Nov 3, 2002

Modern Day Witch Trials

On May 6, 1993, the mutilated bodies of three 8-year-old boys were found in the wilds of West Memphis, Arkansas. Michael Moore, Stevie Branch, and Christopher Byers were found naked, bound hand to foot, with their own shoe laces. They had been badly beaten and sustained multiple skull fractures. Moore and Branch had drowned in the creek. Byers, repeatedly stabbed and castrated, had bled to death. The shocked and grief stricken West Memphis townspeople, challenged to explain such an atrocity, came to the only logical conclusion. The children had been violently sacrificed in a dark, Satanic rite.

Rapidly, West Memphis law enforcement singled out local teen, Damien Echols. The cerebral, brooding youth, inclined to dressing all in black, listening to Metallica, and studying Wicca, seemed bizarre and diabolical enough to have carried out the grisley crime. Unable to connect any physical evidence, the police relied on interviews with possible witnesses. In a twelve hour interview, a mildly retarded 17 year old named Jessie Misskelley corroborated police suspicions regarding Damien Echols. He, further, managed to implicate Damien's friend Jason Baldwin and himself. The three teen misfits were now set to stand trial for a gruesome act of Satanic ritual murder -- an act of dark witchery right out of the worst nightmares of the sleepy Arkansas town.

The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hill

by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky

Filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, intrigued by news accounts of the crime and pending trials, headed for West Memphis. There, they would capture on film a startling portrait of a town in turmoil. The Emmy-winning documentary records both the court proceedings and the back-story in the form of interviews with all the major players: the families of both the victims and the accused, lawyers, law enforcement, even, the three plaintiffs. As recorded by Berlinger and Sinofsky, the prosecution's case is largely circumstantial. Clumsy police work had damaged what physical evidence there was on the river bed. Much rests on Jessie Misskelley's confession, although it had been debunked by Dr. Richard Ofshe, a Pulitzer Prize winning expert on false confessions. Only a small part of Ofshe's testimony was heard during Misskelley's trial.

Paradise Lost is a brilliant piece of journalism -- objective, and unflinching. Finding its largest audience on HBO, the film started a surprising snowball effect. Many viewers were shocked and horrified by the result of the trials. All three boys were convicted of capital murder. Damien Echols was sent to death row, where he remains to this day. As a result of the documentary, many came to the conclusion that this had been a modern day "witch hunt," the disturbing result of irrational "satanic panic." A movement was born to rectify an injustice and "Free the West Memphis Three."

coverPARADISE LOST II: Revelations
by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky

Berlinger and Sinofsky return to West Memphis, Arkansas, to observe the ongoing social and legal hurdles of Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley. Although Paradise Lost II: Revelations largely follows the ongoing work of a group of advocates for the convicted killers, it is John Mark Byers, step-father of the most brutally murdered boy, who emerges as the star. The only family member of a victim to return in the sequel -- his wife died under mysterious circumstances -- Byers embarks on a love affair with the camera. He relives the glory of his gospel singing days. He dramatically enacts a version of the murder on the river bank. He shares the intimate memory of his own violent abuse as a child. He tells contradicting versions of the events leading up the loss of all his teeth. (Bite mark evidence emerges as important data overlooked in the original trials.) He takes and passes a lie detector test and triumphantly proclaims, "I knew I was innocent!" The hard drinking, heavily medicated, brain-tumor suffering Byers is a compelling figure. Not surprisingly, he has emerged as the likely perpetrator in an alternate theory of the crime.

The True Story of the West Memphis Three

by Mara Leveritt

A writer and contributing editor at the Weekly Arkansas Journal, Mara Leveritt took an early interest in the shocking child murder. Unsatisfied by the circumstantial evidence presented in the jury trials that convicted Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley, Leveritt began piecing together court documents. Using the gift of time to do what the inexperienced and pressured defense attorneys could not do, she cut and pasted events and pieced together a timeline. Emerging under her microscope are details missing from the trial accounts. She discovers that the brother and the stepfather of Chris Byers gave contradictory accounts of the search for the missing boy. Her research throws into question John Mark Byers's alibi. She learns that police never investigated reports of a disheveled man who left blood stains in a fast food restaraunt the night the boys disappeared. Leveritt concludes that the case is a "constitutional nightmare," violating separation of church and state, and arriving at a prosecution with no tangible proof.

coverRISE ABOVE: 24 Black Flag Songs to Benefit the West Memphis Three
By Henry Rollins, et al.

The case of Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley has emerged, in recent years, as a popular cause celebre. "Free the West Memphis Three" t-shirts adorn celebrities in the strangest places and clearly visable on camera. In Rise Above, rocker and actor, Henry Rollins assembles an all-star line-up and recreates 24 songs from his legendary band "Black Flag." Featuring the diverse talents of Iggy Pop, Exene Cervenka, Dean Ween, Corey Taylor, Tom Araya, Hank Williams III, Ice T and many more, the driving, high energy recording is a fitting testimony to the moral outrage of three young men spending their youth and, possibly, their lives in prison for murders they most surely did not commit.