Notes from Above Ground
The True Crime Writing of Greg C. Day
In commemoration of the 20th anniversary of their deaths, Weaver Elementary School has started a fund to renovate the Memorial Reading Grove that was built in 1993. They are asking for donations in order to reach their $2,800 goal. Below is an excerpt from Untying the Knot about the grove, followed by information for those wishing to make a donation.
Weaver Elementary School, where Stevie, Christopher and Michael attended second grade, looks much like other schools of its type elsewhere in the United States. A flat, brick building, it has a semicircular driveway in the front for morning and afternoon student drop-off/pickup, a parking lot off to the right for teachers and visitors, and a flagpole planted in the midst of it all.
Out back, there is a colorful plastic gym set, with ladders and slides and tunnels. Next to it is a dome-shaped climbing set, which in earlier times might have been called “monkey bars.”
In the foreground of all that equipment stands a five-sided structure with low walls and a few benches built onto the sides. The pitched roof is of asphalt shingle construction, and quite a few of the shingles are loose. There is weather vane on the peak sporting the Boy Scouts of America symbol. The steel arrow that is meant to indicate wind direction is lying on the roof, snapped off from the shaft of the instrument.
The structure has been painted in the not-too-distant past and shows signs of at least minimal maintenance. This is the “Memorial Reading Grove” dedicated to Stevie, Christopher and Michael by their friends at Weaver Elementary. The slab of stone inside is engraved with the words “Do Your Best”—the Cub Scout motto. It doesn’t seem like enough to say about three lives, regardless of their brevity, and visitors to the grove are often left wondering, "Why did this happen?"
Their legacy won’t be nearly as prominent as that of the West Memphis Three, the men convicted of their murder, and that’s wrong. Life hasn’t been fair for the families of Stevie, Christopher and Michael because life isn’t fair, but with God's grace the boys have found peace in a place that children so young perhaps shouldn’t be.
Rest in peace little ones.
Please send donations to:
Weaver Elementary Reading Grove/Playground Fund
1280 East Barton Ave.
West Memphis, AR 7230
For more information contact Sheila Grissom, Weaver Elementary School principal, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 870-735-7670.
This is the third and final article in the three part series on Damien Echols’s life and the events leading up to his arrest for capital murder.
Although Echols’s musical taste had not yet been bent exclusively toward heavy metal (Michael Jackson, Phil Collins, and Fine Young Cannibals were still acceptable to him), his reading choices came from one genre only: horror. Stephen King, Dean Koontz and Anne Rice were favorites.
More significant than this, though, was Damien’s discovery of the stories of the Christian Inquisition. These stories galvanized in Damien’s mind the belief that the world was a dangerous place for him, that it was possible to be demonized, even tortured and killed, “severed limb from limb,” because of the appearance of being different. Worse was his paralyzing fear that he would go to hell because of his increasingly hostile thoughts toward people.
He was sure that someday the accusations of a modern-day inquisition would be made against him and that he would lose not only his life but his mortal soul as well. (This is an eerie precursor to Echols's "West Memphis Boogeyman" statement.)
As he grew, Damien’s emotional problems became chronic and debilitating, so much so that he required hospitalization in West Memphis and again in Little Rock, where he had been diagnosed as suicidal, homicidal, psychotic, delusional, drug abusive, and chronically depressed. It was also noted that he was heavily interested in “magic” and “witchcraft.”
In September 1992 he was admitted to St. Vincent’s Hospital in Portland, Oregon, where the family lived with Joe Hutchison for a time after Jack Echols had been removed from the family’s home in West Memphis amid allegations of sexually abusing Michelle. Damien was reportedly threatening his family and abusing drugs. Joe and Pam also had “concerns regarding satanism”, but his condition was probably more serious than that. During the time leading up to May 5, 1993, Damien suffered hallucinations, believing, for example, that he had assumed the personality of one “Morpheus Sandman,” a “hybrid of a human being and a god.” (Morpheus was a character in Neil Gaiman’s comic book series, Sandman, which Echols had probably read.)
Damien was sure that he was “something that was almost a supreme being that came from a place other people didn’t come from” and had “an entirely different bone structure that was not human.”
His weight had dropped to an alarming 116 pounds, and his nails were filed to a perfect one-and-a-half inches long. By all accounts, Damien Echols was a very sick young man.
When the doctors at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Portland and his parents agreed that Damien should return to Arkansas for his mental health—he missed his friends and was not adjusting well in Portland (he threatened to “eat his father alive”—he returned to live with Jack Echols in West Memphis. Upon returning to Arkansas, where he was still on probation, he was picked up and taken to the Juvenile Detention Center in Jonesboro, where he reportedly sucked blood from a cut in another detainee’s arm and rubbed it on his face. His long fingernails—“talons,” Jerry Driver would call them—were filed to sharp points, and he had threatened to use them on another person at least once.
