Anyone who visits the Free the West Memphis Three Support Fund web site can’t help but notice the parallels between West Memphis, Ark. in 1993 and Salem, Mass. in 1692.
The web site presents compelling evidence that fear, prejudice, rumors, incompetence and sensational journalism converged in a modern-day witch trial that resulted in the conviction of three innocent teenagers for a murder they did not commit.
“Never underestimate the power of fear and ignorance,” said Kathy Bakken, co-founder of the support fund. “The press did their part in convicting the three before they even went to trial. We’re hoping to utilize that power this time around for our advantage. You just can’t deny the evidence here.”
The founders of the support fund believe that a botched homicide investigation forced the West Memphis Police Department to rely on hastily fabricated tall tales about a ritual sacrifice orchestrated by a mysterious cult of teenage Satanists.
West Memphis lies just across the Mississippi River from Memphis, Tenn., a city which writer H.L. Mencken described as the "buckle" of the Bible Belt. As a small, rest-stop city at the convergence of two major interstates, West Memphis remains steeped in staunch conservatism. The wooded area of Robin Hood Hills exists near the interstate as a source of local legends about ax-murderers, drug deals and satanic rituals.
Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, an HBO documentary film directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, depicts the 1993 arrest and conviction of three teenagers: Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley. The teens were charged with the murders of three eight-year-old boys, Michael Moore, Steve Branch and Chris Byers, whose bodies were found in a creek in Robin Hood Hills.
The Free the West Memphis Three Support Fund began in 1996 after Bakken and fellow Los Angeles resident Grove Pashley saw a pre-release screening of Paradise Lost as they developed advertisements for the film.
After watching Paradise Lost with her “mouth hanging open through most of it,” Bakken passed it on to her friend Burk Sauls, who works as a screenwriter. Sauls said, “I was left with a frustrated feeling, as though I hadn’t seen the whole movie.”
“I felt like I’d missed that part where they show why they thought these teenagers were responsible for the murders,” he continued.
The documentary film traces the development of “satanic panic” in West Memphis. Even a month after the murders, police had still not made an arrest, and locals began to talk of devil-worshipping cult rituals.
The local press took advantage of the public hysteria. Bakken explained, “The media wants big ratings. The satanic emphasis got the best return in ratings, so they usually promoted that.”
“The media wants a sensational story,” added Sauls. “The area around [West Memphis] is very religious, and therefore Satan is a very popular character.”
Police finally delivered Satan in the form of 18-year-old Echols, who had always stood out in West Memphis, often wearing his long trench coat even during the summer. He preferred black clothing, listened to heavy metal music and displayed interest in Wicca, a form of neopaganism based on the worship of nature. He also read macabre works by authors such as Stephen King and William Shakespeare.
While thousands of teenagers across the country fit this description, Echols’ tastes in clothing, music and literature served as evidence to convict him of murder in the conservative city of West Memphis.
Echols was arrested after he was implicated in the murders in a confession by 17-year-old Misskelley, who contacted the police in hopes of earning the $30,000 reward money. After hours of unrecorded questioning, police coerced a confession, which Misskelley recanted soon thereafter.
Although the confession was riddled with inconsistencies and did not mesh with the evidence, police arrested Echols and Baldwin, 16, and charged them with murder.
Public opinion damned the teens months before their trials began. The local media published rumors of blood drinking and devil-worshipping, and one newspaper even printed grisly excerpts of Misskelley’s confession.
Misskelley’s trial was held separately from that of Echols and Baldwin because of his confession.
During the Misskelley trial, Richard Ofshe, a Pulitzer Prize winning professor of sociology and expert on false and coerced confessions, testified that police pressured Misskelley into confessing. He also pointed out that Misskelley, who suffers from mild mental retardation with an IQ of 72, told police nothing that they did not already know, and that police assisted him in relating crucial facts about the murders, such as when they occurred.
All three of the accused teens presented alibis, and police produced no conclusive evidence linking any of them to the crime scene. However, Echols now sits on death row while Baldwin and Misskelley serve life sentences.
Bakken said, “I started to research the case—trying to see how things stood and digging for that scrap of evidence that convinced a jury they committed this crime. It had been three years since the three were convicted. I couldn’t find even a scrap of current info.”
“To get to the bottom of this, I decided to go to the source and wrote these three convicted men,” she continued. “The more I learned the more angry I became and more convinced of their innocence.”
Sauls also researched the case by reading every available document, interviewing the key players and watching the entire trial on tape. He said, “Over the years I’ve found only things that lead me to believe that Jason Baldwin, Damien Echols and Jessie Misskelley are innocent. Not a single thing that I’ve come across has pointed to them as being the killers.”
