8-year-olds Steven Branch, Michael Moore, and Christopher Byers were found murdered in the Robin Hood Hills Woods on May 6th, 1993.
“Imagine all the evil you could think of to how somehow can be murdered, that’s how these children died”
On May 5th, 1993 the lives of 6 families were forever rocked, catapulting each and every family into a state of depression some still experience today. Stripped naked, hogtied with their own shoelaces, hands and ankles tied behind their back, the bodies of Michael Moore, Steven “Stevie” Branch, and Christopher (Chris) Byers were found in a muddy creek bed by the West Memphis Police Department in a location that had been already searched, The Robin Hood Woods on May 6th, 1993. The body of Christopher Byers had lacerations of different degrees to multiple parts of his body with the castration of his scrotum and penis. The face of Stevie was essentially ripped apart. Their clothes were found in the creek where they were discovered, turned inside out, and was twisted around muddy sticks. Upon this discovery, West Memphis Police speculated the boys had been raped and assumed some sort of satanic ritual occurred.
Within a month, police already believed they had found the perpetrators, and with the confession of 17-year-old Jessie Misskelley Jr., they became convinced they had a solid case. The West Memphis Three refers to the teenage boys charged in the murders, 18-year-old Damien Echols, 16-year-old Jason Baldwin, and 17-year-old Jessie Misskelley Jr. On May 7th, 1993 just 1 day after the discovery of the boys' bodies, Damien Echols was interviewed by West Memphis Police, with no notes being recorded. 2 days later, Damien and Jason were formally interviewed and denied any involvement, and mentioned they had never even heard of the 3 boys that had been killed. According to investigators, Damien mentioned one of the victims had wounds to his genitals, furthering police to think they had their man. Detective Bill Durham subjected Damien to a polygraph test, seeing signs of deception he claims “Damien had been untruthful during the polygraph examination and was involved in the murders.”
With an IQ of just 72, placing him the category of borderline mental retardation, Jessie Misskelley Jr. was interviewed by police on June 3rd, 1993 without any parents present despite police knowing he was a minor. Enduring police interrogation for 12 hours, Jessie confessed to involvement in the murders as well as implicating Damien and Jason, but quickly recanted citing coercion, deception, and intimidation made by police. Only 45 minutes of that 12 hours was recorded by police. Misskelley claimed he was informed of his Miranda Rights, but did not understand them. Later that day warrants for the arrest of Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley Jr. were issued, each charged with capital murder, The West Memphis 3 Trials were now underway. During a public conference, Chief Inspector Gary Gitchell was asked by a reporter "On a scale of 1 to 10, how solid do you think this case is" he responded with "eleven".
It was ruled by Judge David Barnett that Jessie’s confession would be admissible in the trial despite the coercive undertones. He also ruled that Jessie should be tried separately in a different county, and the 3 boys were to be charged as adults rather than juveniles. All entered pleas of not guilty and maintained their innocence throughout their trials.
Richard Ofshe, a professor at UC Berkley and expert in false confessions, testified in Jessie’s trial that the 45 minutes of footage recorded of the interrogation was a “classic example” of police coercion and false confessions. Police claimed the boys were raped and their anuses showed signs of dilation. Although, no evidence showed any trauma to the boys' anuses. One of the key pieces of evidence, according to the prosecution, was the alleged confession made by Jessie. In the coerced confession, Jessie claims he saw Damien hit one of the boys then rape him followed by Jason hitting Stevie. During the trial of Damien and Jason, an Occult expert was brought in to testify on behalf of the prosecution arguing the boys mirrored satanic religious tendencies. The Modern-day Witch trial ended in the guilty conviction of all three boys. Damien Echols was sentenced to death by lethal Injection, while Jessie Misskelley and Jason Baldwin were sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
The epidemic of wrongful convictions has clouded our justice system on the exact purpose it thrives on- justice. It is time to acknowledge the flawed system that wrongfully equates us to be “Home of the Free”. This case epitomizes how police can flawly handle a case, ruining lives in the process.
After spending almost 2 decades incarcerated, Damien, Jessie, and Jason were freed from prison on the basis of an Alford plea. A plea deal encompassing the standpoint of being guilty under the eyes of the law, but still maintaining your innocence. They were granted time served, but under this plea, they cannot take any civil action against the state. After hours of researching this case, it is my personal belief that The West Memphis Three were not involved in the murders of Stevie Branch, Michael Moore, and Chris Byers. But if they did not murder those boys, then who did?
Vickie Hutcheson, a West Memphis resident, came out in 2003 saying her testimony during Damien and Jason’s trial was a lie due to coercion by the police. Vickie told police that 2 weeks after the murders occurred, she attended a Wiccan meeting with Damien and Jessie, where Damien drunkenly confessed to killing the 3 boys. She was unable to account the location of that alleged meeting and the other members that attended. Once she admitted her guilt, she reasoned that she implicated Damien and Jessie to avoid being prosecuted for theft, and hoping to earn a reward for putting murderers away.