Ever since having Damien arrested and hospitalized as a result of his running away with girlfriend Deanna Holcomb, juvenile officer Jerry Driver had been singularly obsessed in his pursuit of Damien.
Driver had Echols arrested almost immediately upon his return to West Memphis for the “terroristic threatening” and harassment of Deanna Holcombe and had him committed to Charter Hospital in Little Rock for what he believed should be long-term treatment. His doctors believed that Damien’s spiritual philosophy was pathological and, as a result, a condition of his release from Charter was that he would “not participate in occult beliefs.”
It was Driver’s subordinate, Steve Jones, who was on hand at the crime scene to indict Damien when Stevie Branch, Christopher Byers, and Michael Moore were pulled out of the drainage ditch—“Looks like Damien has finally killed someone,” he said.
(This statement is attributed to Jones in Blood of Innocents, the 1995 book by journalists Guy Reel, Marc Perrusquia and Bartholomew Sullivan. Steve Jones was at the crime scene, and according to the authors, Jones told others that his fears had come true: Damien Echols had finally killed someone. This statement has been widely circulated on the Internet and among case watchers but cannot be verified. E-mails to two of the book’s authors to determine the source of the remarks remain unanswered. The book also incorrectly lists Echols’s residence as Lakeshore, when he was actually living in Broadway trailer park with his parents at the time of the murders, and it was this residence that was searched on the night of June 3, 1993.)
Nearly 8 months before the murders, Damien was released from Charter after a two-week stay. He went to live with Jack Echols in his dilapidated trailer in Lakeshore. Jack was less than thrilled to have Damien back, and would have refused to let him stay if Damien hadn’t been a minor whom Jack had legally adopted. Damien had no money and could not work, and would remain penniless until his disability checks started coming.
When his mother and father decided to return from Oregon in the fall of 1992, Damien was staying with his pregnant girlfriend, sixteen-year-old Domini Teer. Thrilled to get away from Jack, Damien now spent his time between Domini’s place and his parents’ home. It wasn’t perfect, but it was better than being in the hospital, in juvenile detention, or with Jack Echols.
Best of all, he’d get to hang out again with his best friend Jason Baldwin, whom he had not seen or heard from since moving to Oregon.
Damien's move to a new home meant changing schools. He was happy at the school he had been attending, but was forced to transfer to Bragg Elementary (school motto: “Where All Children Can Learn”). Damien hated Bragg for some unknown reason, with the exception of his odd perception that “all the kids had overly large heads.”
Jack Echols also insisted that Damien attend the Pentecostal church Jack belonged to, the Church of God. In his 2005 book, Almost Home, Echols related that he found the church to be a “freak show” where people “spoke in tongues and rolled around on the floor screaming when they got the spirit.” Damien detested this demonstrative form of Christianity, right down to the pastor, whom he described as “morbidly obese”; he called the church itself a “wasteland.”
Damien despised everything about his new life, and this may have been the beginning of his antisocial behavior. It was, at the very least, a time during which that behavior crystallized, when the “seeds of hatred,” as he himself would later say, were first sown. He seemed to hold in contempt nearly everyone he met, learning as he grew up to “spit bile and venom with increasing precision” at those he perceived as threatening to him.
The family next moved to what can only be described as a backwoods chamber of horrors. It was more of an enlarged tool shed than a house, and Damien would later reflect that death row was better than the “little slice of hell” that Jack had moved them into. According to Damien, $30 a month was the rent for four rooms with a tin roof, “no running water or electricity to speak of,” and no heat or air conditioning; the family roasted during the summer and froze in the winter. This was a real-life Tobacco Road, and it, along with Damien’s suffocating loneliness during this time, ushered in what would be the worst period of his young life. He would later say that “even death was preferable” to his new life with Jack Echols.
Jack agreed: “Damien was about as miserable as a little boy could be.” Damien was also an unhealthy child, according to his adoptive father. “He was not able to go outside because he got really sick. He had a real hard time with his breathing because of all the crops outside the house. Sometimes his eyes and throat swelled up, and he could not swallow or see very good. I think the worst thing for Damien, though, were his headaches. From the time we moved into that house, he had terrible headaches.”
But most of all, Damien was sad. He would go days without sleeping, which brought on deep depressions that he was unable to lift himself out of. He would cry for reasons he couldn’t explain. “I could never figure out how someone could cry so hard and not know why they were sad,” Jack said. “It was really hard to watch Damien go through this.”
By the time he was eighteen, Damien was deemed totally disabled by the Social Security Administration as a result of his declining mental health. This was also the period during which Damien discovered the perfect companion and escape vehicles: reading and music. The two diversions would be the only refuge he could find in a world in which he increasingly had no control.