Sauls, Bakken and Pashley soon traveled to Arkansas to meet the West Memphis Three in person and further research the case. While there, they talked to Misskelley’s attorney Dan Stidham, who not only provided a wealth of legal information, but also pointed out the fact that Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley had no public support. It had been three years since the conviction, and the appeals process was at a standstill.
Pashley, a professional photographer, explained, “We felt like no one was out there helping them, and they had just been abandoned.”
This is what prompted Bakken, Pashley and Sauls to start the Free the West Memphis Three Support Fund. The support fund does not pay for any type of defense expenses; rather, it exists to publicize the facts of the case.
“Our primary goal is justice, and our method of reaching this goal is publicity,” declares the web site. “We want the state of Arkansas to know that the world is watching.”
The fund has distributed flyers and media kits and placed ads in The Arkansas Times. However, the Internet serves as its main avenue for publicity. Bakken began posting messages about the case in Internet newsgroups, and after Paradise Lost first aired in June 1996 she said, “other people started flooding the newsgroups looking for info.”
“It was there we met a college student, Max Schaefer, who offered to design and maintain the original web site,” continued Bakken. “Almost by default it became the source for info about the case.”
Since then, Bakken, Pashley and Sauls have learned how to design and maintain web pages, and they update the support fund site often. They receive e-mail from all over the world, and the site averages 150 hits a day. “Our web site is the only ‘office’ we have besides our own homes,” said Sauls.
The site offers information about the case, how to help and how to join the Free the West Memphis Three discussion list. The discussion list is an e-mail-based program that allows people from around the world to discuss the case. Over 250 people currently subscribe to the list and generate new e-mails everyday.
Johan Magnusson of Gothenburg, Sweden became a supporter because, he said, “It amazed me how anything like that could happen in a country that claims to have the best system of justice in the world.”
The support fund web site and discussion list are crucial for Magnusson’s activism. “Without them, I wouldn’t have been as involved as I am today,” he said. “It’s almost impossible to get information about the case here in Sweden [without the Internet].”
The discussion list costs money to maintain, as do the web site, the ads, the long-distance telephone calls and the trips to Arkansas. The founders of the support fund have printed t-shirts and bumper stickers as gifts to encourage donations. Pashley said, “We’re not about raising money. We’re about raising awareness. But it takes money to raise awareness. Contributions only help us with this goal.”
However, Pashley, Bakken and Sauls still pay for most of their work out of their own pockets. For the seven-month period ending July 1998, the fund spent about $10,300 and received roughly $2,700 in contributions.
Supporters have different reasons for spending so much time, effort and money on this cause. Most supporters simply want to see justice prevail; they don’t want their government to murder an innocent person. Other supporters, however, have more personal reasons for involvement.
“I’ve seen these types of things happen before and I’ve seen how rumor panics can destroy people,” said Sauls. “My nephew was harassed relentlessly by ‘moral crusaders’ who were simply punishing him for being different.”
“I think the pressure of these types of ‘Satanic’ rumors are responsible for a lot of unnecessary suspicion of teenagers,” continued Sauls. “Ultimately I think they are responsible for his death. He committed suicide at age 17.”
Jennifer Bearden, who now studies Criminology at Arkansas State University, knew Echols and Baldwin before they were arrested. She described both as “sweet, kind and caring.”
“If someone would look at this case without bias and prejudice, they would see that these three should have never even been arrested,” said Bearden.
While many people such as Bearden admire Bakken, Pashley and Sauls for their efforts with the support fund, others have accused them of exploiting a tragedy to gain fame and fortune.
Indeed, during the early stages of the fund, a supporter “collected” Echols’ drawings and paintings to sell in a “Serial Killer Art Show.” When Echols learned of the art show, he brought it to the attention of Bakken, Pashley and Sauls, and they severed all connections with the art-collector because, as Bakken explained, “This seemed like exploitation, and certainly not in Damien’s best interest to be associated with serial killers.”
The Free the West Memphis Three Support Fund claims to seek truth and justice, not fame and fortune. Sauls said, “If we continue to allow unscrupulous and ignorant people to insult our justice system by abusing their power, then we’ll eventually lose all our freedoms. It’s our duty to point out things that we think are wrong with the system, and to let those in power know that we are watching them.”
“It seems like whenever people try to honestly do something for a genuinely good reason there will always be those who accuse them of trying to exploit something,” continued Sauls. “If I were trying to ‘gain’ something, I think I would have given up a long time ago.”
