Crime fighters and the criminal justice system sometimes have to contend with false confessions and false convictions. Prisons are full of people claiming that they are innocent. Could some of them be telling the truth? Before DNA evidence it was impossible to find out and as we later learned many were wrongfully convicted. As DNA evidence became available it has helped to set many innocent people free. We have learned in hind sight why it is so important not to rely solely on circumstantial evidence for a conviction.
One case that involved both a false confession and false convictions was the West Memphis Three case. This is one of those true stories that no one could possibly make up. Stevie Branch, Michael Moore, and Christopher Byers were 8 year old boys who were murdered in a wooded area not far from a major highway.
Three area teenagers who were considered misfits were later charged and convicted of the crime. DNA testing was not widely available at the time of the arrests and convictions.
Jason Baldwin, Damien Echols, and Jessie Misskelley were all questioned and assumed guilty. Jessie Misskelley is a special needs individual with an IQ of 72 who did not fully understand what was happening. He was questioned without a parent and was worn out by interrogation tactics. He was told he could go home if he confessed so he confessed and also said that Baldwin and Echols were involved just so he could leave the police station. He was asked leading questions and had his answers directed by the person doing the questioning. Jason Baldwin and Damien Echols were similarly interrogated but neither of them would confess to any wrong doing concerning any of the murdered children. There appears to have been some dabbling in occult practices, especially by Damien Echols. The police claimed that the young boys had been murdered as part of an occultic sacrifice. None of the accused teens could afford adequate legal council.
Devil’s Knot: The True Story of the Memphis Three by Mara Leveritt explores not only the wrongful arrests and convictions of three local teens but many mistakes made by investigators. There were other suspects which were never followed up. The night of the murders the police received a phone call reporting a man covered in blood who had entered a local restaurant to use the restroom to clean himself up. This unknown suspect is now referred to as “Mr. Bojangles.” Police failed to respond quickly and physical evidence was literally washed away. There were other persons of interest in the local area and clues pointing away from the teen boys that were totally ignored. Despite the fact that dental impressions were given by both Baldwin and Echols which did not match bite marks found on the victims, this evidence was ignored. Many more examples like these can be found in the Devil’s Knot book.
After their trials, all three teens were convicted based upon Misskelley’s confession and circumstantial evidence. Baldwin and Misskelley were sentenced to life in prison. Echols, who was 18, was sentenced to death.
Years later, DNA evidence came to light and exonerated all three men.
Mara Leveritt (with Jason Baldwin) wrote a sequel to the Devil’s Knot book called Dark Spell: Surviving the Sentence. This book goes on to describe what prison had been like for all three men, with the emphasis on Baldwin’s experience.
With the exoneration of Baldwin, Echols, and Misskelley West Memphis police were forced to reopen the investigation into the murder of the three 2nd grade boys. Unbelievably, police once again ignored evidence and concentrated on the wrong man. In his book Untying the Knot by Greg Day (with John Mark Byers) the second murder investigation focuses on John Mark Byers, the father of one of the murdered boys. Mr. Byers is the first to admit that he is no angel but there is substantial evidence that Byers is, again, the wrong suspect. There is convincing evidence that points to other suspects which the police seemed to have ignored again in the murder of the three little boys.
Meanwhile, Damien Echols wrote about his time in prison and what happened when he got out of prison in his book, Life After Death. Echols had to go through numerous appeals to get off of death row. This took quite a toll on him as you might imagine and then he was actually proven innocent by DNA.
Not only is this a story of overcoming impossible odds, but it is also a very moving love story. During his time in prison, Echols met and married Lorri Davis. Davis was instrumental in helping Echols through the entire appeals process. It’s because of her efforts that Echols was saved from death row.
After his release Echols co-authored Yours for Eternity which chronicled the love story with his wife, Lorri Davis, and how they worked together for his release.
All four of these men’s lives are intertwined and it may be difficult to keep up with all the many details of the case. However there is a docudrama trilogy called The Paradise Lost Trilogy that presents all of the major facts which anyone interested in this story would find helpful and informative.
Originally, I had planned to relate stories of other falsies like imposters, fakes, and forgeries. However, since this post is quite lengthy already, I will just ask you to follow a link to my post on Identity Theft where you will learn about a famous forger by the name of Frank Abagnale who was one of the best falsies of all time.
Other books that I checked out but don’t have time to comment on are:
Were you familiar with the West Memphis Three murder case? Have you ever seen The Paradise Lost Trilogy?