In 1993, shortly after three eight-year-old boys were found murdered in West Memphis, Arkansas, police arrested Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley and charged the three teenagers with murder based solely upon an error-filled and police-coerced false confession, extracted from 16-year-old Jessie Misskelley Jr. After 12 hours of questioning, without counsel or parental consent, mentally disabled Jessie Misskelley repeated back to the police what he was told to say.
There was no other physical evidence, no weapon, no motive, and no connection to the victims. Instead, prosecutors terrified and inflamed the shell-shocked community.
Jessie Misskelley recanted his statement immediately upon being released to his family, stating that the police forced, via threat and the lure of money, the story he told, but it was too late. Misskelley, Jason Baldwin and Damien Echols, known as The West Memphis Three, were arrested—then convicted of murder.
Stunningly, Jason Baldwin, 16 at the time and a model student, was sentenced to life without parole; Jessie Misskelley got life plus 40 years, while Damien Echols was sentenced to death. Damien has spent years in solitary confinement awaiting death by lethal injection for a crime neither he nor Jessie nor Jason had anything to do with.
A panicked community, desperate police, impoverished defense attorneys, and a rush to judgment condemned them.
The West Memphis Three have been wrongfully convicted for crimes they did not commit. But, crucial new evidence of their innocence has been uncovered including crime scene DNA that absolves the three young men and points to others. Some of the country’s leading pathologists found that much of the forensic evidence presented to the jury, which helped convict the young men, was false and not consistent with the cause of death nor wounds found on the bodies.
Recently, a sworn affidavit was presented to the court from a prominent former Arkansas prosecutor stating that during the original Echols/Baldwin trial, the jury foreman repeatedly contacted the attorney informing him that he was introducing Jessie Misskelley’s false confession during deliberations in order convince his fellow jurors to convict the men. Jessie’s confession had been barred from the trial as he had recanted and refused to testify against Damien and Jason. This structural defect in the proceedings should be sufficient cause to overturn their convictions.
The Arkansas Supreme Court is currently reviewing the new DNA and forensic evidence as well as the juror misconduct to determine whether to grant Damien Echols a new trial. Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley lost their appeal before Judge David Burnett’s Craighead County Court. Their case now moves to the Arkansas Supreme Court as well.