The trial of Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin and in extent Jessie Misskelley is arguably one of the greatest trial to grace the Memphis State judicial system. It has in many ways divided the opinion of the public with regards to the final verdict. Many people have been of the opinion that the verdict was wrong, and an equal number have opined that the verdict was justified, if not lenient to the two defendants who were given a life sentence and not the death sentence.
This paper is going to analyze the trial of the infamous West Memphis Three as told in “Devil’s Knot” by Mara Leveritt. In pursuit of this, this paper will present the key elements of the prosecution case, presenting the evidence and witness testimony as presented by prosecutor Davis. The paper will also present, discuss and analyze key elements of the defense. It will finally conclude with my personal opinion and judgment with regards to their innocence or otherwise, and a well-reasoned defense of my judgment borrowing on the specifics of the case which guided my judgment.
The Key Elements of the Prosecution’s Case
The prosecution was led by prosecutor Davis. He presented a myriad of physical evidence and witness testimony which were fundamental to the conviction of a guilty verdict on the three defendants. Key to his physical evidence was the lake knife, the fiber evidence, the wax on book and shirt, evidence of blood on the necklace and the two notebooks. The witness testimonies which were critical to the conviction were the testimony of Dale Griffis, the testimony of Michael Carson, the testimony of the girls from the softball game, and the Jessie Misskelley Confession.
The Lake Knife
A knife was found in the lake at the backof Jason Baldwin’s parent home in November 1993 after divers searched the area. The large knife that was found had a serrated edge and on one side of the blade had the words “Special Forces Survival Roman Numeral Two” engraved. Dr. Frank Perettiattestedthat the serrated edges were consistent with and may have been the cause of the wound patterns that were found on all the three victims.
To link the lake knife with Echols was Deanna Holcomb his former girlfriend. Shetestified that she had on several occasions spotted him carrying a knife that was similar but the one she had seen had a compass on the end. However, James Parker, the owner of Parker’s Knife Collector Service in Chattanooga, Tennessee,attestedand brought a catalogue from the company which showed a similar knife with a compass which the jury made a determination that the compass could be unscrewed. The location of where the knife was found, behind Baldwin’s house, and the ample evidence that Echols and Baldwin spent a lot of time together presented an avenue for the jury to believe that one of them could have disposed off the knife in the lake.
The Fiber Evidence
Another key evidence was the fiber evidence. When WMPD officers arrested Jason and Damien, there carried with them warrants to search their houses, where they confiscatedclothing belonging to the two accused. A testimony from a witness from the state crime laboratory indicated that she had found fibers on the victim’sclothing whichtest revealed were microscopically identicalto four fibersthat were found in Jason and Damien’s house. None wasfound in Jessie’s. A red fiber that was found on Jason’s mother’s robe was also found to be similar to fibers from JamesMoore’s shirt. Additionally, a green polyester fiberthat was found onJames’s cap was also observedto be of similar structure to those found on a blue cotton, polyester shirt that belonged to a child relative living at Damien’s home. Additionally, fibers from this same shirt were also matching with one cotton and polyester fiber found on James blue pants.
The Testimony of Dale Griffis
The testimony of Dr. Griffis was based on the view that the scene of crime bore the trappings of occultism. He noted several details that pointed to the killings being satanic in nature. His testimony was founded on the manner in which the killings were conducted, the choice of victims, and the environment upon which the bodies were found.
First, he noted that the cleared area on the river bank where the bodies were found was consistent with a ceremony and observed that the murders were carried out on a day that was close to a day perceived to be a pagan holiday and on a full moon.Secondly, he noted that the victims were young and were all aged eight years. Thiswas consistent with the belief that young children or life was often sought for sacrifice as it was believed that they provided a better life force and the victim’s age also reflected the significance of the number eight in occultism and witchery. The number of murdered victims was also important to the case. The number mirrored the significance of the number three in occultism. Thirdly, Dr.Griffis noted that the nearness of a body of water where the bodies were found was consistent with the fact that most occult sacrifices were carried out near a body of water for a baptism form of ritual or to wash blood away. He added that the way the victims were tied was significant as it exposed their genitalia to desecration.
In his concluding testimony, he stated that the removal of Christopher Byer’s testicles was significant because in satanic rituals testicles wereusually removed for the semen.He added that the absence of blood at the crime scene was meaningful as it is believed that cult members most of the times collected blood for future ritualsduring which they would drink or bathe in the blood.
The Testimony of Michael Carson
The third witness for the prosecution was Michael Carson. He claimed to have on previous occasions conversed with Jason Baldwin while he was being held at the detention center. Carson testified that Jason Baldwin had disclosed to him in confidence that he was the person who had killed the three boys and even went ahead to give the details about how he dismembered the kids and how helapped the blood from one of the victims penis and scrotum and placed the balls in his mouth.
TheTestimony of the Girls from the Softball Game
Further strengthening theprosecution’s case was testimony presented by three girls who allege to have overheard Damien and Jason verbally acknowledgeto have committed the murders at a softball game. The first two witnesses alleged to have listened into Damien admit to killing the three boys and disclose that he was planning on killing two more before turning himself to the police.
Confession by Jessie Misskelley
A key evidence for the prosecution was the confession by Jessie Misskelley. Jessie Misskelley was heldby WMPD for interrogation on 3rd June 1993. Through the course of his cross-examinationwhich took several hours, a lie detector test was administered to Jessie and the police managed to secure a confession from Jessie of his role in the murder of the three victims. He cited Jason Baldwin and Damien Echols as his accomplices.
