Few people who have watched the documentary film Paradise Lost remain unconvinced by its central tenet, that the young men imprisoned in 1994 for the murder of three boys at Robin Hood Hills in West Memphis, Arkansas, were wrongly convicted.
The film makes a persuasive case that the accused men - Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley and Jason Baldwin suffered a miscarriage of justice; victims of a prejudiced police and legal system that discriminated against them because they were weird kids who dressed in black and liked heavy metal music.
It's an all too familiar story, and one those in the audience for true crime documentaries are predisposed to believe. Many similar films have documented sad true stories of minorities, misfits and outsiders been railroaded and wrongly convicted of heinous crimes by small minded, conservative legal systems.
The films thesis follows the familiar pattern. Damien Echols and his friends were scary and strange teenagers, who liked heavy metal music and even indulged in satanic rituals in the woods. When three young boys are murdered and dumped, hog-tied and naked in local woodland, provincial-minded police quickly focused, with scant evidence, on the teenagers as the likely perpetrators.
The small minded local community turned on the accused, false testimony and confessions were suborned by the police and, with the recent Satanic panic scare still in people's minds, prosecutors distorted facts and unfairly used the boys lifestyle and demeanour against them at the trial.
But what if the prejudice in this case was the other way round? What if the real distortions and manipulations were committed by the films, rather than the prosecution? Is it possible there was a genuine case against the three men, one that is a lot stronger than depicted in Paradise Lost? Could liberal audiences, rightly outraged by similar miscarriages, have rushed to their own judgments?
This possibility has been almost entirely overlooked by the extraordinary juggernaut created by Paradise Lost. From the original 1996 documentary by directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, its sequels, several other films and the advocacy of major Hollywood figures such as Johnny Depp and Peter Jackson, a huge innocence campaign was spawned that eventually led to the men's release in 2011.
Although never actually exonerated of the crime, so great was the negative publicly generated against the Arkansaw justice system that an unusual and little-used legal technicality was negotiated between the defense team and the state and the three men were finally released after serving 18 years of their sentences.
It's not hard to see why the ordeal of the West Memphis Three has had such strong impact on the public consciousness, and why the three men's case has continued to be promoted by high-profile figures in the film and music world such as Henry Rollins, the band Metallica, and director Peter Jackson, who donated $10 million to their defense.
The story fixed in the public mind by Paradise Lost and its sequels, of troubled teenagers persecuted because they were different, is one millions of people around the world can identify and sympathize with, not least those in the creative industries.
But with so much myth, propaganda, and rumor having been spread since the three men were jailed in 1994 it's easy to forget exactly why they were convicted in the first place. The films and the innocence campaigners have done such a good job of editing out many of the inconvenient facts and evidence that many are unaware that a solid case exists against the men at all.
Could it be those original detectives and prosecutors, most of whom maintain the men are guilty, were right after all? To understand why Hollywood may have made a grave mistake in their advocacy of the West Memphis Three, we must travel back to a nightmare day in 1993, when this terrible story begins.
Police in the small Arkansas city of West Memphis were first alerted that something was wrong on the night of May 5th 1993. The parents of three local boys had reported their sons, 8-year-olds Steve Branch, Michael Moore and Christopher Byers, missing. A small search was conducted in the surrounding area but no trace of the children was found.
Concern for the boys deepened after they had still not been found by the following morning and a major search was launched by the police and Crittenden County Search and Rescue at 8:00am. A police helicopter swept the whole area and 50 searchers, including many local volunteers, focused on an area of woods in West Memphis called Robin Hood Hills.
That afternoon, the grimmest of discoveries was made. Parole officer Steve Jones found a black tennis show near to where the woods bordered the Blue Beacon car wash. In a nearby ditch, Sergeant Mike Allen then discovered the naked body of a boy, his hands tied together with shoelaces. Following the course of the ditch, the bound bodies of two more boys were soon found.
The boys clothes were found scattered around the creek, some items had been pushed into the mud with sticks and the trousers were inside out. One of the boys, later identified as Chris Byers, was covered in lacerations and had had the skin from his penis and scrotum removed.
The autopsies found that Chris Byers had died from knife wounds and Steve Branch and Michael Moore from drowning. Luminol tests revealed enough blood on the ground to indicate they were probably killed where they were found. A lack of tracks or drag marks also indicated the boys had been attacked and killed in the woods.
