." According to Witt's notes, when Metz later joined Mark Byers at the hospital, "Mark told him he was afraid Melissa had overdosed on a drug that is in the streets of Memphis. Metz advised that Byers told him it could be bought for $50 on the street. He told him the name of the drug. Metz could not remember it but thought it started with the letter 'D.' Metz advised that John Mark Byers also told him he thought her death was a drug overdose and that they were going to accuse him of smothering her. He advised that Byers did not clarify who 'they' were."
The Byers family has been part of the news in Arkansas since the morning of May 6, 1993, when the bodies of three 8-year-old boys--Steven Branch, Michael Moore, and Christopher Byers--were found in a drainage ditch in a wooded area near the West Memphis subdivision where they lived. Autopsies revealed that two of the boys had drowned where they had been thrown, hog-tied, into the water. The third boy, Byers, had died of loss of blood suffered during the removal of his penis. The mutilation appeared to have been inflicted with a knife. The murders shocked West Memphis, but weeks passed without an assailant or assailants being found. Finally, a month after the murders, three West Memphis teen-agers--Jessie Lloyd Misskelley, 17; Charles Jason Baldwin, 16; and Damien Wayne Echols, 18--were arrested and charged with the crimes. Their trials were recorded by a pair of documentary filmmakers working under contract with HBO.
The trials were sensational from start to finish, partly for the gruesomeness of the crimes, and partly because the police case was predicated on the belief that the killings had been part of a Satanistic orgy. No physical evidence was produced linking any of the accused teen-agers with the crime, and no motive for the killings was introduced other than that the murders had been part of an demonic ritual. All three boys were found guilty. Misskelly and Baldwin were sentenced to life in prison, and Echols, who was identified as the ringleader, was sentenced to death by lethal injection.
A year later, when the film "Paradise Lost" was shown on television and then released to theaters, John Mark and Melissa Byers were brought to national attention. Not only had their son Christopher sustained the most savage of the attacks, but John Mark and Melissa Byers stood out as the most demonstrative of the parents in the film. At one point, Melissa looked into the camera declaring her hatred for the three accused teen-agers "and the mothers that bore them." In another scene, John Mark and the father of one of the other murdered boys appeared shooting pumpkins which they pretended were the defendants.
In April 1994, eleven months after the murders, John Mark and Melissa Byers and their surviving son, Ryan, moved to Cherokee Village. But from the start, their residence there was marked by turmoil, including several incidents verging on violence:
--In early 1994, shortly after their arrival, John Mark and Melissa Byers were jailed in Sharp County on charges of residential burglary and theft after more than $20,000 in antiques were taken from a neighbor's home.
--In July, John Mark Byers was involved in an incident in which a group of teen-agers fought while Byers reportedly stood watch with a rifle to make sure the fight went on. One of the boys in the altercation carried a pocket knife belonging to Byers. The boy he was fighting was injured seriously enough to require hospitalization. Byers was later charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor.
--In September, Melissa Byers was charged with disorderly conduct after a neighbor reported that Melissa had threatened to kill her family. The neighbor quoted Melissa Byers as having screamed, "You can't watch your family 24 hours, and you are going down."
--In October, Melissa Byers was arrested once again and charged with aggravated assault, this time for pointing a rifle at carpet layers who refused to work in her home until the floors were cleaned. By the time the Byerses had been in Cherokee Village six months, police had been summoned to their residence at least eight times.
--In January 1995, John Mark Byers was found guilty on the charge of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. He was sentenced to a year in jail, with nine months suspended, and ordered to pay half of the injured boy's medical bills.
--Other charges against Mark and Melissa Byers, including those for the residential burglary, were still pending in Sharp County Circuit Court on March 29, 1996, when Melissa Byers mysteriously died.
Her body was sent for autopsy to the office of the medical examiner at the Arkansas Crime Laboratory in Little Rock. Witt, stymied until he knew the cause of death, waited--and waited. By the end of August--five months after the death--he still had received no word from the crime lab concerning the autopsy results.