End of Part 2
This is the first installment of a three part series that focuses on the life of Damien Echols prior to his arrest for the murders of Stevie Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore. Much of the series has been excerpted from Untying the Knot: John Mark Byers and the West Memphis Three. In this series some of the endnotes in the book have been incorporated into the body of the text (I know how everyone hates those endnotes), and the content has also been edited slightly for clarity.
Were it not for Crittenden County’s chief juvenile officer Jerry Driver, it is possible that the police might not have come across the name Damien Echols. Driver had first come in contact with Echols more than a year before the murders, when a Marion, Arkansas woman contacted him to complain that Echols, then seventeen, was threatening her fifteen-year-old daughter. The two had been involved in a relationship that the woman’s daughter had ended.
According to Mara Leveritt (Devil’s Knot, New York, NY: Atria Books, 2002), Echols had begun harassing and threatening Deanna Holcomb, eventually saying that he would kill one of her male friends and “dump him in the front yard of her house, and then come back and take care of her, and burn the house down.” She and Echols had run away together once, and were found half-dressed in an abandoned trailer, resulting in the arrest of the two teens. The girl’s family had also complained to Driver that Damien was trying to get their daughter into black magic and witchcraft. They wanted Damien Echols out of their daughter’s life. Driver considered himself something of an expert on the occult and made it his mission to keep watch over Echols, who had threatened to kill several people, including Driver himself.
Damien Wayne Echols was a brooding, eighteen-year-old high school dropout living in a seedy trailer park located just south of Broadway, approximately two miles from Robin Hood Hills. His background was such that a run-in with juvenile authorities was practically inevitable.
Born Michael Wayne Hutchison on December 11, 1974, Damien was the product of a bizarre and chaotic family life. His mother Pam married Joe Hutchison when she was fifteen and had Damien a year later. She suffered from severe nausea and other complications during her pregnancy and had lost fifty pounds by the time Damien was born by cesarean section.
When Damien was eleven years old, Pam divorced Joe, marrying Andy “Jack” Echols only a few days later. Jack quickly established himself as the alpha, the supreme authority over Damien and his younger sister Michelle, and Pam seemed unable to do much about it. Jack and Damien fought almost from the beginning. Damien described his mother’s new husband as a “ghoul” and as “the most hateful individual [he’d] ever encountered.”
Despite this alleged enmity, Jack Echols adopted Michael and Michelle on October 31, 1990 whereupon Michael changed his name to “Damien.” Though he would later maintain that the name was chosen to reflect his admiration for the Catholic priest Father Damien de Veuster, the patron saint remembered for his work with lepers in Hawaii, others would insist that he was taking the name of the antichrist child in the 1976 film The Omen by director Richard Donner.
Jack Echols was hopelessly poor. The first residence for his new family was a run-down apartment in a dilapidated building that had once served as a motel. There were two small bedrooms to accommodate Jack’s new family in addition to three of Jack’s own six children—seven people in all.
Damien longed to return to his grandmother’s house, where the family had been living for a time. He had been relatively happy there, and it was the last time in his life that he would have anything resembling a normal home.
End of Part I
It has been 17 years since the case of the West Memphis Three claimed its last victim. Melissa Byers died in her sleep on March 29, 1996, three years after her son Christopher was murdered, and three months before the first Paradise Lost film aired on Home Box Office. She was 40 years old.
Although her life was troubled, she still managed to find some measure of joy in her family. How she would have fared had Christopher not been murdered is a matter of pure speculation, but the stresses in her life were tremendous, as is so often the case with parents who have lost their children. The details of the last few years of her life can be found in Untying the Knot: John Mark Byers and the West Memphis Three. Here we will just observe the anniversary of her passing.
Rest in peace Melissa. You have not been forgotten.
Peter Jackson and Amy Berg’s new documentary film, West of Memphis, after doing the film festival circuit and select screenings, is now on tour for the general public. You won’t find it in the big commercial chains, but there are plenty of independent film venues across the country that will be showing the film (The E Street Cinema is the local venue here in D.C.). Viewers of West of Memphis who have not seen the HBO Paradise Lost films will no doubt rush out to see what all the hoopla is about.
They should keep their B.S. detectors on high alert; none of these films are what you’d call objective.
After seeing the film, most moviegoers, if history is any indicator, will be indoctrinated into the mindset of the Free/Exonerate the West Memphis Three movement. Viewers of films on this subject seem hell bent on checking their open-mindedness at the door, choosing to go gaga over the WM3 and their cadre of celebrity supporters. It’s a cause, and liberals like nothing better that joining hands with celebs over a case of “the man” oppressing convicted killers. The only problem is that this case folds like a deck chair with even a cursory review of the evidence. What’s more, the film’s designated alternate suspect—a position previously held by the likes of John Mark Byers—is a less likely suspect than Byers . . . or for that matter, the drunk and disoriented black man who stumbled into a near-the-crime-scene chicken restaurant on the night of the murders.