The fact there were three victims, and they were tied up with three different types of knots, pointed to multiple killers. Although only 8 years old, it was difficult to see how one man could have subdued and murdered the three boys without at least one of them escaping and calling for help.
With stories that satanic ceremonies were occurring in the woods already circulating in the local community, the idea there was some ritual element in the murders quickly spread. Steve Jones and another juvenile parole office, Jerry Driver, immediately suspected a troubled local 18-year-old man named Damien Echols.
Echols' history of psychiatric problems and strange, violent behavior singled him out to Driver. With EVIL tattooed across his knuckles, his black clothes and self-confessed interest in the occult, the teenager also outraged Driver's conservative, insular mindset. The day after the murders, Driver made his suspicions about Echols known to the West Memphis Police.
The innocence campaign has made legitimate criticisms about the blinkered attitude of people like Steve Jones and Jerry Driver. Much of their aversion to Echols was based on petty prejudice rather than hard facts. However, once the police were made aware of the teenager, a very real case quickly developed against him, and one nothing to do with how he dressed.
Police first interviewed Damien Echols on May 7th and would talk to him several times in the next few days. Echols told them he was at home the night of the murders and spent much of the evening talking on the phone with several of his girlfriends.
Aside from his alibi, some of Echols statements in these interviews are strange and alarming enough to naturally attract the suspicion of detectives. Whilst Echols denied any knowledge of the murders, he appeared to have some startling insights into the killers.
West Memphis police detective Bryn Ridge's notes state - "When asked about how he thought the person felt that had done the homicides, he stated that the person probably felt good about what he had done and that he felt good that he had the power to do what he had done. "
The teenager also had something to say about the killer's methodology - "Damien stated that he figured that the killer knew the kids went into the woods and even asked them to come out to the woods. He stated that the boys were not big, not smart, and they would have been easy to control. He also felt the killer would not have been worried about the boys screaming due to it being in the woods and close to the expressway."
Innocence advocates have dismissed these statements by Echols as simply a cocky, intelligent teenager been smart with local cops, whom he probably regarded as his intellectual inferior. Whilst this is clearly a possibility, with three children having just been murdered, no detective could reasonably make the same determination.
Echols' interviews in the days following the murders also brought another name to the attention of the police, a 16-year-old friend of his named Jason Baldwin. Unlike Echols, nothing Baldwin told the detectives stood out as particularly unusual.
It was a phone call received by the police on May 9th that really turned Echols into a major suspect. Narlene Hollingsworth, the aunt of Damien's girlfriend Domini Teer, called the West Memphis Police to report a sighting of Echols near the murder scene on the night of the killings.
According to Narlene and three other members of her family, they saw Echols at around 9:30pm, walking in an area very close to where the bodies were later found. He was also 'covered in mud'.
It is one of Paradise Lost's most egregious distortions that it casts the police's focus on Echols as unwarranted. The West Memphis Police's honesty and competence have been repeatedly questioned over the years, but by May 10th they had genuine reason to believe that Echols was both lying to them about his alibi, and was near the murder scene at the time the boys died. Knowing this, no police force in the country could regard him as anything other than a major suspect.
The case against Echols developed further when the name of another local teenager, 17-year-old Jessie Misskelley, came to the police's attention. Misskelley's role in the story would perhaps become the most controversial and debated aspect of the entire case, and pivotal to the arguments of both the innocent and guilty camps.
Misskelley was a local dropout who worked odd jobs, had a low IQ and a history of petty crime and violence. Police first talked to him as a witness on June 3rd. Sensationally, within hours Misskelley would confess to the entire crime, stating that he, Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin had beaten and murdered the boys.
On the basis of the confession, Misskelley, and the other two suspects were arrested and charged with the murders. Misskelley's statements would form one of the cornerstones of the case against the three men. Because of this, Paradise Lost and the innocence campaign also focus on Misskelley and his confessions, arguing they were coerced by the police.
According to Paradise Lost, Misskelley was a vulnerable minor, a teenager with a very low IQ and learning difficulties who was interrogated for 12 hours on his own without his parents or legal representation. Under intense pressure from detectives, Misskelley falsely confessed to a crime he and his two friends did not commit.
This false confession narrative is central to the entire innocence campaign, but it is seriously misrepresented in the films. In actual fact, Jessie Misskelley confesses multiple times, often in private to his own defense lawyers and away from police pressure.