Echols recently addressed the support fund’s representation of him. He said, “I would like to say that I am not being misrepresented or suppressed in any way. I have not heard or seen any evidence of either Burk, Grove or Kathy telling any deliberate lies on my behalf or to me. And to the extent of my knowledge, they have not done anything to me or this case that could be detrimental. As far as I'm concerned the Free the West Memphis Three Support Fund is being run in a moral and responsible manner . . . I am extremely grateful to any and all help in any form.”
Bakken posted Echols’ message on the discussion list after someone questioned the fund’s management of donations. Echols often communicates through the support fund because he got Sauls on his calling list, which is limited to five telephone numbers. The support fund now talks to Echols and Baldwin about once a week.
The fund has also held live Internet chats with Echols and Baldwin in which anyone can ask questions. In the last chat, for example, Sauls relayed Internet questions to Echols over the telephone, then typed Echols’ responses directly into the Internet chat room.
“The Internet is at the heart of this effort; it’s how we reach so many people,” said Bakken, who believes the Internet chats are important to humanize the three and connect them to the outside world. “We bring them to the public and the public to them . . . Accessibility is key. I don’t think anything like this has ever been done before.”
Most supporters discover the Free the West Memphis Three web site when they search the Internet after viewing Paradise Lost. The award-winning documentary film not only “put a magnifying glass on the spectacle of satanic panic,” as Bakken said, but it also had a powerful impact on many people who watched the case unfold before their very eyes.
Judge David Burnett, who has presided over both trials and subsequent hearings, believes the support fund stemmed from a “slanted agenda by the makers of the film.” He added, “I will never allow [documentary cameras] in my courtroom again.”
Marcia Ian, a supporter and author, belongs to the Association of Psychoanalysis of Culture and Society and teaches at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ. She agrees that while “the movie seems to be the prime mover,” the Internet is paramount in spreading information and gathering support. She thinks communication technology such as the Internet “is a big part of the future of activism—news and information can travel faster, farther and more cheaply than ever.”
The Internet has also allowed Baldwin and Echols to receive the necessary funds to continue their education. When Arkansas State University began teaching courses at Baldwin’s prison, he signed up for College Algebra and Drama. Echols does not have access to a classroom on death row, but he signed up for correspondence courses in Psychology and German.
Steve Baker, prison volunteer and Baldwin’s spiritual advisor, started a college fund to cover the tuition. “I posted the college fund on the [discussion] list and people started giving,” said Baker. “God has always provided just enough to take care of their needs.”
But the support fund’s greatest contribution to the cause has been acquiring the expertise of criminal profiler and forensic scientist Brent Turvey of Knowledge Solutions, a forensic science consulting company based in San Leandro, Calif. After Bakken sparked his interest, Turvey took the case pro bono. By examining detailed photographs of a victim’s body, Turvey discovered bite marks which police overlooked during the initial investigation.
Turvey’s analysis of the case also conflicts with Misskelley’s confession. Turvey reasons that the crime occurred elsewhere, and that the woods served only as a dump site. Very little blood was found near the bodies, he noted--adding, however, that the injuries must have produced a vast amount of blood. Furthermore, the bodies showed no signs of mosquito bites, indicating that they were already cold when they were dumped in the woods.
The bite mark evidence was recently presented as proof of ineffective counsel during Echols’ Rule 37 hearing, the purpose of which is to determine whether or not Echols had effective counsel during his trial.
On Oct. 27, forensic odontologist Thomas David took the stand during the Rule 37 hearing. David stated that dental impressions taken from Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley do not match the bite mark found on the body.
“Sure we've suspected this all along,” said Sauls, “but now we have the testimony of a Board certified expert to back us up.”
Later that night, Sauls appeared on Court TV to discuss the case on Prime Time Justice. He said afterwards, “Despite their use of very old footage, the report [on Court TV] was surprisingly positive.”
Approximately 30 supporters from around the nation attended the hearing. The support fund presented to the media its huge 20'x40' banner consisting of hundreds of “Free the West Memphis Three” postcards from around the world.
After the revelation that “the bite marks don’t match,” the media angle began to turn away from satanic panic and toward a case of injustice. Bakken explained, “At the time of the first trial, the satanic emphasis got the best return in ratings so they usually promoted that. This time around I have been rather impressed by the willingness to expound on the possible injustice. They presented the support fund in a flattering light and emphasized the importance of the bite marks.”
The Rule 37 Hearing will continue in late January. In the meantime, supporters continue to wonder whose teeth match the bite wound.
“The arrest of the real offender would be gratifying,” said Bakken. “Match the bite marks, find the killer. That is now a real possibility.”
However, police incompetence may have destroyed any chances of finding the real culprit. On the night of the murders, a muddy, bloody black man entered the women’s restroom of a Bojangles restaurant near Robin Hood Hills. The restaurant manager called the police when the man remained in the restroom for an inordinate amount of time.