Any way you slice it, all roads lead back to Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley.
For all their alleged probative value, all four documentaries about the West Memphis Three (including Paradise Lost 1, 2, and 3) have one thing in common—they rely on the unwillingness of their viewers to question the veracity of the “facts” presented. It’s not that the information is hard to get; the internet is packed with source documents—trial transcripts, police reports, forensic lab results, psychiatric reports—and much more. The problem is that supporters seem a bit lethargic when it comes to digging around for themselves and making up their own minds; it’s easier to watch a movie or two . . . or three. Perhaps they are simply afraid that they might come across something that challenges what they wish to believe about this incredible case. What else are we to assume in the face of the availability of an overwhelming availability of evidence?
It is what the documentaries don’t reveal that is the tale of the tape in this case. To believe that someone other than Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley killed Stevie Branch, Christopher Byers, and Michael Moore, supporters must ignore some inconvenient facts.
First up is the issue of plausible alibis: none of the three had one. Jason Baldwin didn’t call any alibi witnesses at his trial because his attorney knew that none would withstand cross examination. In fact, Baldwin called only one witness (a fiber expert named Charles Linch who disputed that the red Rayon fiber found at the crime scene and one taken from Baldwin’s mother’s bathrobe came from the same source). Although Baldwin complained 15 years later at his Rule 37 hearing (an appellant’s motion to prove the ineffective assistance of trial counsel) that he was prevented by his lawyer from calling alibi witnesses, trial attorney Paul Ford explained that the lack of a credible alibi forced his hand when it came to trial strategy; Baldwin would have to try to pin the murders on Echols. The folly of this tactic was obvious; without the severance that Ford begged for, Baldwin would have his fate yoked to that of Echols, whose attitude in court and poor performance on the stand tilted the jury against him. (I acknowledge that Misskelley’s confession was introduced to the Echols/Baldwin jury during their deliberations, despite an admonishment from the bench barring such consideration, and that this could have influenced the verdicts.) “The defense was that Mr. Baldwin did not do it”, Ford said from the witness stand at the Misskelley/Baldwin Rule 37 hearings in 2008. “I had considered an alibi defense. The alibi, as I recall, would have to cover the times between 3:00 p.m. and 9:00 p.m., which was the time from the end of the school day and the time when the parents were concerned that their children were missing.” But Ford could produce no alibi witnesses for the jury, and Baldwin was left twisting in the wind with Echols. Baldwin had provided a list of alibi witnesses to Ford, as did Baldwin’s mother, Gail Grinnell, but the time period Ford was trying to account for could not be verified. Phone records would have been helpful in both Echols’s and Baldwin’s defense, but the local phone company was unable to provide them.
Echols’s alibi, that he was at the Sanders family residence with his mother, father, and sister until 7:00 p.m., fell apart when it was revealed that Jennifer Sanders’s point of reference—her boyfriend’s band concert—was not on May 6th, the day after the murders, but on May 17th. Also, Echols’s mother stated that she left a note with 12-year-old Jennifer Sanders telling her parents that they, the Echols family, had stopped by to visit. It seems implausible—though not impossible—that Pam Echols would leave a written note for Susan Sanders, a woman whom the Echolses regarded as family, and whom they had lived with for three years. The purpose of their visit was casual and purely social. Why the note? Twelve-year-old Jennifer was more than capable of relaying the Echols’s visit to her parents (Susan Sanders was unable to produce the note, and said she didn’t even see it until the morning of the 6th.)
Jessie Misskelley was not in Dyess wrestling that night as he claimed. Every witness he put on the stand lied (read the cross-examination of each witness), or had to admit that that it might not have been May 5 when they saw Jessie at wrestling. Jessie’s signature in the guest book at the wrestling venue was above another boy’s, who claimed that he hadn’t been to wrestling since sometime prior to the murders (according to trial notes taken by Jerry Moak, originally posted on Usenet July 20, 1996).
Highland Trailer Park resident Stephanie Dollar actually obtained copies of the police report from the Connie Moulder slapping incident (a neighbor struck Dollar’s son Cody, and Dollar called police), and passed copies out to Jessie’s friends in the trailer park so they could get their timelines straight.
Jessie Misskelley Sr. was forced to admit that he never actually saw his son leave the park, and thus could not say when he left or with whom.