Similarly misleading is the way the films treat Misskelley's alleged intellectual dysfunction and the circumstances surrounding his police interviews. Even when Paradise Lost makes a valid point, it is often undermined by its one-sided treatment of the facts and omission of proper context to what's happening.
Because he was accusing the other two suspects, Misskelley was tried separately from Echols and Baldwin. Despite the shortcomings of the prosecution case alleged by the innocence campaign, two separate juries in 1994 were sufficiently convinced to convict the three men. Echols was sentenced to death and Baldwin and Misskelley were sentenced to life imprisonment.
None of the films make any attempt to interview the jury members to try and understand why they thought the men were guilty, settling instead to insinuate that they were gullible and prejudiced for doing so.
The first Paradise Lost film was released in 1996, building on an inchoate campaign that was developing on the then emerging internet. Sequels released in 2000 and 2011 follow supporters of the men and their attempts to get the verdicts overturned.
West of Memphis, produced by Peter Jackson and Damien Echols himself, was released in 2012. Covering much the same ground as Paradise Lost, the film concludes with the deal made between prosecutors and the defense team that saw the men released in 2011.
The rarely used Alford plea allowed the men to be released on the condition that they admit the state had enough evidence to convict them should the case go to another trial. Essentially it allowed Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley to protest their innocence for the cameras whilst officially pleading guilty to the crime.
These later films have attracted criticisms for making allegations against some of the murdered boys fathers. Suspicion is cast variously upon both John Mark Byers and Terry Hobbs, often using the same kind of scant evidence and innuendo the film-makers accused the prosecution of using.
The case of the West Memphis Three would probably be unknown outside of Arkansas if not for these films and especially the high profile support Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley have received from the film and music industry.
Their advocacy catapulted the relatively obscure case into an international cause celebre, cited as a notorious miscarriage of justice in countless newspaper stories, magazine articles, books and television programs. West Memphis itself was widely depicted as a rural backwater with a corrupt and incompetent police and courts.
I concluded, and am still convinced, that they were guilty
Little attention was paid to dissenting voices. Award-winning journalist Billy Sinclair began writing about crime and justice whilst serving a 40-year prison sentence for murder in the 1970s. Now released, Sinclair believes the West Memphis Three are guilty.
“I concluded, and am still convinced, that they were guilty,” he said. "My gut feeling is that if a person is truly innocent, who has spent 18 years fighting for his innocence, he’s not going to go and plead guilty to killing three 8-year-old boys unless he’s guilty."
Are skeptics like Sinclair right? Were the West Memphis Three guilty of the murders of the children at Robin Hood Hills in 1993?
The murders were thought to have occurred sometime between about 6:30pm, when the boys were last seen, and 8pm. Although glossed over in Paradise Lost, none of the men have been able to produce a convincing alibi for this time.
In his May 10th interview, Echols states that was at home all night, talking to various girls on the phone. However, when police found and interviewed the four girls named in Echols' statement, they all contradicted his account.
13-year-old Jennifer Bearden did talk to Damien a few times that day, but it was not during the time-frame of the murder. In her statement she says she called Echols at around 8pm but his grandmother answered and said he was out.
Two other girls, Heather Cliett and Holly George, also talked to Echols by phone that day, but were unable to contact him between about 9 and 10:30pm. The next day Holly later told Heather that Damien said he had been out "walking around" at the time.
Even more damaging for Echols is the testimony of the Hollingsworth family. Narlene Hollingsworth, along with three members of her family, were driving in the area of Robin Hood Hills at around 9:30pm when they saw Echols with his girlfriend Domini Teer walking along a road just 200 yards from where the bodies were found. According to the family, Echols was "covered in mud".
All four of the Hollingsworth family knew Echols well, and their sighting was, and remains, a major problem for the innocence campaign. Not only does it place Damien Echols near the murder site at around the time the boys were killed, it contradicts his own alibi. The fact the murdered boys were found dumped in a muddy ditch also casts the observation that Echols was covered in mud in a further suspicious light.
Echols has continued to lie about his alibi in his many media interviews. In 2010, he told CNN - "At the time the police say the murders took place I was actually on the phone with three different people. The problem was, my attorneys never called them to the stand."
Clearly, if Echols' lawyers had evidence that he was elsewhere when the crimes occurred then they would have used it. That they don't call the girls is because they would have contradicted their client's alibi, an inconvenient fact that both Damien Echols and the Paradise Lost films are keen we don't know.
