Year
2011

“West Memphis Three” released from prison after 18 years

On this day in 2011, three men, Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, who were convicted as teenagers in 1994 of the murders of three boys in Arkansas, are released from prison in a special legal deal allowing them to maintain their innocence while acknowledging that prosecutors had sufficient evidence to convict them. Echols, 36, had been on death row, while Baldwin, 34, and Misskelley, 36, were serving life sentences. Collectively known as the “West Memphis Three,” the men had always maintained their innocence, and questions about the evidence used to convict them had persisted for years. Their case attracted widespread attention and the support of a number of celebrities.

In May 1993, the bodies of three 8-year-old boys, Christopher Byers, Steve Branch and Michael Moore, were found naked and hog-tied in a drainage ditch in a wooded section of West Memphis, Arkansas. Investigators initially had few solid leads; however, because the bodies appeared to have been mutilated, rumors circulated about a possible connection to satanic cult activities. A tip eventually led investigators to focus on the teenage Echols, a high school dropout who grew up poor, was interested in witchcraft and regularly wore black clothing. Then, Misskelley, an acquaintance of Echols, confessed to the murders following a lengthy interrogation by authorities, and implicated Echols and Baldwin. Described as having a below-average IQ, Misskelley provided information about the crime that conflicted in key ways from details known to the police, and he soon recanted his confession. Nevertheless, in February 1994, he was convicted of first- and second-degree murder, and sentenced to life in prison plus 40 years.

In a separate trial in March 1994, Echols and Baldwin were convicted of capital murder. During the trial, Misskelley refused to testify against the two, and prosecutors had no eyewitnesses or physical evidence linking Echols and Baldwin to the crime. Instead, the prosecution presented evidence that Echols, the alleged ringleader, read books about witchcraft as well as novels by Stephen King and Anne Rice, and said he was motivated to murder the boys as part of an occult ritual.

The case gained national attention with the release of the 1996 documentary “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills,” which cast doubt on the men’s guilt. A movement grew to free the West Memphis Three, and celebrities including Pearl Jam front man Eddie Vedder, Dixie Chicks singer Natalie Maines and film director Peter Jackson (“The Lord of the Rings” trilogy) spoke out in support of the three men and helped fund a legal team to fight the convictions. In 2007, lawyers for the West Memphis Three said new forensic tests showed there was no DNA evidence to link the men to the crime.

In the fall of 2010, the Arkansas Supreme Court ordered a hearing for Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley to determine if they deserved new trials. However, before the hearing took place, the trio’s lawyers and prosecutors in Arkansas reached a deal allowing the men to enter an Alford plea and go free. With this little-used legal tool, a defendant is allowed to maintain his or her innocence but plead guilty because it is considered in his or her best interest to do so.

In a statement following his release from custody on August 19, 2011, Echols said, in part, of the plea deal: “I have now spent half my life on death row. It is a torturous environment that no human being should have to endure, and it needed to end. I am innocent, as are Jason and Jessie, but I made this decision because I did not want to spend another day of my life behind those bars.”

ALSO ON THIS DAY

Bill Clinton born

On this day in 1946, William Jefferson Blythe III is born in Hope, Arkansas. His father died in a car accident before he was born, and young Bill later took the last name of his stepfather, Roger Clinton. In 1992, Bill Clinton would be elected as the 42nd president of the United ...read more

Old Ironsides earns its name

During the War of 1812, the U.S. Navy frigate Constitution defeats the British frigate Guerrière in a furious engagement off the coast of Nova Scotia. Witnesses claimed that the British shot merely bounced off the Constitution‘s sides, as if the ship were made of iron rather than ...read more

Allies raid Dieppe

During World War II, an Allied force of 7,000 men carry out a large daytime raid against German positions at the French seaport of Dieppe. Aided by tanks and aircraft, the commando force–made up of approximately 5,000 Canadians, 2,000 British soldiers, and a handful of American ...read more

Many Americans against a bombing halt

A Harris survey indicates that 61 percent of those polled are against calling a halt to the bombing in Vietnam. President Johnson, in a major speech at the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Detroit, challenged Hanoi to respond to the limitations of the bombing campaign that ...read more

Little person makes big league debut

On this day in 1951, little person Eddie Gaedel makes his big league baseball debut with the St. Louis Browns, and is walked on four pitches in his one at-bat. Gaedel was the lead character in the most famous stunt ever devised by legendary owner and showman Bill Veeck.Bill Veeck ...read more

John Wesley Hardin killed in Texas

John Wesley Hardin, one of the bloodiest killers of the Old West, is murdered by an off-duty policeman in a saloon in El Paso, Texas.Born in central Texas on May 26, 1853, Hardin killed his first man when he was only 15 during the violent period of post-Civil War reconstruction. ...read more

Joseph Conrad becomes a British citizen

On this day in 1886, Joseph Conrad, born Jozef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in Poland, becomes a British citizen.Conrad’s father had been a Polish poet and patriot. He was arrested in 1861 for his political activism and exiled to northern Russia. His wife and toddler son joined ...read more

Basinger and Baldwin marry

On this day in 1993, the actors Kim Basinger and Alec Baldwin marry in East Hampton, New York. The Hollywood power couple reportedly became involved on the set of the romantic comedy The Marrying Man (1991), in which they played lovers. The film was a box-office flop, as was a ...read more

Fire on Saudi jet kills 301

On this day in 1980, a fire aboard a plane bound for Saudi Arabia forces an emergency landing.The Saudi Airlines flight began in Karachi, Pakistan, headed for Jidda, Saudi Arabia, with a stopover in Riyadh. The first leg of the flight was uneventful, and the Lockheed L-1011 took ...read more

A Jewish youth is killed by a mob

Yankel Rosenbaum, a visiting student from Australia, is stabbed to death by an angry mob in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, New York. The crowd, consisting of young black men, had been intent on seeking revenge against Jewish people for the death of seven-year-old Gavin ...read more