Elements of the Defense Case
The John Mark Byers knife
John Mark Byers was the step father to one of the victims, Christopher.He was interrogated by WMPD officers in November 1993, after he had presented a knife to a film crew member who was filming a documentary about the murder case. Through questioning, he admitted to have given the knife away, which he acknowledgedto have been given by his wife Melissa as a Christmas gift, though he had never used it.
In his questioning, he stated that he was certain that no person could have been cut with the knife. However, tests conducted on the knife revealed that it had blood remnants. This he claimed could have been from cutting deer meat at home. In spite of this, the blood on the knife was found to match with Christopher’s blood type, but Byers asserted he had no idea how his step-son’s blood could have ended in the knife.
Test results on Melissa, John Mark Byers and Ryan revealed that the blood stains matched the blood type of John as well as of Christopher Byers. No further analysis was carried out which could have conclusively determined whether it was Christopher or John Mark Byers’s blood.
The Incident at the Bojangles Restaurant.
At 8:42 p.m., on the night of the murders, the police received a call from the manager of Bojangles Restaurant which neighbored the Robin Hood Hills. Marty King reported to have seen a black man stunned and swathed with blood and mud come out of the women’s restroom having stayed there for close to an hour.Officer Regan meek drove up to the drive-through window in follow-up of the call. She, however, during testimony testified that she had not gone inside the restaurant as it was out of her ward, but agreed that it was located close to the area where the three victims had last been seen.
Ensuing the finding of the bodies, the police following on the report, took blood samples from the restroom. These samples however mysteriously got lost and the results were unknown. This incidence became significant after laboratory reports revealed that two human hairs were present on the victims clothing, one whose origin was Negroid.
Drugs Found on Christopher Byer Blood
After Christopher’s death, an analysis done on his blood revealed non-therapeutic traces of the drug Tegretol, a brand name for the drug carbamazepine. This was the same medication that John Mark Byer was on, despite having lied to the police that he was not taking the drug.In addition to the drug Tegretol, he was also using the drugs Xanax and Zorinal which were antidepressants. Christopher was, however, also on the same medication according to his medical records, but he had not taken the medication that particular day when he went missing.
John Mark Byers
There was presence of items of evidence that pointed to John Mark Byers as the murderer of the three boys. Key among this was the knife he gave to the member of the film crew, the many falsehoods that he gave to the investigating WMPD officers and the fact that he had disappeared alone in the day that the three children disappeared. Despite this evidence, he was at no time considered to be a suspect by the police, and was never thoroughly investigated. He was on friendly terms with the WMPD investigating officers.
In my opinion, the prosecution evidence presented in the case was not strong enough to sustain a guilty verdict. The evidence was not enough and the guilty verdict was more a result of social pressure on the jury and a preconceived judgment by the jury that the three accused were guilty, and less on the witness testimony and material evidence.
The weakness with the prosecution case begins from the moment the victim’s bodies were found. A lack of experience and professionalism on the part of the police at the scene of crime connoted that it was not properly secured or protected and therefore vital evidence could either have been destroyed or not noticed or collected at all. Failure by the police to keep the sticks which were used to hold the victims clothing down in the creek is a primary example of this. Additionally, the removal of the victim’s bodies from the crime scene prior to the arrival of the medical examiner meant that additional evidence was lost.
This same lack of experience and professionalism was witnessed in the office of the medical examiner when they failed to basic evidence on the crime scene such as the temperature of the bodies at the crime scene. They also failed to note important aspects of the victims injuries which further confused the investigators perception of the crime which was already obscured with the assumptions that they had drawn with regards to the situation which instead of being based on scientific facts, were based on cultural bias, limited experience and prejudice.
There is also the aspect of the validity of witness testimony. Vital case information was openly discussed by the investigators with the witnesses, suspects and the media. This severely affects the validity of any information obtained from witnesses and suspects alike. Information received from critical witnesses could have been nothing more than the prosecution information coming back them.
The evidence from the witnesses at the softball game was also insubstantial. It was based on hearsay and during cross-examination by the defense counsel, the credibility and constancyof this testimony was questioned. The girls stated that they had not been able to hear anything else that was said at that particular time and some of the dates that they gave were inaccurate as they were at a date that was after Damien had already been arrested.
Additionally, testimony from homes and Dr Richard Ofshe shed light on the possibility of the Jessie Misskelley confession being a coerced testimony and false confession. Homes pointed loopholes in Jessie’s testimony. He noted that there were inconsistencies in his testimony such Jessie being wrong about the times and types of ligatures used. He stated that the confession was occasioned by a series of highly leading questions by the interrogating officers and was not presented in a narrative form.
I also think the prosecution case was for the most part founded and anchored on Jessie’s confession, without which it would have crumbled. The other prosecution witness testimonies and material witness were to a large extent circumstantialand was not evidence beyond reasonable doubt as is required in criminal cases.
In conclusion, it seemed that the investigators had preconceived their limited analysisand perceptionof the events surrounding the murders. They single-mindedly pursued the avenues which supported their view, and any information that contradicted their perception was hastily and swiftly discarded as being irrelevant.
Leveritt, Mara. Devil’s Knot: The True Story of the West Memphis Three. New York: Atria Books, October 21, 2003.
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