But life was continuing for John Mark Byers. On Aug. 28, 1995, he entered into a plea agreement negotiated by his attorney and Stewart Lambert, a deputy prosecutor for the Third Judicial District. According to the negotiated plea, Byers was to pay $20,000 to the woman whose house was burglarized, make restitution to the father of the boy who was injured in the fight, and pay a $250 fine.
An additional part of the agreement was that Byers would leave the Third Judicial District, which is made up of Sharp, Lawrence, Randolph, and Jackson counties and not come back to them, or to Fulton County either.
Lambert, the prosecutor, said he entered the plea agreement with Byers because a key witness in the burglary case was a minor whose mother was reluctant to have him testify, making a successful prosecution difficult. As for ordering Byers out of the district, Lambert said, such an arrangement can be legal if done with the agreement of the party being banished. Byers accepted those terms, but has not made the required payments.
At the end of September 1996, a month after Byers' appearance in court, investigator Witt received the medical examiner's report on Melissa. It noted that she had been 68 inches tall and weighed 211 pounds. Both wrists bore multiple, well-healed, linear scars. A tattoo of a heart and scroll were present on her right upper back, with the name "Christopher" written in the scroll. No distinct scarred needle tracks were present.
However other needle marks were evident. Two of those, which were covered with bandages, were clearly the result of unsuccessful medical attempts at cardiopulmonary resuscitation, as were a couple of fractured ribs. The origin of the other needle puncture wounds--in the groin, arms, and feet--was undetermined.
There were a few small bruises on the body, some or all of which may have occurred on the way to and at the hospital. And there were some signs of deteriorating health, such as obesity, narrowing of some arteries, and a gallstone. But none of the conditions the pathologists observed would normally prove fatal, either alone or in combination.
Under the circumstances, they were particularly interested in what toxicology tests would reveal. But those findings did not solve the riddle of Byers' death either. Although a glass of peach schnapps had been found at her bedside, she had apparently drunk very little, as no alcohol was detected in her system. Nor were any opiates were found in her blood. Traces of one of her prescribed medications, an anti-seizure medicine used to treat post-traumatic stress syndrome, were present, as were traces of lithium, a medication that had been prescribed for her to treat manic depression. But that was all, and the amounts of neither of those substances exceeded therapeutic levels.
Only her urine was abnormal. It tested positive for marijuana and for hydromorphone, the synthetic narcotic more commonly known as Dilaudid. Melissa Byers did not have a prescription for Dilaudid. On the street, it sells as much as $50 per tablet. The drug is a potent opiate. It can slow breathing, heart rate, and brain activity. What was strange was that, while the drug showed up in Melissa Byers' urine, suggesting recent use, it was not found in her blood, which would be expected of a lethal agent. Moreover, that anomaly in the body was matched by an anomaly in the report.
Through what Jim Clark, the director of the crime lab, recently described as a "typographical error," no mention of the finding of Dilaudid appeared in the autopsy report's conclusions. Instead, on the report's final page, the word "hydromorphone," or Dilaudid, appeared as "hydrocodone," which is another drug entirely. Nor was the Dilaudid mentioned on the page listing the medical examiner's findings.
Asked if the discovery of an illegal drug in the body of a possible homicide victim was not a finding worth listing, Clark affirmed that, "There may be room for some further investigation as to how she obtained the drug." As for the needle marks in the body's arms, feet, and groin, Clark said, "In the pathologist's opinion, all those wounds were probably done at the hospital."
When Witt received the report, it offered no indication that Byers' death might be connected to illegal drug activity. Instead, he had the crime lab's vague conclusion that, "because of the lack of definitive anatomic or toxicological findings, the cause and manner of death are left undetermined." According to Clark, the causes of about 4 to 8 percent of deaths that are presented to medical examiners nationally are found to be undetermined.
In December, Investigator Stan Witt closed his case on Melissa Byers. Sheriff Powell is keeping his open.
'This is a deep story' John Mark Byers contemplates the deaths of first his son and now his wife.