There's also no reason to believe the defense team wouldn't have had access to the phone records for that night. Tellingly, since Echols would probably have been acquitted if the phone alibi story was true, they don't use them.
Jason Baldwin's alibi proved too flimsy and inconsistent to use at trial. His lawyers found it so difficult to piece together any coherent timeline of Jason's whereabouts on the day that they took the unusual course of not presenting any alibi witnesses at all.
One of the defence team lawyers, Paul Ford, explained this decision in 2008 - "I concluded from my efforts that I did not find successfully what I was looking for, for the purposes of establishing an alibi that I felt would not unravel on me, which I believe is much more detrimental than not presenting one at all."
Jessie Misskelley's alibi initially looked stronger. His defence attorneys found several people who were willing to testify that Misskelley was attending a wrestling game in Dyess at the time of the murders. The wrestling story features prominently in Paradise Lost and West of Memphis, but the films leave out some important context.
In actual fact, the alibi largely crumbled under cross-examination, as the witnesses were inconsistent and contradicted each other. The prosecution team also produced a receipt which suggested the trip had probably occurred in April, before the murders. Tellingly, Misskelley never mentions the wrestling trip in any of his police statements
Is it really credible that none of the three accused men are able to provide a good alibi for the most infamous night in West Memphis history? Real innocent people are obviously somewhere else, and they leave a trace behind. If the men really are not guilty, then they are incredibly unlucky to be unable to convincingly account for their true whereabouts.
Am I Evil?
The films, and latterly Echols himself, have done a good job in portraying the then 18-year-old as an outsider who was persecuted in a small Christian community because he was a goth who had an interest in the occult. They concede he was suffering from angst and mild depression, but these are perfectly normal teenage problems.
What the innocence campaign studiously avoid is the fact that Echols was actually mentally ill at the time of the murders, a self-confessed psychopath with a long history of serious psychiatric problems.
Echols had been hospitalised for mental health issues twice the previous year, his behaviour often so extreme his own parents had become frightened of him. They told Echols' case worker that they were "frightened of him and what he can do, not only to them but to other children that reside in the home."
During the sentencing phase of the trial when it was apparent that Echols may face the death penalty, his defence team prepared a large dossier, known as Exhibit 500, detailing his psychiatric history over the previous few years. This was a standard procedure as it could be used as a mitigating factor in order to reduce a death sentence to life imprisonment.
This document had unintended consequences when it was made public due to the catalogue of aberrant behavior it detailed. Although downplayed by his advocates, the dossier details the deeply troubled mind of a young man teetering on the edge of psychopathy, who was prone to violence and suffering delusions of grandeur.
The report recounts Echols frequent homicidal and suicidal thoughts, how he was obsessed with satanism and the occult, believed he was possessed by a spirit called Rosey and even believed he was God.
Echols' frequent aggression was also a major concern. Several expulsion reports from Echols' school detail his routine threats and violence against his classmates. He attacked many of his friends and even tried to gouge out the eye of one boy. Two incidents are documented of him setting fire to his classroom.
The aggression extended to his family members. Whilst detained at Craighead County Juvenile Detention Center in 1992, a hospital's psychological assessment reported that Echols was - "presently in detention in Jonesboro, picked up for violation of probation, threatened to slit parents throat and eat them alive."
One recurring theme from the Exhibit 500 is Echols fixation with drinking blood. Several incidents are documented of him licking blood off other patients at hospital and trying to suck blood from people's necks. One particularly disturbing episode is described in his psychological evaluation - "...one of the kids at the detention hall cut his wrists, Damien grabbed his arm and began to the suck the blood, smeared it over his body and said he’s a devil worshipping vampire."
...one of the kids at the detention hall cut his wrists, Damien grabbed his arm and began to the suck the blood...
Echols himself felt he was so mentally ill that he could not work. At the time of the murders he had applied for and was receiving Social Security disability benefits for his psychiatric issues, describing himself on the application as - "Homicidal, suicidal, manic depression, schizophrenia, sociopathic".
More lurid allegations that Echols murdered and dismembered a dog are difficult to verify, and hotly contested between both the pro and anti camps. However, there is already enough in Exhibit 500 to conclude Echols was a dangerous individual who exhibited enough red flags to believe he was at least capable of doing something as terrible as the murders he was charged with.
Another recurring feature of Echols' behaviour is his compulsive lying. With the innocence campaign having almost entirely captured the mainstream narrative, Echols has been free to make several obvious and unchallenged lies about the case in many of his media interviews.
