Paradise Lost: The West Memphis Three and the Murder Mystery of Steve Branch, Michael Moore, and Christopher Byers in Arkansas

WM3 Victims
Steve Branch (8), Michael Moore (8) and Christopher Byers (7), West Memphis, Arkansas

On May 5, 1993, three young boys, Steve Branch (8), Michael Moore (8) and Christopher Byers (7), left their homes on bicycles and never came home. The next day the three boys were discovered dead in the woods not far from their West Memphis, Arkansas homes. They were discovered naked, hogtied, and submerged in dirty running water; the cause of death was drowning. Due to the unusual nature of the injuries, the West Memphis Police Department labeled the crimes satanic cult murders and asked someone in the probation department to provide them with a list of people who could have been involved in cult activity and participated in a crime like this. It was at this time that teenagers Damien Nichols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley became suspects. It was assumed that Damien was the mastermind and Jason and Jessie would do anything he told them to do. And despite legitimate alibis (witnesses who were not questioned by the police or the defense attorney), the three were arrested and ultimately convicted of the murders. Jessie Misskelley was found guilty of three murders and sentenced to life in prison plus forty years. Damien Nichols was found guilty of three murders and sentenced to death by lethal injection. And Jason Baldwin was found guilty of three murders and sentenced to life in prison. The similarities between the West Memphis Three case and Making a Murderer are stunning.

Luckily for us true crime fanatics and the West Memphis Three, filmmakers from HBO were there to document everything. They released the film Paradise Lost in 1996 and it garnered worldwide attention. As a result, there were questions about whether justice was served because the entire case was based on circumstantial evidence, satanic panic, and what some felt was a false confession from Jessie Misskelley. Jessie admitted in the film he told the police what they wanted to hear because he was tired and wanted to go home. He was interrogated with no counsel for close to twelve hours but the police only recorded the last hour of interrogation. Legal professionals who familiarized themselves with the case referred to this phenomenon as contamination because the police suggested what happened, asked leading questions, and Jessie was the perfect victim because he was considered borderline mentally disabled. The West Memphis Three supporters felt this was a case of police misconduct and celebrities like Johnny Depp, Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, and Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks got involved and offered their support. The Free the West Memphis Three group raised money on behalf of Damien, Jason and Jessie because they assumed the three would be released in a couple years and would need money to start a new life. But it would be eighteen (18) years before they were released in 2011.

There were multiple concerns with the State’s case. First, there was no physical evidence; only “witnesses” who agreed to testify against the three teens in court. Since the trials and release of Paradise Lost, two of the witnesses admitted they didn’t tell the truth on the stand and recanted. The State’s suspected murder weapon was a knife found in a lake near the West Memphis Three’s homes. But as it turns out, the knife was thrown in the water a year before the murders and according to forensic experts didn’t match the injuries on the three young boys. Arkansas is one of the last remaining states with a prosecutor controlled crime lab, which means the medical examiner is not a witness but instead an arm of the prosecution. The prosecution lead the jury to believe the murders were ritualistic sexually motivated murders. But upon closer examination, the interpretation of the medical examiner’s autopsy report was suspect. All of the independent experts who examined the evidence made the same determinations. They didn’t believe a knife was used in the course of the crime but rather the damage to the boy’s bodies was the result of animal activity. Damien Echols insisted on DNA testing and one hair found in the binding of the shoelaces use to tie the boy’s up matched the DNA of Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of Steve Branch.

The police never interviewed Terry Hobbs (or any of the parents) during the original investigation but did interview him after the DNA match. Terry’s alibi was that he was with his friend David Jakoby but Jakoby said Terry left his house twice for a total of two hours. DNA consistent with David Jakoby’s DNA was found on a hair attached to a tree. None of the DNA matched Damien, Jason or Jessie. Terry Hobbs was accused of domestic violence by his first wife. Terry Hobbs admitted in a legal deposition to hitting his step-son with a belt as punishment. Terry’s daughter accused him of physical and sexual abuse. And Terry was accused of abusing his second wife (Steve Branch’s mother) and shooting her brother in the abdomen. The night of the disappearance of the three boys, witnesses observed Terry washing clothes and cleaning with bleach. Terry’s nephew confessed that Terry admitted to his brother that he committed the crimes and regretted it; it was considered the “Hobbs family secret.” Finally, in 2010, after multiple appeals were denied despite new evidence, the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled in favor of the West Memphis Three.