After her 8-year-old son Christopher was murdered, Melissa Byers became depressed, her widower, John Mark Byers recalled. "She gave up her will to live," he said in a telephone interview. "She didn't want to live without him." Asked if his wife had been using illegal drugs, Byers answered: "To my personal knowledge, no. I did not see her taking illegal drugs. But, if she was or if she wasn't, I'm not going to talk bad about my wife who's passed away. Melissa's death was another tragedy, another heartbreak. I'm the victim here, let's not forget that."
The two had been married for 10 years. After the murders of Christopher and two other boys in 1993, the couple moved to Cherokee Village to get away from what Byers described as persecution in West Memphis. "This is a deep story," he said. "There's a lot of crazy people out there. I mean really crazy people."
After the trials in which three West Memphis teen-agers were convicted of killing the younger children, Byers said residents of the city left dead animals on their car and in their yard, along with notes "saying all types of terrible things." He described the time there as being "pure hell."
But life in Cherokee Village proved no easier. "It was very hard," he said, "because of the backward people that live up there, people that are so narrow-minded. We thought there would be intelligent retired people from up north, but instead there were a lot of inbred, banjo-picking hillbillies living there, people whose family trees run in a straight line."
Asked if they did not perceive him and Melissa as sympathetic figures, being the parents of a murdered child, he said no, that for some reason "they got it confused; they thought I was the father of one of the boys who committed the killings."
Byers now lives "in a modest little apartment" in another city, the name of which he does not want revealed. He subsists on a Social Security disability check which he receives because of a tumor he says is located "in the front right lobe of my brain." Because of the tumor, he said, he cannot work--he used to be a jeweler--and he suffers "terrible migraine headaches."
In the interview, Byers described his life as an unmitigated series of woes, as "pain piled upon pain." Publicity about the West Memphis deaths has kept them "an ongoing thing," he said, prompting people to "want to open the wound and pour salt in it." Asked why, then, he and Melissa had agreed to cooperate with the filming of the documentary "Paradise Lost," he explained, "I just could not stand for my son and his two friends to die for nothing. We didn't want people to forget who he was. We wanted them to know that this witchcraft and black magic and demon worship was real. There's black and there's white, like we said on 'Maury Povitch.'"
One of the most remarkable parts of the film was a segment in which Byers and Todd Moore, the father of one of the other dead boys, blasted pumpkins that they pretended were the heads of the convicted teen-agers. Byers said the producers "asked us what we did with our aggression and our anger. We said we go out and target practice. We said we go out and shoot. We were out there basically just releasing anger, and in our minds, thinking, 'If that was the three of you. ...' We were still very raw with anger. I think anybody would be. But it was not detrimental to anyone. And if we wanted to think that that was them we were shooting, and it made us feel better, what was wrong with that?"
First, he said, he had to suffer being viewed as a suspect in his son's death. "I did not know that when a child is murdered that sometimes they think � like in the Jon Benet Ramsey case � that they look at the family members. The police had to explain to me that this is a big puzzle. They said, 'We've got to look at all the pieces and throw away the ones that didn't fit.'"
Byers knows that there are people who still believe that he may have been involved in the three boys' murders. "They just don't have anything better to do with their time," he says of them. "They could just watch the movie "Paradise Lost" and they would know that I'm just a victim. I'm not the villain."
Suspicion of Byers intensified when, toward the end of the filming of that movie, he offered as a gift to the HBO camera crew a knife that, though he said he had never used it, turned out to bear traces of human blood. The blood type matched his own, as well as Christopher's. Critics of the West Memphis Police Department have complained that officers allowed the incident to go uninvestigated.
But Byers has other complaints against the department, chiefly that police did not act quickly enough to find the murdered boys when their families reported them missing. He is also critical of police in Cherokee Village, who he said failed to respond when neighbors threatened him and shot up his house. "I was railroaded up there," he said.