Officer Regina Meek responded to the call but did not enter the restaurant, see the bloody man or file a report regarding the incident. The following day, two detectives returned to the restaurant to make a report and take blood samples from the restroom wall. The blood samples were never sent to a crime lab because they were lost.
This lost evidence carries additional weight because a Negroid hair was found on one of the murder victims. Yet Echols, Baldwin, Misskelley and all of the victims were Caucasian.
Another possible suspect is John Mark Byers, stepfather of one of the victims. Byers, who has a history of spousal, child, alcohol and drug abuse, was called to the stand during the trial and questioned about his knife by defense attorneys. Though he initially claimed to have never used it, the knife contained human blood of a type which matched both his blood and that of his murdered stepson. But police never considered Byers as a suspect, and further DNA testing of the blood was never ordered.
“The investigation seemed out of balance in Byers’ favor, and I can only speculate that it was due to his drug informant status with the WMPD,” said Sauls.
He added, “During the trial it was apparently okay for Byers to have a serrated knife with traces of blood which matched his dead stepson’s, yet it was considered ‘unusual’ [by Detective Bryn Ridge under oath] for Damien Echols to own books purchased at the local library.”
In 1994, Byers and his wife Melissa were charged with residential burglary, and Byers was charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor. In 1996, Byers' wife died mysteriously in her home.
Since the bite mark evidence surfaced, Byers has lost all of his teeth. When confronted by supporters at the October hearing, Byers claimed, “The medicine that I had to take for my brain tumor gave me a periodontal disease which made my teeth fall out.”
Despite clues pointing to other possible suspects, the West Memphis Police Department did not wish to continue their investigation after the arrest of Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley. In a press conference after the arrests, Police Chief Gary Gitchell said the case against the teens rated eleven on a scale from one to ten.
On the other hand, the Free the West Memphis Three Support Fund contends that not one piece of evidence links Echols, Baldwin or Misskelley to the crime. Misskelley’s confession served as the strongest evidence against the three; however, Misskelley recanted, and expert witness Richard Ofshe testified that police pressured Misskelley into confessing.
Dale Griffis, a self-proclaimed “Cult Cop” with a mail-order Ph.D., testified as the prosecution’s main expert witness. Griffis pointed to Echols’ personal belongings and the date of the crime as evidence that the murders were Occult-motivated.
The support fund web site contains an evidence page (contributed by long-time supporter Chris Worthington) that analyzes and discounts all the evidence presented to convict Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley—from supposed overheard confessions to inconclusive fiber evidence.
The support fund web site also updates supporters on the status of the West Memphis Three. Misskelley, now 22, works on cleaning detail and serves his life sentence in Grady, Ark. The Arkansas Supreme Court acknowledged that police handled the procedure of getting Misskelley’s confession in a questionable fashion, but denied his first appeal and let his sentence stand. Dan Stidham, Misskelley’s attorney, is very protective of his client and is currently preparing another appeal.
Echols is on death row in Tucker, Ark. On Dec. 11, he will turn 24 and celebrate his sixth birthday behind bars. He has filed several lawsuits with the Department of Corrections for unlawful treatment and violation of religious practices, two of which resulted in the dismissal of prison officials. He spends most of his time reading and writing to his girlfriend. Echols said he wants to study psychology and own a Christmas tree farm when he gets out.
Baldwin, 21, serves his life sentence in Newport, Ark. He works as a prison school office clerk and was named Most Valuable Player on the prison softball team. He also writes poetry about many subjects, including love, religious faith and his dream of freedom. One of his poems, now published on the support fund web site, recalls childhood memories of “running free with blue skies all around me / without a worry in the world / barefooted and in love with life.”
Unfortunately, Baldwin may have to wait a long time to experience such freedom again. Even with the new bite mark evidence, it is unlikely that that the West Memphis Three will be granted a new trial anytime soon. As Judge Burnett said, "There is just no end to these cases."
In the meantime, the Free the West Memphis Three Support Fund continues to use technology such as the Internet to publicize the facts about the case and organize support.
Ultimately, said Sauls, “We hope to bring about the release of three innocent people from prison and educate the world about the dangers of believing the absurd urban legends about satanic cults performing ritual human sacrifice.”
Sauls, Bakken and Pashley are scheduled to appear on an upcoming Leeza show about the case to be filmed in early December. They will also appear in the sequel to Paradise Lost, tentatively titled Paradise Lost: Revisited. Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky are currently filming the sequel, which will contain updated information and interviews. Paradise Lost: Revisited is scheduled to air in spring 1999.