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The West Memphis Three – A Case For Skepticism (by Jeff Sykes)

A story which missed much skeptical attention in recent months was the guilty plea and subsequent release of The West Memphis Three, three innocent men wrongfully jailed for crimes based on shoddy evidence and faulty testimonials, crimes that were initially blamed and later fueled on the long-since-debunked “practice” of killing via “satanic ritual”.  As always, claims of malfeasance in the context of satanic rituals evaporate under the light of scientific evidence. 

SGU listener Jeff Sykes, an Arkansas resident, has been closely following the happenings and “pulse” of the community as this horrific series of events have played out over the better part of 2 decades.  When he wrote me several weeks ago around the time of The New York Times article covering the men’s release from incarceration, he said that this had largely gone under the skeptic community’s radar. I agreed, and asked Jeff to share his thoughts with me so I could share them with you.

He did so a few weeks ago, however, the SGU-24 tsunami overwhelmed my faculties for just about all of September. But a promise is a promise, and although it is a few weeks old, I share with you Jeff’s thoughts on the matter.  Thank you Jeff!

NOTE – some of Jeff’s descriptions contain graphic details, so consider yourself fairly warned.


A Case for Skepticism

By Jeff Sykes

The date is May 6, 1994. A sleepy town in Eastern Arkansas is rocked by the discovery of three dead boys, James Moore, Stevie Branch, and Christopher Byers, all 8 years old. Rumors spread about how grizzly the deaths were. There was talk of raping, stabbing, and genital mutilation. Separating fact from fiction at this time was difficult, to say the least. Obviously, only one type of person could do such a horrible act to three innocent little boys – DEVIL WORSHIPPERS!

The reports were a little vague. The three boys were found near a local creek or drainage ditch. They were found nude with their ankles bound to their wrist with their shoelaces. After finding all three bodies (which took some time because they were spread out over30 feet) the police called the county coroner. When the coroner arrived, he found the bodies already moved. The police reported to him that it looked like the boys had been raped, because the anuses were dilated. The autopsy could not confirm this, because a dilated anus is common after death. Regardless, the coroner did not rule out the possibility of rape.

Moore and Branch were each beaten and drowned. They had no defensive wounds, and there was no damage to the ligaments at the ankles and wrists, suggesting they were unconscious during the attack.

Byers had the same style of injuries, yet more severe. In addition, Byers had an injury at the base of the neck, and his penis, scrotal sac, and testes removed.  Byers’ body also contained “non-therapeutic” levels of Cabzamazepine (an anti-convulsion medication). The lead coroner decided that Byers did not drown, because he was already dead. Based on rigor mortis and lividity, the coroners concluded that the three boys had been killed some time around daybreak, although since the police didn’t take the temperatures of the bodies, they could not be more precise.

From the beginning, the preconceived notion was a ritual sacrifice. So, how do you track down a cult? You look for the people who look like they would be in to that “heathen stuff!” Fortunately for the authorities, Damien Echols fit that template.

Damien was the kind of guy that always wore black. He even had a pentagram tattooed on his chest! (That’s what the police said, but without access to the pictures, one can’t be certain if it was a pentagram or a pentacle.)

Now, it’s important to note that this man wasn’t born Damien Echols. He was actually born Michael Hutcheson. His parents divorced when they were young, and his mother married Jack Echols. Between his turbulent childhood, constant moving, and general teenage angst, Michael began to question his spirituality. His father was Pentecost, but he also tried Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, and finally became Catholic. He began studying devoutly, and changed his name to honor Father Damien, a 19th Century priest who cared for lepers in Hawaii. Well, that is, if you want a boring story. It’s more fun to believe he changed his name to Damien for the character from ‘The Omen’. This, however, brought him no comfort.

Over the next few years, Damien made several attempts at suicide. He then found the Druids and Paganism, and took an interest. Damien tried to run away with his girlfriend, and that was his first contact with the police. He was put on probation, and due to a series of actions and inactions by the state and his parents, found himself with the police many times. Because of this experience with the police, his “abnormal” behavior, and the foregone conclusion that this was a satanic ritual, the police honed in on Echols, and any friends were possible accomplices.

The police put a reward out for any information leading to a conviction, and several people came out of the woodwork with information. Although these people had stories which they later recanted, were shown to be false, or had inconsistencies, a few of them pointed to Jessie Misskelley – a local teenage with an IQ of 72. The police wasted no time in sweeping Misskelley up in this. Because of his low intelligence, he was talked in to confessing to the murders and that Echols and another guy, Jason Baldwin, as his accomplices.

Misskelley’s confession was recorded, and three hours are missing. His confession gets many details wrong, including the suggestion that rope was used to bind them, and that the boys were raped – something the police believed, but wasn’t confirmed by the medical examiner. Despite all these problems, and the fact that Misskelley was 17 at the time, and there was no permission given by the father to interrogate him, this was used as evidence.

Speaking of evidence, evidence for the prosecution included some fibers, the defendants’ fashion style, and Echols’s notebook. The prosecution said that one set of fibers matched a set of fibers found on a robe owned by Echols, but the defense produced an expert which disagreed. Another set of fibers matched a shirt Baldwin owned, but a defense expert pointed out that these fibers are not unique, and can match many articles of clothing. So the prosecution turned to Echols’ notebook. It had pagan writings and drawings – clearly linking Echols to cultic practices – the only motive ever given for the murders. A knife was found behind Baldwin’s house with a serrated edge. The medical examiner testified that the knife wounds were probably caused by a serrated knife, but as to if this specific knife could be linked to the killings is unclear.

Witnesses were brought forward. Echols’s parole officer was the first. He claimed to have seen the three walking together, wearing black robes, and carrying staffs. However, he later admitted to questioning Echols several times in the previous year about every unsolved crime in the area.

A group of people who claimed to have driven by Echols and his girlfriend that night came forward. They claimed to have seen him with another person. He was dressed in black, and his clothes were dirty. Upon cross-examination, their ability to identify Echols while driving by and the ability to see his already dark clothes were dirty was severely question.

Another group of people came forward claiming to have over-heard Echols brag about killing the boys at a softball game. However, the game in question happened while Echols was already in custody.

A fellow inmate from the detention center came forward, claimed that Echols admitted to killing the boys, dismembering them, and drinking their blood. Clearly, based on the facts known about the condition of the victims, this was completely false information.

Next, we have Dr. Dale Griff, an expert on satanic ritual killings. This section screams of so much Satanic Ritual Abuse mentality that I’ll not even go into it. Let’s just say, “The Woo, It Burns!”

I could go on for days, but here is where I’m calling it quits. They were found guilty, even though the evidence linking them is pathetic at best, and there are others who seem more suspicious.

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