Amongst Echols' most notable lies are his claim in 2010 that he did not live in West Memphis at the time of the murders. As established at the trial, on May 5th 1993, Echols actually lived at the Broadway Trailer Park in West Memphis, about two miles from the murder scene.
Echols has also stated on several occasions since his release that he hardly ever visited West Memphis and was not familiar with Robin Hood Hills, where the murders occurred, This is hard to square with the fact that he had once lived in the Mayfair Apartments, which overlooked the area. The apartments were so close to the murder scene that the crime scene tape was just yards from their front entrance.
In the 1992-93 timeframe, Echols would often be seen walking around the area of Robin Hood Hills, and even stated so himself at his in trial in 1994. His later attempts to distance himself from the crime scene are part of a wider attempt to rewrite the history of his involvement, something the films, especially the Echols produced West of Memphis, have allowed him to do with impunity.
The Memory Remains
By far the most egregious misrepresentation in Paradise Lost and its sequels concern Jessie Misskelley's confessions. If the films are to be believed, Misskelley was a man with a very low IQ who was interrogated without representation for 12 hours until he broke down and falsely confessed to the murders.
The first misrepresentation concerns Misskelley's IQ. It suited the defence case to portray Misskelley as borderline retarded as it re-enforced the narrative that he had been bullied into confessing by the police and his statements could not be trusted.
Undoubtedly Misskelley had quite a low IQ, he scored between 70 and 80 in various tests he was given. However, Misskelley was told by his lawyers a low IQ score would reduce the chance of him getting the death penalty. There is some evidence that his tests show signs of 'malingering', or deliberately acting dumb to try and achieve a low score.
Regardless of what his IQ tests say, Misskelley was a functional adult. He was literate, held down jobs and had relationships with women. He operated at the level of millions of other Americans who manage to lead normal lives without been particularly smart. He even enrolled in college after his release. He was certainly not the gullible, mentally retarded man-child he was often depicted as by innocence campaigners.
The key aspect of the false confession narrative advocated by Paradise Lost is that Misskelley was interrogated for 12 hours, without his parents permission or the presence of a lawyer. Even a cursory study of the police records show this to be untrue.
In actual fact, Misskelley was first contacted by the police as a witness. Sgt Mike Allen talked to his Misskelley's father on the morning of the 3rd of June about interviewing Jessie. His father agreed and went and fetched his son, who was then driven to the police station by Allen. His father knew what was happening with his son at all times. He even went to the station mid-morning to sign a permission form to allow Misskelley to be administered a polygraph test. Misskelley failed the test.
It is often claimed by innocence advocates that Jessie Misskelley was not read his Miranda rights or did not understand his rights during this interview. This claim had been made so many times that it's become a kind of article of faith, despite the fact it's entirely untrue. The tapes and transcripts of the interview, aswell as two initialed forms, clearly reveal that Misskelley is actually read his rights on multiple occasions during the June 3rd interview.
Misskelley also fully understood what his rights were. He had had numerous prior encounters with law enforcement and had read and signed Miranda waivers on at least four occasions before. The transcript also reveals that Misskelley was offered, and turned down the opportunity to have a lawyer during this interview.
Misskelley arrived at the police station at about 10pm. He confessed to the crime at 2:20pm. Only a few hours of this 4 and a half hours actually consisted of interviews. There never was a 12-hour interrogation, it is an invention of the innocence campaign and Paradise Lost.
False confessions are quite well understood in criminology. They happen under situations of intense stress and pressure and are almost immediately retracted when the suspect is released from the pressure of the interrogation. Misskelley does not fit this pattern at all.
After his June 3rd confession, he makes numerous other confessions. Eight days later Misskelley confesses again, in private to his own defence lawyers Dan Stidham and Greg Crow. In further prison interviews with Stidham in February 1994, Misskelley confesses again, on one occasion with his hand on a bible.
After his conviction in February, Misskelley again admits he committed the crime to two police officers transporting him to prison. Then, in an extraordinary tape recorded conversation with his attorneys on February 17th , Misskelley stridently reaffirms his guilt as Stidham and Crow can be heard pleading with him not to. He is then interviewed by the prosecution team where he gives a long and detailed account of how he, Baldwin and Echols murdered the boys.