In court, when he was tried on the charge of contributing to the delinquency of a minor, he recalled, "I told them, 'The boys got in a scuffle. The boy who went down seemed to be all right. It was no big deal. It's not like boys up there or anywhere else don't get in fights when people talk about their mama. ...' "The boy who was knocked down, his daddy just happened to be a freakin' lawyer. He got a judgment against me, but I didn't have to pay a dime. I didn't have anything to give the man. I'm judgment-proof. I'm indigent. That's why they told me up there just to pack up and leave, to get out of Sharp County, and don't come back.
"I went from my big, fine home and being a responsible citizen to feeling like I'm just an outcast and thrown to the bottom of the pit, when I didn't do anything. It feels so unjust and so unfair, but there's nothing I can do about it."
He was also disappointed with the way the ambulance workers treated Melissa, who he said had drunk a little peach schnapps before the two of them had settled down for a nap at 3:30. When he woke up at quarter to five, he tried to awaken her but she didn't respond. "When the paramedics came in, they jerked her off the bed and onto the floor. They didn't shock her with the paddles but one time. That kind of bothered me. They kind of acted like they didn't care, like, 'Well, good. She's dead. Maybe now he'll leave.' I just felt like they didn't care if she died or not."
Byers had not seen the autopsy report on Melissa, which only became public in December, when the State Police closed their investigation. Asked about the reported comment by his neighbor Norm Metz, that when Melissa was brought to the hospital Byers had said, "he was afraid Melissa had overdosed on a drug that is in the streets in Memphis," the name of which he thought "began with the letter 'D,' and that "could be bought for $50 on the street," Byers denied having made such a statement. He also denied telling Metz, as Metz had reported to police, that "he thought her death was a drug overdose and that they were going to accuse him of smothering her."
In the years since Christopher's death, evidence has come to light suggesting that, prior to the murders, John Mark Byers had worked with Memphis narcotics police as a confidential informant. Asked if that were true, he answered, "I'd have to say 'no comment' on that." When he was told that the police and autopsy reports on Melissa mentioned "numerous needle puncture marks" on her arms, feet, and groin, he responded, "That's news to me."
He also expressed surprise that Dilaudid was found in her system. Rather, he spoke of "drugs and all" as evil. "I think there's a lot of evil in the world," he said, "and if you live in today's society, you will experience evil. It's sent from the devil himself to kill the world. The devil has it out for everybody. The Bible says he's like a roaring lion seeking to and fro to whom he may consume."
But he added, "I have to believe that all things work for good for those who love the lord, so maybe he's letting me live to tell people that there is a devil out there, that there is evil and it will consume your life if you let it."
He has said he considers his son's killers as having been sent from hell. "Anyone who takes anyone's life, it's got to be someone that's very depraved and very twisted," he observed. "Not retarded sick, mean sick. They must have some type of problem that's deeper than I can imagine." He added, "I don't know what makes someone like that tick, because I'm not that way, so I can't say. I don't have the mind or the consciousness of a murderer, so how could I say?" The fact that no cause has been found for Melissa's death "hurts even more," Byers said.
And he wondered toward the end of the interview, "Did she have to die? Did she will herself to die? Did she not want to live anymore because of her son's being murdered? Did God just answer her prayer and take her off this earth?"
John Mark Byers was also interviewed by talk show host Leeza Gibbons. The episode in which Byers was featured was never aired. Click here to read the interview. Byers conducted the interview without his dentures, so some of his words are unintellible and noted as such.
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It is disenheartening and sad to see such havoc wreaked on innocents. It goes beyond disgust at seeing the damage, it is not just the nauseating feeling we get in our stomach at witnessing other humans virtually destroyed. I think one cannot help but feel terror at these images, for where are we safe if others can so randomly snuff out the living? Somewhere in the shock and fear we lose the human. These victims, savaged and torn, were once breathing, moving, beings, just as we are. They unwillingly left behind family, friends, jobs, homes. I find it incredibly sad to see these things, because no psychological profile, no forensic findings, can take away the fact that these people are gone, and someone-somewhere-cared.