There is then the issue of Echols’s ever-present trench coat, one which he and others said he was never without. Police raided Echols’s trailer on June 3, the night of the arrests, and no trench coat was found. On the witness stand, Echols said he didn’t know where it was; he thought his parents had it (they didn’t). “It was lying in the middle of the floor” when police came, Echols recalled. (He actually told the court that over time he had owned three such coats.) His girlfriend’s relatives, the Hollingsworth family, testified that they saw Echols and Domini Teer (who looked much like Jason Baldwin, especially in the dark) walking on the service road in the vicinity of the crime scene at approximately 9:30 p.m. on the 5th. Narlene Hollingsworth and her 17-year-old daughter Tabitha both said Echols was wearing “black pants and a black shirt.” No trench coat.
So what became of it? If Narlene and Tabitha Hollingsworth are to be believed, he was not wearing the coat that night. Because the police—and just about everybody else in West Memphis—were keenly aware of Echols’s affinity for this type of coat, it stands to reason that they would be anxious to get their hands on this it; the chances were good that Echols would have been wearing it on May 5. But if he was wearing it that day, it was gone by the time he was spotted on the East Service Road by the Hollingsworths. It is clear that Echols did not want police to get their hands on that coat.
Echols had twenty-six days to dispose of the coat prior to his house being searched on June 3. He may have actually disposed of it on May 5, at or near the crime scene.
Domini Teer, Echols’s girlfriend and baby mama, was home by 5:30 or 6:00 the evening of the 5th, and didn’t leave her home for the rest of the night according to a statement she made to police. Her mother backed her story. Damien, Domini said, called her at about 10:00 that night, and the two quarreled. Echols testified that he was on the phone with two different girls prior to speaking to Domini. His mother and the two girls gave statements to the effect that Damien was on the telephone that night till around eleven o’clock. His mother also stated that once the family came back from the Sanders’ house, Damien stayed home all night. The existence of an alibi for Teer further supports the possibility that Jason Baldwin was mistaken for Domini as he and Echols were walking along the service road at around 9:30 (Anthony Hollingsworth described both Echols and Teer as being “dirty” and “muddy”).
The Peter Jackson-funded investigation to exonerate the West Memphis Three allegedly continues.
On 10/23/12, I posted an article titled “West Memphis Three . . . Guilty?” in which I highlighted articles by two bloggers who dared to question the popular notion that the West Memphis Three were victims of the incompetence and corruption of the criminal justice system.
First I took a look at Marc Perrusquia’s article appearing in the October 7, 2012, Memphis Commercial Appeal. Perrusquia accurately pointed out that Damien Echols, in his new book Life After Death, fails to confront his own serious psychological problems, opting instead to “trumpet . . . his innocence”
and “echo the popular and grossly oversimplified story line advanced by his supporters, that police pinned the murders on him because they found him weird.”
I also quoted from an article by former Angola inmate Billy Wayne Sinclair (www.capitalpunishmentbook.com) who, after 40 years in the Louisiana State Prison system, feels qualified to call them as he sees them. Echols painted Jason Baldwin as “a little suck-ass snitch”, Sinclair wrote, while Echols himself was “a strong-willed crusader for justice.” In reality, according to Sinclair, Echols was a “petty, lying little prison bitch who would not have survived one day in the general prison population where Baldwin was.”
But when Arkansas Take Action (ATA) spokesman Lonnie Soury caught wind of Perrusquia’s heresy, he took him to the woodshed, according to Arkansas Times journalist Mara Leveritt (“Spokesman challenges focus on Echols as narcissistic; says article blames victim ‘again’”).
In an as yet unpublished (according to Soury) letter to the Commercial Appeal titled “Finding Answers to an Uncomfortable Truth”, Soury makes the claim that not only is Echols a victim, but that the media, who has been Echols-friendly for years, is victimizing him again. “Frightened townspeople”, he says, and a “suggestible media establishment” can be forgiven for demonizing Echols. They aren’t enlightened like Echols’s celebrity supporters, and are unable to see that Damien was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Perrusquia, however, is not given a pass.
Soury waxes melodramatic when he writes, “it was far easier at the time to blame Damien Echols for the murder of the children and gain an easy conviction, than conduct a real investigation. The prosecution and the media could cite his curious writings, his troubled and unstable childhood, his interest in the occult, teen angst and his strange behavior, all the evidence they needed to sentence a man to die in the electric chair for a crime neither he, Jason or Jesse committed.” (Echols was sentenced to die by lethal injection, but “the chair” sounds much more dramatic).
As Soury must know, the investigation lasted a full month and hundreds of people were interviewed. A reward fund was set up, the FBI consulted, and suspects interviewed from as far away as California. He may not like the results, but with the glaring exception of not interviewing Terry Hobbs, the investigation was quite “real.” It just didn't come out as supporters wanted it to.
Even Perrusquia’s admission that the WM3 are probably innocent isn’t enough to satisfy Soury. This is typical supporter fare, where any mention of inculpatory evidence or suggestion that the police and prosecution may have had valid reasons for pursuing the Three, are met with derision and ridicule. A healthy dose of shooting the messenger is added to Soury's letter: “The reporter [Perrusquia] refuses to admit that he and others contributed to the hysteria that led directly to Damien’s death sentence.” It couldn’t possibly have anything to do with the evidence and jury verdicts.