In August 2011, the defense suggested they skip the evidentiary hearing and go straight to a new trial but the State wanted to reach an agreeable resolution instead. The defense offered an Alford plea, which allowed the West Memphis Three to plead guilty but maintain their innocence, yet they would be released from prison immediately. Damien and Jessie accepted the deal right away but Jason didn’t want to initially because it was a matter of principle. During the original trial, Jason was offered a deal to testify against Damien and he refused because it would have been a lie. In the end, Jason agreed to the Alford plea to save Damien’s life. The judge summarized the situation by acknowledging this was a tragedy for everyone involved and commended the volunteers and supporters who fought for Damien, Jason, and Jessie. The West Memphis Three are technically guilty of murder but walked out of the courthouse to a large crowd cheering for their freedom. Damien said he was thankful for all the support they got along the way but in the end feels like finding the real killer is the most important. The West of Memphis documentary released a year after Damien, Jason, and Jessie were freed from prison attempts to do just that.

“Does anyone believe that if the State had even the slightest continuing conviction that they [Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, & Jessie Misskelley] were guilty, that they would let these men free today?” -Dennis Riordon, Defense Attorney (ABC News, August 20,2011)

West Memphis Three
Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley

Source: West of Memphis (2012)

Media:
The West Memphis Three: A Deal with the Devil
The West Memphis Three: Where Are They Now?
West Memphis Three: $100,000 reward offered to clear their names
The West Memphis Three Case: An Evolving Story of Doubt & Misinformation
New possible suspects named in the brutal 1993 West Memphis murders of three cub scouts
All The Evidence That Shows Why The West Memphis Three Have Probably Gotten Away With Child Murder
The West Memphis Three’s Jason Baldwin Fights for the “Hopelessly Innocent” After 18 Years in Prison
Damien Echols Survived 18 Years On Death Row With The Help Of Magick
One of the nation’s biggest serial killers may be linked to 3 Arkansas murders
These 7 Creepy Unsolved Murders Are The Reason I Can’t Sleep At Night
Murder Mystery: The West Memphis Child Murders, Part 1
5 Biggest Moments of 2010s’ True-Crime Boom
These 11 Arkansas Murder Cases Made Headlines

Paradise Lost (HBO):

The landmark documentary that sparked an international movement to ‘Free the West Memphis Three,’ Paradise Lost investigates the gruesome 1993 murder of three eight-year-old boys and the three teenagers accused of killing them as part of a Satanic ritual. From real-life courtroom drama and clandestine jailhouse interviews to behind-the-scenes strategy meetings and intimate moments with grief-stricken families, acclaimed filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky were granted unprecedented access to all the players involved, capturing the events as they unfolded. -YouTube Movies (December 18, 2012)

This prequel to the 2012 Academy Award nominee Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, this documentary revisits the chilling mystery at the heart of HBO’s award-winning special, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, profiling a trio of Arkansas teenagers convicted of murdering three 8-year-old boys. In this fascinating examination of the horrific crime and of the judicial system, directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky bring new insight to the highly controversial case. -YouTube Movies (December 18, 2012)

This 2012 Best Documentary OscarÆ-nominee is the third installment in a series of films directed by acclaimed filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky that investigate the wrongful murder convictions of three teenagers known as the West Memphis 3. -YouTube Movies (December 18, 2012)

In the News:

In September, convicted murderer Damien Echols explains why he thinks he has a chance to go free. -CNN (September 29, 2010)

CNN’s David Mattingly interviews a death row inmate who could get a new trial. -CNN (January 12, 2011)

As part of an unusual plea agreement, Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jesse Misskelley – the “West Memphis Three” – were released from prison. Erin Moriarty reports on how three men convicted of murder found freedom after being locked away for 18 years. -CBS (August 19, 2011)

