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The West Memphis Three

While I was on vacation, the news came out that the West Memphis Three had been set free. 

See the coverage from the Arkansas Times, such as here and here. As explained by that paper, “The West Memphis Three are Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, Jr. and Jason Baldwin. In 1994, two juries found the men, who were teenagers at the time, guilty of murdering three eight-year-old boys (Stevie Branch, Michael Moore and Christopher Byers) in May 1993 in West Memphis. Echols was sentenced to death, Baldwin and Misskelley to life without parole.” Read the full article, which includes the ages of those involved, allegations of satanic rituals, the legal background, and the murders of the three young boys. 

Cleolinda has a round up of the background of the case. 

Like many people, I first became aware of the case due to the HBO Documentaries, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at  Robin Hood Hills (1996) and Paradise Lost 2: Revelations (2000). (A third film, Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory was just filmed, and will include the recent release of the three men). The murders of the three young boys (Steve Branch, Christopher Byers, and Michael Moore) are horrible and heartbreaking. Just as scary was the ages of those accused of the murders: Echols was 18, Misskelley 17, and Baldwin was 16. As explored in the films (and in the articles and websites above), the evidence against the three teenagers was weak, at best — no physical evidence linking them to the crimes or crime scene, rumors and innuendo about the boys based on their book and music and clothing choices, Echol’s exploration of non-Christian religions, and a confession from Misskelley that did not match the evidence the police had and which was later retracted. 

After Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley were released, I read The Devil’s Knot by Mara Leveritt (Atria Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, 2003, personal copy) which filled in a lot about the case and gave much more background and details. It addresses questions such as why Echols was a suspect from the beginning, the relationships between the teenagers, the police investigation, the legal maneuverings, and the community reaction.

The teen appeal in learning more about this case and these three teenagers, now men, is obvious: Echols was 18, Misskelley 17, and Baldwin just 16 when they were arrested, tried as adults, and sentenced. There is also the mystery of it: if Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley did not murder these children, who did? Those who watched Paradise Lost and Paradise Lost 2 may have some suspicions of another possible suspect, but reading about recent DNA evidence (see Cleolinda’s post) show another, quite different, possibility. Questions about the law, equal access to law based on socioeconomic background, assumptions about people based on clothes, religion, music, as well as the impact of community perception can all be discussed. When it comes to perception, it’s not just the perception of those that believed that yes, satanic rituals took place and these three did it; what about the perceptions of the people portrayed in the film? Echols has a dynamic presence; one of the boy’s stepfather also grabs the viewer’s attention.

For various reasons, many people (including some family members of the dead children as well as the prosecutor) still believe in the guilt of the three men. That, too, can be discussion — how can anyone know guilt or innocence? What is the evidence? What would convince someone of guilt? And, because some family members supported the release of the three men, what would convince you to change your mind?

A word of caution: the murder of the three children is brutal and the documentaries include footage from the crime scene.

About Elizabeth Burns

Looking for a place to talk about young adult books? Pull up a chair, have a cup of tea, and let's chat. I am a New Jersey librarian. My opinions do not reflect those of my employer, SLJ, YALSA, or anyone else. On Twitter I'm @LizB; my email is


  1. This case has some parallels: The Central Park Five (accusing of raping a jogger) and the Tucson teens accused of the Buddhist Temple murder. (There are recent books about these cases — The Central Park Five by Sarah Burns and Innocent Until Interrogated, which was written by a Tucson defense lawyer.) In all three cases the police, using legal methods, persuaded teens to confess to crimes they didn’t commit. I think it’s important for teens to realize police methods and what the consequences might be if they find themselves under investigation or interrogation themselves. In most of these cases the officers said to the boys, “just sign this confession and you can go home,” and they fell for it.

  2. Laura, good examples. The biggest thing I got from law school? Lawyer up. That, and if police don’t have a warrant, don’t give permission for a search. And at this stage, anyone watching Law & Order should know: lawyer up. People don’t get the idea of false confessions, just as they don’t understand how unreliable eyewitness testimony is. Innocence is not a protection, and in watching the first PARADISE LOST film I think at least Damien Echols believed that — that there was no way he could be convicted because he didn’t do it.
    I seem to remember seeing a pretty good tv movie about police and false confessions and teens; it may have been THE INTERROGATION OF MICHAEL CROWE.

  3. This is such a terrible situation on all sides. It’s fascinating to read about (in a morbid way) but the lessons a person can learn from what happened here are enormous. In fact, I’m just starting to watch the two documentaries now since I don’t know as much about the details of the case. It sounds so similar to the Salem Witch Trials it’s so so sad.

  4. Michelle, I know you’re watching them today, I look forward to your reactions.