The case began on May 5, 1993, when three eight year old boys were reported missing. The boys, Steve Branch, Christopher Byers, and Michael Moore were reportedly last seen riding their bicycles into the Robin Hood Hills neighborhood. When they did not return home that evening, their respective parents reported them each missing. Before the night’s end, an unofficial search party had formed to look for the boys. The group was unsuccessful.
The next day, however, the police made a gruesome discovery – the bodies of all three boys were found naked and hogtied and lying in a creek. The autopsies showed that the boys had been severely beaten and cut which were contributing factors in all three deaths. It was further determined that Steve Branch and Michael Moore had drowned. Christopher Byers had more serious injuries than the other boys and it was this alone that killed him.
Almost immediately after the discovery of the bodies, a juvenile parole officer told investigators that he believed a teenage boy named Damien Echols was capable of committing such a crime. He had no reason to suspect Echols – he simply believed the teenager was capable. The police soon began looking into Echols’ past and learned that he had dabbled in various religions, listened to heavy metal music, was bipolar, and had attempted suicide more than once.
Investigators began checking out Echols’ friends, including a teenager named Jason Baldwin. An unlikely tip led them to their third suspect, Jessie Misskelley. Misskelley had an IQ of 72 and had no real connection to Echols or Baldwin. Nonetheless, the police questioned the boy extensively and subsequently obtained a questionable confession that contained numerous inconsistencies and inaccurate information including:
- Misskelley claimed that Branch, Byers, Moore, and Baldwin had skipped school on the day of the murders. Attendance records showed that all four had been present that day.
- Misskelley said that one boy was choked to death with a stick. This statement was not supported by the medical examiner’s findings.
- Possibly prompted by a widespread rumor, Misskelley asserted that the three boys had been sodomized. Again, the medical examiner’s findings did not support this claim.
- Finally, Misskelley stated that the victims had been bound with rope but they had really been bound with their shoelaces.
There were a few witnesses, as well. One witness testified that she had seen Echols and his girlfriend near the Robin Hood Hills neighborhood on the night of the murders. Two adolescent girls testified that they overheard Echols admitting to having murdered the three boys. The girls were unable to relay any more of the dialogue, nor could they pinpoint the date or time that it occurred. One final witness was a boy who had spent time in a juvenile detention center with Jason Baldwin. He claimed that Baldwin had admitted his involvement in the crime. The boy’s counselor advised officials that he believed the testimony to be untrue.
In spite of the conflicting stories and lack of evidence, Jessie Misskelley, Damien Echols, and Jason Baldwin were each convicted of murder in 1994. Echols was sentenced to death while Baldwin and Misskelley were sentenced to life in prison.
In 2007, 14 years after the murders, DNA collected at the crime scene was finally tested. No DNA from any of the three convicted killers was found. There was, however, DNA found consistent with that of the step-father of one of the victims.
This new evidence was scheduled to be presented at an evidentiary hearing in late 2011. However, on August 19, 2011, a special hearing was held in Craighead County Circuit Court in which Echols, Misskelley, and Baldwin entered a plea of guilty in exchange for immediate release from prison. Prosecutors felt that the evidentiary hearing would result in a new trial in which the three might have been acquitted. With that in mind, prosecutors agreed to the plea deal to prevent the defendants from clearing their records and from potentially suing the state down the road.
Damien Echols, Jesse Miskelley, and Jason Baldwin all maintain their innocence.