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The West Memphis Three
I had a first-hand look at the frenzy surrounding one of the most contentious death-row convictions in the past 20 years

The biggest legal industry in West Memphis, Arkansas, a grimy little blight of a town right across Old Man River from Tennessee’s largest city, are the truck stops that clog the highway in every direction at the intersections of Interstates 40 and 55. These are large full-service rest areas for long-haul truckers, with gas, food, gift shops, locker rooms where truckers can purchase showers, and telephones in every booth. If you also counted the smaller 24-hour coffee shops there are dozens of trucker-hospitality establishments, constituting a little strip of Arkansas where the lights never go out and the doors never lock, and it is within these businesses that West Memphis’ secondary industries of prostitution and drug dealing flourish. A garden spot it decidedly is not. I don’t like the term white trash, but it’s how most of the city dwellers on the far side of Big Muddy would describe the people living there. Without resorting to either derogatory terms or political correctness, anybody would have to concede that West Memphians are among Arkansas’s and America’s most economically disadvantaged.

It was here, in West Memphis, on May 5, 1993, that three eight-year-old boys, James Moore, Steve Branch and Chris Beyers, were last seen riding bikes through their neighborhood at 6 pm. At 1:45 pm the next day, local police, who had been searching for them since the previous night, discovered their nude bodies in a wooded area called Robin Hood Hills, floating in a shallow drainage ditch. All three were hog-tied with shoelaces, wrists to ankles, and then beaten viciously about their faces, heads and torsos, although autopsies showed that two of the boys drowned in the drainage ditch. Only one victim, Chris Beyers, died as a result of his wounds, but Beyers’ injuries were the most extensive, including not just the same blunt trauma as the others, but also deep lacerations to his legs and buttocks, as well as the emasculation of his genitals.

A transplanted Yankee, I was a 22-year-old journalism school undergrad at the University of Memphis when these crimes occurred, so I remember with total clarity the panic that swept the area, especially after Memphis’s daily newspaper, The Commercial Appeal, a publication that would give me my first byline a couple years later, published the grisly and confidential crime scene details two days into the investigation.

Not long after that the word on everyone’s lips was Satanism. To many in that part of Bible Belt America, Satanism was the only logical answer, the only way such an evil thing could be explained within their worldview. This also struck a chord with me because I had seen it before. A young girl named Giselle Cote was strangled in my hometown of Sanford in the early 1980s. When the man convicted of her killing was rumored to have been involved with Satanism wild rumors of a shadowy cult overtook the town with such alacrity that Geraldo Rivera featured Sanford on a TV special about Satanism, and the Boston Herald ran a story about the madness on its front page under the headline "TERRORTOWN."

A few West Memphis police officers immediately suspected the unfortunately named Damien Echols, a troubled local 18-year-old who had already been under their scrutiny for a year, ever since a 17-year-old Echols had tried to run away with his 16-year-old girlfriend. Echols was the classic outsider. He had long hair, wore black, listened to heavy metal, and helped foster his eventual undoing by perpetuating rumors that he was a devil worshiper. I guess those cops never knew kids like Echols in high school, kids who wore pentagrams and who spoke with their best approximation of glowing intellectual haughtiness about Anton LeVay, just because they wanted to look cool or different.

When the police canvassed an apartment complex near where the bodies were discovered, residents regaled them with wild stories about cult activity in Robin Hood Hills, and of strange-looking kids who hung around there at night. One person even told police that a friend had seen a dead baby hanging from a tree in the woods, although this incident was never reported. From this flimsy and fantastical stuff grew the Satanism theory, starring Damien Echols.

A West Memphis woman named Vicki Hutcheson who had outstanding warrants in Northwest Arkansas for writing bad checks was in the police department to take a polygraph test involving a theft at her work on May 6, 1993, the day the bodies were discovered. Accompanying Hutcheson at the police department was her eight-year-old son who suddenly began telling police that he had seen the killings, that he knew where they had occurred, and that the murderous devil worshipers spoke Spanish.

Witnesses, however, placed Hutcheson’s son far from the murder vicinity on the day in question, and his statements changed so often and dramatically that police soon discounted them, but that never caused the police to reconsider their Satanism theory, nor did it deter Vicki Hutcheson, who was still in her own legal bind, from wanting to help herself by helping the investigation. To that end, she allowed police to bug her living room, and asked a neighbor, Jessie Miskelley Jr. to introduce her to Echols there.

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Issue Date: July 22 - 28, 2005
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