Paradise Lost and West of Memphis fail to mention the 17th February confession, or the many other confessions Misskelley made. They don't fit the narrative of a mentally inadequate man been coerced into confessing by vicious police bullying. No explanation has ever been given as to how a man who apparently is coerced into falsely confessing is also able to confidently and defiantly resist the coercion of his own lawyers not to confess.
Some evidence exists to suggest Misskelley confessed even before the police first talked to him. A friend of Jessie Misskelley named Buddy Lucas told police that on May 6th Misskelley told him he was present when the boys were murdered. Lucas stated that Misskelley broke down and cried whilst talking to him. Numerous other witnesses, including Miskelley's father's girlfriend reported similar uncharacteristic crying fits from teenager in the days following the murders.
Although less central to the case, there were also some accounts of confessions to the crimes from Echols and Baldwin. Two peripheral friends of the boys, William Winford and Ken Watkins both reported to police that they had heard Echols claim responsibility for the murders.
A group of girls at a softball game also reported hearing Damien Echols brag about the crimes. Echols denied making the statements at his trial, and innocence campaigners have long rubbished the girls testimony. However, in later years, Echols admitted he did brag about killing the boys at the softball game, but stated he probably said it as a 'joke'.
Knife in the Water
It is often claimed that no physical evidence connects the West Memphis Three to the murder of the boys at Robin Hood Hills. However, a knife found in the lake behind Jason Baldwin's trailer provided a solid, if not entirely undisputed, link between the teenager and the crimes.
In November 1993, while the suspects were awaiting trial, West Memphis police began a search for evidence relating to the crime and quickly focused in on a large area of water behind the trailer park where Jason Baldwin lived at the time of the murders. This looked a likely place where possible murder weapons may have been disposed.
Police divers found various items in the lake, including footwear and a jacket. Amongst the items was a large survival type knife with a serrated edge and a circular opening in the base of the handle that had one held a screw in compass.
Police believed the saw like serrated edge of the knife matched some of regularly spaced, incised wounds observed on the bodies of Chris Byers and Steven Branch. At the trial, prosecution lawyers famously attempted to demonstrate how this knife could have made the wounds by using it on a grapefruit.
The prosecution also called witnesses who claimed to have seen the knife in Jason Baldwin's trailer around the time of the murders. Deanna Holcomb, Damien Echols' ex-girlfriend, also told the court that she had previously seen Echols with a similar knife.
The defense team and innocence advocates have tried to counter the knife evidence in various ways over the years. They have dismissed the knife like marks on the boys bodies as teeth marks or animal predation.
Paradise Lost 2 tries to argue some of the wounds were human bite marks and insinuates they were made by John Mark Byers, whose eccentric behaviour and recent dental surgery had caused rumours to spread in the local community that he may have been involved in the murders.
More recently, two forensic dentists have re-examined autopsy photos of the wounds and dismissed the bite mark thesis. Homer Campbell and Peter Loomis are both specialists in tool and bite mark identification who have given expert testimony in several court cases over the years. They both believe the wounds to the boys were produced by the so-called lake knife.
"I believe the injuries to the left forehead and upper lid of the left eye were produced by the knife recovered or one similar. I also sent the photos of the injuries and the knife to another for evaluation and he agrees", Campbell stated.
Loomis measured the wounds to Steve Branch's forehead and found they corresponded exactly to the dimensions of the knife. "The 3 lacerations under the eyebrow look like they were made by the serrations on the back side of the knife. The lacerations measure 11.2mm between them, and the serrated points on the knife vary between 11.1 and 11.4 mm".
The circular butt of the Baldwin knife, measuring 29.8mm in diameter, also matched almost exactly the 30mm diameter of the circular wound that had been dismissed by the defence as a bite mark. The extraordinary way the size of the wounds precisely match the dimensions of the knife is striking.
Whilst speculation, if this knife had made the injuries to Branch's forehead whilst the compass section was still intact, then the metal pin at the centre of the compass would also match exactly the clear x-shaped mark at the centre of the wound.
The knife is problematic for innocence advocates. It provides a solid forensic link between Jason Baldwin and the fatal wounds to Steven Branch. But like so much in the crime, this evidence is still far from conclusive and remains heavily disputed.
But if a knife almost exactly matching the size and nature of the wounds was found in the water behind Jason Baldwin's trailer entirely by coincidence, and it is unrelated to either the men or the crime, then yet again the West Memphis Three have been extraordinarily unlucky.
