When three small boys were found brutally murdered a horrified community wanted swift justice. A trio of teens dubbed 'The West Memphis Three' were jailed. Freed following a plea bargain nearly 20 years later, the debate over their innocence rages on...

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On 5 May 1993, three 8-year-old Cub Scouts went missing in West Memphis, Arkansas.

Schoolboys Steve Branch, Michael Moore, and Christopher Byers were best friends. Neighbours reported they’d last seen them playing around 6.30pm, and a search party was launched.

Next day, at 1.45pm, an officer spotted a boy’s black shoe floating in a muddy creek…and so followed the grim discovery of the boys’ bodies.

Lying in a ditch, hogtied with their own shoelaces.

They’d been beaten, sexually assaulted, and Christopher Byers’ genitals appeared to have been mutilated. Their clothing was found in the creek, some of it twisted around sticks.

Autopsies indicated Byers died of ‘multiple injuries’, while Moore and Branch died of ‘multiple injuries with drowning’.

The three victims were tied up with three different types of knots. This indicated multiple killers.

Steve Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore tribute near Weaver Elementary School. Photo: Danny Johnston/AP/Press Association

Steve Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore tribute near Weaver Elementary School. (Photo: PA Photos)

Stories that satanic ceremonies were occurring in the woods were already circulating in the local community, and the notion there was a ritual element in the murders quickly spread.

The day after the murders, suspicions about a troubled local lad, named Damien Echols, 18, were made to West Memphis Police.

Damien Echols mugshot (Photo: REX/Shutterstock)

Damien Echols mugshot (Photo: REX/Shutterstock)

Echols had a history of psychiatric problems and violent behaviour. He’d ‘EVIL’ tattooed across his knuckles, wore black clothes, liked heavy metal music, and was interested in the occult.

Damien and two other teenagers, Jessie Misskelley Jr., 17, and Jason Baldwin, 16, were accused of the killings.

Jessie Misskelley Jr. Photo by Henry Lamb/Photowire/BEI/BEI/Shutterstock

Jessie Misskelley Jr (Photo: REX/Shutterstock)

Misskelley was a local dropout who worked odd jobs, had a low IQ, and a history of petty crime and violence.

Police first talked to him as a witness on 3 June. Sensationally, within hours, Misskelley confessed to the entire crime, stating he, Damien Echols, and Jason Baldwin had beaten and murdered the boys.

Prosecutors argued the teenagers were driven by satanic ritual, and Echols had been the ringleader. All three defendants pleaded not guilty.

Under the ‘Bruton rule’, Misskelley’s confession couldn’t be admitted against his co-defendants. So, he was tried separately.

But the jury found them guilty.

Damien Echols was sentenced to death, Jessie Misskelley, Jr. was sentenced to life imprisonment plus two 20-year sentences, and Jason Baldwin was sentenced to life imprisonment.

Jason Baldwin. Photo by Henry Lamb/Photowire/BEI/BEI/Shutterstock

Jason Baldwin (Photo: REX/Shutterstock)

Many criticised the police handling of the case, arguing the teenagers were innocent.

Misskelley’s former attorney Dan Stidham cites multiple substantial police errors at the crime scene, characterizing it as ‘literally trampled, especially the creek bed.’

The bodies, he said, had been removed from the water before the coroner arrived to examine the scene and determine the state of rigor mortis, allowing the bodies to decay on the creek bank, and to be exposed to sunlight and insects.

No direct evidence tied the three to the murders.

A knife recovered from a lake near the home of one of the men was deemed a mismatch to the boys’ wounds. The defence team and innocence campaigners dismissed the knife-like marks on the boys bodies as teeth marks or animal predation.

Were the teenagers convicted on prejudice rather than fact?

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Hollywood stars such as Johnny Depp got behind the three men, as many believed there’d been a miscarriage of justice.

In 2010, the Arkansas Supreme Court reviewed newly produced DNA evidence.

The trio, dubbed the ‘West Memphis Three’ negotiated a plea bargain with prosecutors.

On 19 August 2011, the trio entered Alford pleas, which allowed them to assert their innocence while acknowledging prosecutors have enough evidence to convict them.

Jessie Misskelley, Jr., James Baldwin, and Damien Echols answer reporters' questions in 2011. Photo credit: Press Association.

Jessie Misskelley, Jr., James Baldwin, and Damien Echols answer reporters’ questions in 2011. (Photo: PA Photos)

It was not an exoneration, but Judge David Laser accepted the pleas and sentenced the three to time served. They were released with 10-year suspended sentences, having served 18 years and 78 days in prison. If they re-offend they can be sent back to prison for 21 years.

But if the West Memphis Three didn’t kill the tragic school boys, the question remains… Who did?