When the Left cannot obtain “justice” in the courtroom, they turn to the usually friendly media. Soury can excoriate Perrusquia all he wants, but the fact is that since the release of Paradise Lost, the media has been very sympathetic to the West Memphis Three. (In her book “Demonic” Ann Coulter gives a convincing discourse on this phenomenon as it applied to the Central Park Jogger case.) No, Echols et al were convicted in court, but acquitted in the press.
Soury closes with a series of rhetorical questions such as, “Who are we as a society to allow thousands of men and women to rot in prison wrongfully convicted?” Asked in juxtaposition, who are we as a society to allow so many to go unpunished for their crimes? It’s crime that “rots” society; somebody is committing those crimes, but because our system puts the burden of proof on the accuser, the accused often go free. As is typical of the soft-on-crime set, no solution is offered for America’s crime problem. Maybe just legalize pot, or take away their guns. Or something.
Justice Learned Hand is often quoted, particularly by the Left, as saying that it is better that one hundred —or ten, depending on where you read it—guilty men go free than one innocent man be executed. This is an oversimplification of the problem of rampant violent crime beseeching an innocent public.
But Hand also said this: A society so riven that the spirit of moderation is gone, no court can save; that a society where that spirit flourished, no court need save; that in a society which evades its responsibility by thrusting upon the courts the nurture of that spirit, that spirit in the end will perish.” (The Contribution of an Independent Judiciary to Civilization )
Three little boys are dead, Lonnie. Who killed them? And don't say Terry Hobbs.
I just wanted to say thank you to all who turned out for the book signing yesterday at 2nd & Charles in Woodbridge, Virginia. The folks at the store were amazing and I really appreciate their hosting this event.
I’d like to get out to other stores as time permits and meet more of you wonderful people. Readers rock!
P.S. The T-shirt was displayed to help people identify the case, as the "Free the West Memphis Three" brand is better known than the book. Displaying it does NOT mean that I subscribe to the beliefs of the "supporter" community, merely that I acknowledge its popularity.
Although this is the blog for my book on John Mark Byers, all of the opinions presented here are strictly my own. Much of this material not attributed to other sources is either published in my book, Untying the Knot, or was excised from the book for reasons of length. Ultimately some 160,000 words were removed so that the book could be produced in an affordable format.
In light of the massive publicity surrounding the release of Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley from prison last year, as well as the publication of Echols’s memoirs and the release of three films, it seems appropriate to reexamine the most basic element of the case, namely this: are the West Memphis Three actually innocent of the murders of Christopher Byers, Stevie Branch and Michael Moore?
Although their voices have been silenced—i.e. ignored by the media—many people have their doubts.
Take Marc Perrusquia.
Perrusquia was on hand to report extensively on the case of the West Memphis Three in 1993-94, and together with Guy Reel and Bartholomew Sullivan, wrote the 1995 book, The Blood of Innocents, the first book to be published on the case. BOI predated the HBO film Paradise Lost by a year, and Arkansas Times reporter Mara Leveritt’s 2003 book Devil’s Knot by 8 years. His perspective on the case is both relevant and fascinating.
Perrusquia wrote recently in the Commercial Appeal, “[Echols] may have deliberately baited authorities in an illogical, narcissistic demand for attention.” (“Memoir’s Missing Element:
Damien Echols doesn’t confront his baffling behavior”, October 7, 2012.) Indeed. Echols and the “Free the West Memphis Three” movement have been riding the illusion, as I wrote in Untying the Knot and reiterated by Perrusquia, that Echols was the victim of a modern day witch hunt One would be hard pressed to find an account of the case devoid of this phrase.
This “oversimplified story line advanced by his supporters”, according to Perrusquia, leads the public to believe that Echols was targeted solely on the basis of being “weird” because he “wore black, sported eccentric ‘skater’ haircuts, and listened to heavy metal music.”
One must ignore many salient facts in order to adopt this belief, such as that Echols’s “baffling” behavior was a key reason police focused on the teen, and that his “deep-pocketed public relations machine” spins into full-blown persecution.
True, Juvenile Officer Jerry Driver had had Echols in his crosshairs for some time. Driver had first come in contact with Echols more than a year before the murders, when a Marion, Arkansas, woman contacted him to complain that Echols, then seventeen, was threatening her fifteen-year-old daughter. The two had been involved in a relationship that the woman’s daughter had ended. Echols had begun harassing and threatening her, eventually saying that he would kill one of her male friends and “dump him in the front yard of her house, and then come back and take care of
her, and burn the house down.”