Three men convicted of killing three boys in a satanic cult ritual are set free. -ABC News (August 20, 2011)

Speaking at the Toronto International Film Festival, musician Eddie Vedder expressed his continuing support for the West Memphis Three, and revealed that Pearl Jam are “helping them to regain their footing in the outside world.” -Associated Press (September 14, 2011)

Johnny Depp discusses his support for Damien Echols, a former death row inmate, who presented his documentary, ‘West of Memphis,’ at the Toronto International Film Festival. -Associate Press (September 10, 2012)

In 1993, three young boys were killed and mutilated in West Memphis, Arkansas. Three troubled teenagers were convicted for the crime and put behind bars for 18 years. It turns out, though, that their prosecution was tainted. Although the Arkansas prosecutor declined to comment, Amy Berg says her recent documentary, West of Memphis, points to a flawed justice system and presents fresh evidence about new suspects. -VOA News (April 2, 2013)

In 1994, three teenagers known as the West Memphis Three were convicted for the murder of three young boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. The prosecution claimed the murders were part of a satanic ritual. In 2011, the “three” (Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley and Jason Baldwin) were released after reaching a deal with prosecutors and entering Alford pleas. Damien Echols, who served 18 years on death row, discusses the case, his imprisonment and his freedom, all of which he’s written about in his new book, Life After Death. -WGBH (May 17, 2013)

Damien Echols was pegged as the leader of the West Memphis Three. He spent 18 years in prison, 10 years in solitary confinement and 78 days on death row… all for a crime he swore he did not commit. In 2011, he was finally freed. -Katie Couric (July 29, 2014)

Damien Echols spent 18 years on death row before DNA evidence proved his innocence. Now he’s heading back to Arkansas to protest the seven scheduled executions in 10 days. -NBC News (April 11, 2017)

In 1993, three second graders were killed in Arkansas. Three teenagers were convicted of killing them, and have been released from jail. -Oxygen (March 24, 2018)

48 Hours:

Johnny Depp, others push to prove the innocence of trio of convicted killers known as the West Memphis 3. Erin Moriarty reports. -CBS (July 24, 2010)

Investigation Discovery:

In 1993, when the dead bodies of three young boys turn up in a ditch, the town of West Memphis is turned upside down. Fearing the work of Satanists, police arrest three teenage boys, even though no solid evidence ties them to the crime. -West Memphis Three, True Crime with Aphrodite Jones (S2,E6)

Police have finally broken the case into the murders of three young boys in West Memphis. However they are unable to arrest the suspected murderers until a shocking confession occurs. -West Memphis Three, True Crime with Aphrodite Jones (May 5, 2011)

West of Memphis:

WEST OF MEMPHIS tells the untold story behind an extraordinary and desperate fight to bring the truth to light: a fight to stop the State of Arkansas from killing an innocent man. Starting with a searing examination of the police investigation into the 1993 murders of three eight-year-old boys in the small town of West Memphis, Arkansas, the film goes on to uncover new evidence surrounding the arrest and conviction of the other three victims of this shocking crime–Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley. All three were teenagers when they became the target of the police investigation; all three went on to lose 18 years of their lives–imprisoned for crimes they did not commit. -Sony Pictures Classics (November 5, 2012)

Devil’s Knot:

Three young boys playing in the nearby woods never come home for dinner. In the rush to find and convict the killers, police focus on a trio of teenagers suspected of devil worship. Starring Reese Witherspoon and Colin Firth, Devil’s Knot is based on the true story of the West Memphis 3. -YouTube Movies (May 5, 2014)