The Mr. Bojangles Theory
Now, it is my personal assumption that this theory is not plausible, but despite my personal belief, I feel compelled to give everyone the option to make up their own mind. On May 5th, 1993, the night the boys were murdered, workers of the Bojangles Fast Food establishment reported an African American man, bleeding, muddy, and disorientated, inside the women’s bathroom. Occurring just a mile away from where the boys were found, and around the time the boys would have been killed, it is plausible this could be our man. The Oxygen Documentary Series, “The Forgotten West Memphis Three” attempts to decipher this puzzle, and examines the Bojangles angle.
Fleeing West Memphis just 4 days after the murders, Brian Holland and Chris Morgan were briefly suspects in the early days of the investigation. May 17th, 1993 Brian Holland and Chris Morgan were given a polygraph test under the suspicion of them being involved in the murders after being arrested In Oceanside California. California police claimed their polygraphs showed signs of deception when asked about involvement in the murders. During an interview, Chris Morgan told investigators about his history of drug and alcohol abuse. Indicating that he sometimes experiences blackouts and lapses in memory and “might have” killed the boys. He later recanted this statement. There is no indication of West Memphis police acting on these individuals, focusing entirely on the West Memphis Three from the start.
John Mark Byers
The HBO documentary, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, aired in 1996 ignited an uproar of controversy over the incarceration of the West Memphis Three. With some speculating the adoptive father of Christopher Byers, John Mark Byers was implicated in the murders. When filming this documentary John Mark Byers gave a folding hunting knife to filmmakers, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sonofsky, suspecting there was blood on it, HBO executives ordered them to hand it over to police. Byers initially stated to have never used the knife, but later changed his claim to have used the knife one time to cut deer meat. Testing of the blood on the knife showed to be consistent with Christopher Byers, as well as John Mark Byers, even though they were not biologically related. An alleged bite mark can be visible on the face of Stevie Branch that was not noted in the original autopsy or mentioned at the trials. Damien, Jessie, and Jason following their conviction. All submitted their teeth implants to be compared to the mark on Stevie’s face. Their teeth imprints did not match the alleged bite mark. John Mark Byers removed his teeth before an imprint could be made, citing his periodontal disease from taking seizure medications. In another HBO documentary, Paradise Lost 2: Revelation’s, an expert examined the autopsy photos and claimed it was possible to be a belt buckle imprint. Byers said to police he had spanked Chris with a belt at around 5:30 pm the night he was killed.
Natalie Maines, Lead Singer of the Dixie Chicks and Advocate for the exoneration of the West Memphis Three, vocalized her support for new DNA and forensic testing to be done on this case while strongly suggesting if such testing was done, Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of Stevie Branch, would be implicated in the death of his own step-son. Following these allegations Terry sued the dixie chicks for defamation, opening himself to questioning under oath about the murders of Stevie, Michael, and Christopher. Terry under oath claimed to be a non-violent individual, despite reports of him beating his wife, Pam Hobbs, and shooting his wife’s brother-in-law. He also claimed to have not seen the boys at all the night they were murdered.
In 2010, Jamie Clark Ballard came forward with claims to have seen the boys on the night of May 5th, around 6:30 pm. She recalls them zooming on their bikes and yelled out to Christopher to go home, with Christopher yelling back” I don’t have to do what you tell me to do”, after this she allegedly saw Terry Hobbs hollering for Stevie. Police never came by to interview them even though she lived just 3 doors down. She wasn’t aware of Terry's claims to have not seen the children that day.
DNA testing was done in 2007 none of which matched Damien, Jason, or Jessie. A hair that was found tied in one of the ligatures knots used to Michael Moore was found to be consistent with Terry.
John Douglas a retired FBI Profiler said “The person responsible for this crime knew these victims, and knew them relatively well. We’re looking at someone who has been violent in the past, who’s violent now and at the time the crime was perpetrated and would also be violent in the future".
The Oxygen Docuseries, The Forgotten West Memphis Three, hosted by podcaster Bob Ruff reinvestigates the case focusing on possible suspects. He conducts an experiment in the river bed the boys were found in, trying to determine if maybe turtles or creatures in the water caused the lacerations to the boy's bodies. He placed raw chickens in the water and within minutes turtles began snapping at the chickens destroying almost all of it. Meaning turtles could have played a role in the lacerations, scratches, and removal of Chris’ scrotum. An expert who examined autopsy photos of the bodies theorized the majority of their trauma could have occurred post mortem while they lay in the river bed.
It was quite a challenge attempting to concise all aspects of this case into a short Blog Post. While the main focus of Murders and Coffee is to investigate Cold Cases, I feel it’s imperative to also give my readers an idea of the injustice of wrongful convictions that play out too often in our nation. It is approximated that 120,000 individuals are currently incarcerated as a result of wrongful convictions. I encourage my readers to take a moment and watch the Paradise Lost Documentaries on HBO, as well as the Oxygen Docuseries, The Forgotten West Memphis Three. The murder or murderers of Steven Branch, Michael Moore, and Christopher Byers are still at large, and need to be brought to justice.