The two had run away together once, after which they were found half-dressed in an abandoned trailer, resulting in the arrest of the two teens. The girl’s family had also complained to
Driver that Damien was trying to get their daughter into black magic and witchcraft. (Echols’s baby-mama Domini Teer claimed that it was the girl who was trying to get Echols indoctrinated, saying that “she's the one that's obviously involved in witchcraft and stuff because of the way she talks about it.”) They wanted Damien Echols out of their daughter’s life. Driver considered himself something of an expert on the occult and made it his mission to keep watch over this boy who had threatened to kill several people, including Driver himself.
Echols claims that he was only in one fight in his life, one that he immediately regretted. This doesn’t square with his psychological profile, which shows a history of violent thought and behavior. In his new memoir, Life After Death, there is nary a mention of the information (Exhibit 500) presented during the sentencing phase of his trial that chronicles the development of a very sick young man (my book goes into this in some detail). Perrusquia calls it a “whitewash.”
“WHAT I WANT MORE THAN ANYTHING ELSE IS TO BE FAMOUS”
This is a sentiment Echols has echoed more than once. Perrusquia says Echols’s aunt, Patricia Liggett, claims to have heard Echols make this grandiose statement as he was being released from a mental hospital in 1992. Echols kicked the polemics up a notch following his 1994 conviction for the murders of Stevie Branch, Christopher Byers, and Michael Moore, and it was immortalized in Paradise Lost:
“I knew from when I was real small that people were going to know who I was, I always had that feeling, I just never knew how they were gonna learn. I kind of enjoy it because now even after I die people are gonna remember me forever. They’re gonna talk about me for years. People in West Memphis will tell their kids stories. It’ll kind of be like I’m the West Memphis boogeyman. Little kids will be looking under their beds before they go to bed, ‘Damien might be under there’ [emphasis added].
As if sensing the damage the producers may have done by not leaving Echols’s comment on the cutting room floor, Revelations: Paradise Lost 2 virtually begins with this feeble retraction by Echols after three years on death row:
“The reason I made the West Memphis Boogeyman comment during the first film was because I was making light of the situation, I was joking, I didn’t realize that, I mean, I didn’t even comprehend that the situation could get this serious, that it can actually go this far. Because I was thinking if you haven’t done anything, then they can’t prove that you did something that you haven’t actually done, that didn’t make sense to me. Now I see they can. You know, I wasn’t even thinking about it when I said it, a spur of the moment thing, yet a lot of people didn’t take it that way”
Taken on its face, this claim lacks credibility. He was joking. He didn’t realize that being convicted of the homicides of three eight-year-old boys was serious, that being on trial for a capital crime could literally get one killed. Partly mitigating this, however is Echols age—he was an emotionally immature eighteen-year-old—and his disabling mental illness, added to the fact that he had just been sentenced to die.
Still, it is hard to dismiss Echols’s original proclamation that being remembered as a “boogeyman” was something he enjoyed. Many of his writings support delusional musings about his future omnipotence (“Drinking blood makes me feel like a god”), and transformation into another life form. For the most part, the public gobbled up Revelations as if that’s what the film truly contained, when the only new developments reported were a continuing denial of Echols’s appeals to the legal system for relief, and the official screen debut of the Free the West Memphis Three support group, the eclectic collection of activists who have devoted a significant portion of their time speaking out in defense of the three convicted child killers. The film series, in its endless quest for an alternate suspect, also contained a healthy dose of suspicion cast upon the film’s designated star/target, John Mark Byers.
ANOTHER VOICE - BY WAY OF ANGOLA
Billy Wayne Sinclair is a convicted killer who served some 40 years in the Louisiana prison system, including some 8 years on death row at the Louisiana State Prison commonly known as Angola. As well as his job as a paralegal at a Houston law firm, Sinclair, along with his wife Jodie, hosts an anti-death penalty blog, www.capitalpunishmentbook.com. Along with the site’s anti-capital punishment theme, Sinclair, who served as an editor of the award-winning prison magazine The Angolite, has penned several articles expressing his belief that the West Memphis Three are guilty of the murders of Stevie Branch, Christopher Byers, and Michael Moore.
Sinclair brings to the debate the credibility, if you will, of a con. “I know a pathological liar when I see one”, Sinclair wrote. “Echols was hot to trot for the [Alford plea] deal, driven by the allure of free world celebrity, movie, and book deals.”
Indeed, Life After Death sits at #18 on the New York Times E-books bestseller list. We are told that the hardcover will hit #8 next week. Trust me, that translates into a lot of dough.
Sinclair doesn’t buy Echols’s innocence routine for a minute. He says that in his memoirs, Echols painted Jason Baldwin as “a little suck-ass snitch”, while Echols himself was “a strong-willed crusader for justice. In reality”, Sinclair says, “Echols was a petty, lying little prison bitch who would not have survived one day in the general prison population where Baldwin was. A brother or a biker would have bitch-slapped him upside the head and made a gal-boy out of him.”
