Appeal puts 3 Ark. boys' murders back in spotlight

The Associated Press
Saturday, October 2, 2010; 10:01 AM

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- With the fervor of a religious revival, more than 2,000 people packed an auditorium in Little Rock and shouted alongside movie and music icons like Johnny Depp and Eddie Vedder: "Free the West Memphis Three!"

But the real star of the late August rally sat 75 miles away on Arkansas' death row. He's Damien Echols, sentenced to die for the horrific murder of three young boys 17 years ago; two other young men received life sentences in the case.

Supporters of the men, the so-called West Memphis Three - including hundreds who showed up at a candlelight prayer vigil at a church last week - argue there were two sets of victims from the May 5, 1993, crime: the three murdered 8-year-olds and Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, the then-teenagers who defenders claim were wrongly convicted in the deaths.

Prosecutors have insisted that the true killers are behind bars and that the evidence backs that conclusion. So far, courts have agreed. But doubts about the nightmarish case will not die, and they're not coming only from celebrities.

Following a hearing Thursday, the Arkansas Supreme Court is considering whether to grant Echols a new trial, weighing many issues: Did a juror commit misconduct? What's the significance of a new analysis of DNA, which wasn't tested before the trial?

Meanwhile, another question looms: If the West Memphis Three didn't kill the boys, who did?


The crime was beyond shocking.

Three 8-year-old friends, all Cub Scouts, disappeared after school one weeknight while riding their bikes. Their bruised and bloodied bodies were found the next day in a wooded area known as Robin Hood Hills. The scene was gruesome: The boys were nude, each with his ankles and wrists hogtied together with shoelaces.

Steven Branch and Michael Moore drowned in a drainage ditch filled with about 2 feet of water. Christopher Byers bled to death and his genitals were mutilated and partially removed, leading to rumors that the children were sacrificed in a Satanic ritual.

The outcry in the town of 28,000 across the Mississippi River from Memphis, Tenn., was immediate and intense.

"We were upset, mad at whoever did this to those children," said Ann Powers, a 57-year-old cashier at a West Memphis Walmart. "We were trying to help the parents along as much as we could. Any information that came out was given to the police."

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