Sad But True
At the trial, the prosecution presented several pieces of forensic evidence linking the suspects to the crime. The innocence campaign and the Paradise Lost films have rightly pointed out how weak much of this evidence is. The truth is, with the possible exception of the lake knife as discussed, no physical evidence firmly links either the West Memphis Three or any other suspect to the crimes.
Attorneys often bemoan the expectation modern juries have for DNA and forensic evidence in murder trials. This expectation has become known as the CSI Effect, fostered by the widespread use of often exaggerated crime scene forensics in films and television shows.
In reality, even today in an era of extremely sophisticated DNA techniques, very few criminal cases revolve around forensic evidence. One study has only 13% of criminal cases having any kind of forensic evidence at all, and it's estimated that usable DNA evidence is left behind in only 4.5% of homicides.
The lack of DNA evidence at the murder site in Robin Hood Hills is sometimes cited as an argument for the boys innocence, but the truth is the absence of such evidence is much as would be expected, especially so because the boys were killed outdoors. Not only was the crime scene heavily contaminated by searchers and investigators, but the killers also dumped the bodies in water which washed off any forensic evidence that may have been present.
What evidence there was was inadequate as a serious argument for the men's guilt. Fibre evidence presented by the prosecution was too vague and could have matched almost anyone, not just the suspects. Some of the other evidence used by the prosecution was tendentious at best.
Blue candle wax found on one of the victims clothing was only similar to wax found in Echols' bedroom, and could have matched any number of other people who had candles in their home. DNA evidence found on Echols' necklace was consistent with that of Steven Branch, but also millions of other people.
Eye of the Beholder
Whilst the frequent claim that Jessie Misskelley was coerced into confessing is not supported by the evidence, much of what he says is undermined by its inaccuracy. A large amount of Misskelley's confession does not match the known details of the crime and Paradise Lost and the innocence campaign have done a good job in highlighting the manifest inconsistencies in his statements.
Whilst he does get some important details correct, there are enough major discrepancies to make it hard to reconcile them with Misskelley actually been present during the murders. Several times in his confessions he states that the victims were tied up with brown rope. This is untrue, they were tied up with their own shoelaces.
If Misskelley was present could he really have gotten such a basic detail wrong? The rope statement does sound like someone trying to imagine or guess how the crime was committed rather than having real first-hand knowledge. Misskelley almost certainly heard the many rumours about the crimes that were circulating in the area and this may also have coloured his statements.
Numerous similar factual discrepancies have been highlighted by innocence campaigners and are prominently featured in the Paradise Lost films. Misskelley tells police they skipped school that day and killed the boys around noon. They were actually killed in the late evening. He states that he witnessed Baldwin and Echols rape the boys, but the autopsies showed that this did not occur.
There are some possible explanations for the inconsistencies in Misskelley's statements. By his own admission he was very drunk during the attacks, and the liquor bottle he says he threw under a bridge was later found by the police. He also admits to only been peripherally involved in the murders themselves. It's at least plausible that a combination of intoxication and distance from the acts of murder themselves account for his inaccuracies.
We must also bear in mind that Misskelley, even if he was involved, was also a witness to a crime. Even genuine eyewitnesses are notoriously unreliable and often give details that prove to be entirely untrue. This is not evidence they did not witness the crime, just that the human memory is faulty and that when people are involved in shocking, chaotic and confusing events their recollections of them are often massively out of kilter with what actually happened.
The case of the West Memphis Three is a miasma of claim and counter claim. The murders are still fiercely debated online, largely curated by those who passionately believe in the innocence of the convicted men. The discussion is often bad-tempered with little ground given on either side.
There is no doubt that the campaign kicked off by Paradise Lost in 1996 has proven to be one of the most successful in legal history. It led to the release of the men, created global outrage about their plight and tainted the community of West Memphis with a lasting shame. This has lead to a great deal of resentment in the town about how they have been depicted in the media.
Whether the men are guilty or innocent may never be determined. Perhaps only another confession or the capture of the real killers will settle the matter once and for all. The polarised nature of the debate seems to force us to make a binary choice between two grave injustices - either three young men lost 18 years of their life for a crime they didn't commit, or three heinous murderers were unfairly released.
Whatever the truth is, there was a real case against them back in 1994, regardless of what the makers of Paradise Lost and Damien Echols would now have us believe. It's just sometimes, prejudice works both ways.
Were the West Memphis Three, released in 2011 after a high-profile innocence campaign, guilty after all?