But think about it. Scott Ellington all but guaranteed that the state of Arkansas would not be able to convict the three at a new trial. So why take the deal?
Echols says that Baldwin was, in effect, institutionalized. I spoke with Jessie Misskelley at his Rule 37 hearing in 2008 and he said he liked the food and things at the prison were ok. I have a friend at Varner who says the food tastes like vomit (“You know it’s bad when your food still has feathers on it”) ,and the staff are brutal thugs. Even in the second Paradise Lost film, Misskelley said that he’d “done got used to it . . . adjusted to it. It gets better and better every day.” That is being institutionalized. With his low IQ and desire to get along, Misskelley was a “good” con.
According to the Arkansas Times, Echols wrote in Life After Death, “Over the years, Jason had grown to love prison. The circumstances were not the same as mine. He had a job; he had befriended guards and was actually looking forward to the next year in prison school.” Baldwin sounds like someone else who had accepted his situation. For Echols, of course, it was different; they were going to kill him. Getting away with murder for Echols meant staying alive.
The evidence proclaiming their innocence is thin at best, and as Sinclair points out, much of it is hearsay, even double hearsay. Terry Hobbs’s nephew, Michael Hobbs Jr., allegedly told three of his pals that “my uncle Terry murdered those three little boys.” Defense attorneys defend their claims on the basis of the witnesses passing polygraph tests and nothing else.
This is selective use of this inadmissible technology. Michael Carson, who testified that Jason Baldwin bragged to him about killing the children while the two were incarcerated while Baldwin awaited trial, passed a polygraph.
Three years later Carson was sticking by his testimony. He told the Jonesboro Sun in December 1996, "What I testified to is what he [Baldwin] told me. I haven't changed anything. I told them exactly what he said.”
Yet in Amy Berg’s new documentary West of Memphis, Carson says he was lying; he was on drugs and wasn’t responsible for his testimony. “I was doing a lot of LSD. I remember not knowing why I was doing what I was doing.” Berg says it took her over a year to get Carson to talk to her. One has to wonder what changed his mind.
So was Carson’s polygraph accurate?
Misskelley was also given a polygraph. The examiner concluded that Misskelley was “lying his ass off” when he said he wasn’t involved in the murders. This polygraph was inaccurate, i.e. unfavorable to the defense.
Sensing a pattern?
In his September 13, 2012 blog post, “Johnny Depp: Someone Flying Under The Radar”, Sinclair disposes of all the favorite “alternate suspects”—Bojangles, Mark Byers, and of course Terry Wayne Hobbs—thusly. “I don’t know what kind of water they drink in West Memphis, Arkansas, but apparently it is contaminated with some kind of toxicity that produces delusions as rational thought.” He then examines the remaining suspects.
“Neither Byers nor Hobbs have ever exhibited, either before or after the crime, the kind of psychosis necessary to kill those boys in the manner in which they were killed/tortured.” Some may disagree with Sinclair’s clearing of Hobbs as a suspect, but even if the accusations of prior acts of violence are accurate—the sexual assault of Mildred French, for example—it’s a long way from there to tortuous child murder. Even John Douglas’s profile of the UNSUB for the Echols defense team, did not preclude the involvement of the West Memphis Three, with the exception of his opinion that teenagers were not responsible for the crime.
Read Exhibit 500, a comprehensive document on Echols mental history that was submitted to the court during the penalty phase of the Echols/Baldwin trial.
Read also the testimony of James Dr. James Moneypenny..
Whether or not the WM3 actually clear their names is an almost moot point, at least for Echols and Misskelley. Echols has his new found celebrity and a wife who is capable of earning a living. Misskelley is an auto mechanic and will not likely require any clearances to perform his job. No, only Baldwin, who seeks a career in the legal field, will feel the stigma of his criminal conviction.
It’s ironic: Baldwin had an excellent chance for an acquittal at a new trial yet he was persuaded by the rest of the team to take the deal. “They were going to kill Damien”, he said. But Echols thinks he knows better: “Jason had come to love prison.”
What a pal.
On Sunday September 9, I was interviewed by Tricia Griffith on Websleuths radio about the book Untying the Knot: John Mark Byers and the West Memphis Three. The broadcast began at 8:00 p.m. EST, with my interview beginning at approximately 22:00 into the show.
For those who have never been to Websleuths, they are a message board that deals extensively with all manner of true crime. The true crime genre of books, movies and websites has never been more robust, and Websleuths is a fine example of the depth and breadth of knowledge that true crime aficionados bring to the Internet.
The broadcast can be found at http://www.blogtalkradio.com/websleuths/2012/09/10/tricias-true-crime-radio-sunday-night-8-pm-eastern.