Related Links:
Paradise Lost: Official Trailer (1996)
Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills Trailer 1
Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills Trailer 2
Paradise Lost 2: Revelations – Trailer
Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory – Official Trailer 1
Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory – Official Trailer 2
HBO Documentary Films: Paradise Lost 3 Purgatory – Trailer #2 (HBO Docs)
HBO Documentary Films: Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory – Lost Footage: Damien Pt. 1
HBO Documentary Films: Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory – Lost Footage: Damien Pt. 2
HBO Documentary Films: Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory – Lost Footage: Damien Pt. 3
HBO Documentary FIlms: Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory – Scene Lift: Damien Echols
HBO Documentary Films: Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory – Lost Footage: Jason Pt. 1
HBO Documentary Films: Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory – Lost Footage: Jason Pt. 2
HBO Documentary Films: Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory – Lost Footage: Jessie
HBO Documentary Films: Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory – Lost Footage: Jessie
HBO Documentary FIlms: Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory – Scene Lift: Jesse Miss Kelley
HBO Documentary FIlms: Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory – Lost Footage: Gitchell Pt. 1
HBO Documentary FIlms: Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory – Lost Footage: Gitchell Pt. 2
HBO Documentary FIlms: Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory – Blood On Necklace
HBO Documentary Films: Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory – Panel Discussion
HBO Documentary Films: Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory – Lawyers
HBO Documentary Films: Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory – Directors
West of Memphis | Official Trailer HD (2013)
West of Memphis | “DNA” Official Clip (2013)
West of Memphis Official Trailer #1 – West Memphis 3 (2012)
West of Memphis Trailer #2 (2012) – Documentary Movie HD
West of Memphis Movie CLIP #1 (2012) – West Memphis 3 Movie HD
West of Memphis Movie CLIP #2 (2012) – West Memphis 3 Movie HD
West of Memphis Movie CLIP #3 (2012) – West Memphis 3 Movie HD
West of Memphis Movie CLIP #4 (2012) – West Memphis 3 Movie HD
Damien Echols and Lorri Davis ‘West of Memphis’ Sundance 2012
You Can’t Give Up The Things That Make Your Life Magical Damien Echols & Lorri Davis
The Worst Injustice In U.S. History by Filmmaker Amy Berg for WEST OF MEMPHIS
Academy Conversations: West of Memphis
Devil’s Knot Trailer 1 (2014) – Reese Witherspoon, Colin Firth Crime Movie HD
Devil’s Knot Trailer 2 (2014) – Reese Witherspoon, Colin Firth Crime Movie HD
Devil’s Knot Trailer 3 (2014) – Reese Witherspoon, Colin Firth Crime Movie HD
Devil’s Knot Trailer 4 (2014) – Reese Witherspoon, Colin Firth Crime Movie HD
‘West Memphis 3’ jailhouse interview
Presumed guilty: Murder in West Memphis
Johnny Depp on West Memphis Three
West Memphis Three to be freed?
The Early Show West Memphis Three to be freed?
West Memphis 3 free
“West Memphis Three” set free
“West Memphis Three” set free
Life out of prison for “West Memphis 3”
“West Memphis Three” freed after 18 years
‘West Memphis 3’ Released After 18 Years
“West Memphis Three” freed after 18 years
Kin of “W. Memphis 3” victims uneasy over release
Filmmakers: Happy to see men out of jail
Jason Baldwin on celebrity support behind the West Memphis 3
“West Memphis Three”: Inside the Case
Eddie Vedder Talks West Memphis Three
Freed Prisoner Makes Film About 18-Year Battle to Prove His Innocence 1 of 2
Freed Prisoner Makes Film About 18-Year Battle to Prove His Innocence 2 of 2
Johnny Depp and the West Memphis Three
Movie West of Memphis Sparks Debate About Arkansas Murder Case
Former Death Row Inmate Damien Echols on ‘Life After Death’
Damien Echols of the ‘West Memphis Three’ Speaks Out
Damien Echols returns to Arkansas for 1st time since being released
A love story on death row
West Memphis Three Member Describes ‘Conveyor Belt Of Death’ In Arkansas
The West Memphis Three: Then And Now – Crime Time | Oxygen
“48 Hours” preview: The West Memphis Three
A Cry for Innocence | 48 Hours
True Crime: West Memphis 3 Premieres This Thursday
True Crime with Aphrodite Jones- Arresting the West Memphis Three
West Memphis Three | True Crime with Aphrodite Jones | ID (S2,E6)

Amazon Prime Video:
Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills
Paradise Lost 2: Revelations
Paradise Lost 3 Purgatory
West of Memphis
Devil’s Knot


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s