The case of the West Memphis Three, and all others, is tragic because the victims encompass the children's loved ones also. Parents of murdererd children often say that part of them died with their child, and I do not doubt this at all.
The killings at Robinhood Hills hold a special place in the hearts and minds of many, however. Not only did three children die, but three teenage boys-barely out of childhood themselves-were tried and convicted on nothing more than hearsay and rumors. In a sense, they are lucky that those who care about them may still be in contact. Still yet, they are imprisoned for crimes that many, many people-myself included-believe they did not commit.
These boys-now, seven years later, men-may never see outside prison walls. (If Echols' appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court are not granted, he will be executed by 2003.) Appeals only go so far, and the most skilled lawyer in the world cannot force a judge and jury to see the truth.
See the full horror of it for yourself. Paradise Lost, an excellent documentary chronicling the case, is at times hard to stomach. The two hour long film opens with crime scene footage of the drainage ditch where Chris Byers, Michael Moore, and Steven Branch's bodies were found, the camera slowly pans to show police and investigators littering the scene. It shows us, a silent observer, the three tiny bodies lying on the creek banks, bound and beaten. Providing an eerie background beneath it all is one of Damien Echols' favorite songs, Welcome Home (Sanitarium), by Metallica.
The West Memphis Three.org site has photographs of the bite marks, and one shot of a shoe imprint on the back of one of the children's heads. You can clearly see the imprint of the sole, right down to the printing on the bottom of the shoe.
After watching the two-and-one-half hours that makes up the film, it is hard to lay blame on Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley. It is unbelievably sad, on all fronts.
The film answers some questions, but it open volumes of others. Why did this happen? How could someone do this to a child? What were they thinking? How could one inflict such pain on anyone, let alone eight year old boys? How could a jury hand down a triple conviction with no physical evidence?
There will never be closure for this case. Steven Branch, Christopher Byers, and Michael Moore's families will bear the scars of their loss forever. Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley, their loved ones included, will also wear their wounds. For all involved, the cuts will never heal.
The case of the West Memphis Three is many things. It is a tragic, horrifying travesty of humanity and the American judicial system. It is an insult to our inborn rights.
According to court papers released in October of 2007, previously untested hairs found at the crime scene are microscopically similar to Terry Hobbs, Steven Branch's stepfather. (Hobbs vehemently denies any involvement in the murders.) The documents also reiterate the fact that no physical evidence exists linking Echols, Baldwin, or Misskelley to the crime, and claims the mutilation to Christopher Byers's body was caused by animals.
John Mark Byers, considered by many to be a prime suspect in the case, is now convinced of the convicted men's innocence. Once a looming, volatile presence in the case, Byers now says, "I needed someone to hate in order to survive." In a recent People magazine article, Byers is quoted, "I was fooled for fourteen years. But now I know an injustice was dealt upon these boys by the State of Arkansas." He has gone so far as to write the governor of Arkansas on behalf of the West Memhpis 3. According to the article, the Arkansas Attorney General refuses to comment on the case, saying only that it "recognizes the importance" of the case and the new evidence presented.
For Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, and Jason Baldwin, it may be too little, too late.
UPDATE: August 19, 2011
The question still remains: Who killed Michael Moore, Steven Branch, and Christopher Byers? It is not yet clear if the murders will be reinvestigated, or if the state of Arkansas has effectively closed the books on this case. Yet after nearly two decades, three wrongfully accused teenagers - now nearly middle aged - are finally free. Many of Echols, Misskelley, and Baldwin's supporters see their release as a bittersweet victory following years of motions, hearings, and appeals. It is sweet because they are free. It is bitter because in order to secure their release, they had to admit guilt to a crime they did not commit.
So in the end, justice was not served. While Echols, Misskelley, and Baldwin are no longer behind bars, the person or persons who, so many years ago, murdered three eight year old boys, is still at large. I hope, at the very least, the six families involved in this case can find some sense of peace and healing. The past eighteen years have surely shattered them all.