THREE 8-YEAR-OLD-BOYS ARE BRUTALLY MURDERED NEARLY 17 YEARS LATER, ACTOR JOHNNY DEPP AND MANY OTHERS HOPE TO PROVE THAT THE THREE MEN CONVICTED OF THE CRIME ARE INNOCENT ON CBS NEWS' "48 HOURS MYSTERY," SATURDAY, FEB. 27
At 35, Damien Echols has spent his entire adult life on death row in an Arkansas prison alongside Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, who are both serving life sentences. The trio, all convicted of a triple murder, are known as the West Memphis 3, and they have gained widespread support from musicians including Dixie Chick Natalie Maines and Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder, and actor Johnny Depp, who are determined to prove the men's innocence.
"They were easy targets... Every single piece of evidence points to their innocence, not to their guilt," says Depp in an interview with 48 HOURS MYSTERY correspondent Erin Moriarty. "People need to stand up and say, yeah, it's time to find the real killers. Let's find justice."
In May 1993, the bodies of Stevie Branch, Chris Byers and Michael Moore were found naked and drowned in a creek in Robin Hood Hills in West Memphis, Ark. Amidst a countrywide media-fueled hysteria about cults, rumors swirled that the 8-year-olds were victims of a satanic ritual. Damien Echols, with his affinity for long hair and dressing in all black, became a prime suspect for police.
"I immediately related to Damien," says Depp. "I come from a relatively small town in Kentucky...I can remember kind of being looked upon as a freak, if you will, different, because I didn't dress like everybody else...I can empathize with being judged for how you look rather than being who you are."
Appearances aside, police had no evidence linking Echols to the crime; that is, until 17-year-old Jessie Misskelley spoke to police. After hours of interrogation, Misskelley, whose lawyer says he has the mental capabilities of a five-year-old and barely knew Echols, confessed to helping him and Jason Baldwin commit the murders. Yet many of the facts he recounted about the crime were wrong.
Nevertheless, the three teens were charged with murder. Jessie Misskelley was tried first and the defense attacked the investigation, including the fact that detectives lost evidence that may have led to another suspect. However, Jessie's confession was enough and he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Three weeks later, Echols and Baldwin went on trial together. Misskelley refused to testify against them and by law his confession could not be used in this trial. Still, the boys were convicted. Baldwin was sentenced to life, Echols was sentenced to death.
Two years later as word of their case spread, so did the outrage over what many believed was a grave injustice. One of those who heard about the controversial case was Lorri Davis, a landscape architect from New York, who is now Damien Echols' wife of 10 years. "I just feel this momentum. There is a will to just right this wrong...to get them out," she says.
Forensic scientists have challenged the causes of the wounds that were inflicted on the victims; sworn affidavits revealed possible jury misconduct and now, more than 16 years later -new DNA evidence points away from the three convicted men and to someone unexpected.
"The urgency of this is Damien Echols is on his last appeal and he is on death row," says Depp. "The most courageous action that the state could now take is to admit that they made mistakes and correct these errors."
In fact, as Damien Echols is prepared to take his case to federal court, he has some unexpected support from parents of the victims. Chris Byers' father Mark and Stevie Branch's mother Pam, who both cheered the guilty verdicts at the time, now agree that justice has not been served.
Erin Moriarty reports on 48 HOURS MYSTERY: "A Cry For Innocence," Saturday, Feb. 27, (10:00-11:00 PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network. This broadcast is produced by Gail Zimmerman and Lisa Freed. Peter Schweitzer is the senior producer and Al Briganti is the executive editor. Susan Zirinsky is the executive producer.
Editors' Note: Click here to watch a preview of the broadcast. Click here to watch Moriarty's reporter's notebook. CBS News 48 HOURS MYSTERY broadcasts are now available on iTunes.