By: Charles Jason Baldwin
On the evening of May 5, 1993 in the poor-yet-bustling town of West Memphis, Arkansas, three eight-year-old boys were reported missing and fervently sought for until the next day when their bodies were found bound and without clothing in a creek in woods not far from their homes.
Meanwhile, as law enforcement announced the finding of the boys’ bodies, immediately to the north of West Memphis in Marion, Arkansas, a young lady on hard times, Vicki Hutcheson, and her eight-year-old son, Aaron, sat in the offices of Donald Bray. Vicki and Aaron lived in Highland Trailer Park just north of Lakeshore Trailer Park, where I lived. Jessie Lloyd Misskelley, Jr. also lived in Highland during this time and knew Vicki and her son.
It was this encounter at this moment in time and space that would taint the case with “satanic panic” and lead to the narrow focus on and suspicion of Damien Wayne Echols. At this time, neither Vicki nor Aaron knew Damien. When Jessie was asked if he knew Damien, of course his response was yes, the same way everyone in Marion High School who went to school with Damien knew him. But they were neither friends nor confidants.
Vicki, at the urging of Bray and Jerry Driver, set up recording equipment in her house and laid several books of witchcraft out to create a scene with “the trappings of the occult.” They then enlisted the aid of Jessie to seek out Damien and inform him that Vicki wanted to meet him. I remember Jessie knocking at my door and asking Damien to come over. I did not go, because I was responsible for babysitting my brothers until the murderer(s) were found. Afterwards, Damien told me the lady was really weird and assumed a lot of things about him. We joked about her, neither of us knowing the hell that would soon land upon our backs. Unbeknownst to Damien, Vicki had recorded her and Damien’s conversations with equipment provided and set up by the police in an effort to entrap him.
Vicki says the tapes were clear as a bell, but the police contend otherwise and state that the tapes are now gone anyway. I tend to think they are gone because they recorded the truth of the scene: a desperate mother who has the cops breathing down her back and with the full power and force of the law threatening to take her whole life away if she did not cooperate in trying to produce evidence of guilt from a person clearly innocent.
Absent the gathering of any real proof of Damien’s involvement in any cult or the murders, the police threatened this young mother and her child, forcing them to fabricate a story of witchcraft and debauchery, thereby setting the stage for the entire dramatic farce of the trials to follow.
On May 10th, just four days after the boys’ bodies were found, Jessie and one other youth from Highland Trailer Park became infected with the bug. The bug was an awakening of greed for sums of cash never before dreamed of in this trailer park in the form of reward money for information leading to the arrest of the killer of Christopher Byers, Michael Moore and Steve Branch.
With visions of a new truck for his father charging down the streets in Jessie’s mind he and another youth went to the police department to report having seen a “suspicious individual who may have committed the murders.” Lacking any real knowledge of the murders the police sent Jessie and his friend away with the words: “You’ll have to come back with a more believable story than that Jessie, if you want the reward money.”
On June 3, almost a full month after the murders and my last day of 10th grade, the West Memphis Police Department (WMPD), in an act of desperation, remembered the slow kid from the trailer park who came in wanting to help solve the crime and earn some reward money. After quelling his protestations of innocence and lying to him when he passed a lie detector test, the WMPD made sure that even someone of Jessie’s intelligence knew The Truth would not save him. His only salvation lie in “cooperating” with them. SoJessie cooperated – meaning he and the detectives crafted a “believable story” together. When the police needed details of the boys’ bodies, they would show Jessie pictures and point to a wound and Jessie would make up “a believable story” about how that wound was inflicted. When Jessie got an obvious detail wrong they would point it out and ask him if he was mistaken. Since this was a cooperation he would comply. They did this until they had a “believable story” that could be sold to a judge to buy arrest warrants for Damien and me.
The real trials were held in the media where Jessie’s factually incorrect statements were read over titles like “The Devil on Trial,” doing little to reveal the facts of the murder but much to fan the flames of hate and wrath among the population. That wrath and hate was directed towards Damien and anyone associated with him. The facts of the case were lost in a firestorm of misinformation and “believable stories.”
In this tinderbox of an atmosphere, a youth named Michael Carson was caught breaking into his grandparents’ home (among other things) to fuel his drug addiction. He was arrested and jailed in the same jail as I was. He had grown up in the footsteps of an outlaw father who regaled him with tales of being an outlaw and how to get away with it if you ever got caught. I never told him anything about any crime, but that did not stop him from providing a “believable story” to protect his own record and freedom, just like his daddy had taught him. Damien’s and my innocence never stood a chance against such “believable stories.”
The truth is, “believable stories” still hold enormous weight and power in the criminal justice system, but there is not always obvious smoke leading us to jailhouse liars and their fiery pants. We must hold them accountable in order to sniff out the liars, like in Texas where legislation passed this year creates a database to keep track of jailhouse liars, their victims, and everything granted them for their testimony. This saved information can then be introduced as disqualifying evidence by defense attorneys. It is a good first step, but even more important is the acknowledgement that our system frequently relies on the words of people—jailhouse snitches—who we would never in a million years trust for anything else otherwise, a misplaced trust powerful enough to take the life and liberty of the innocent.
Charles Jason Baldwin served over 18-years of a life without parole sentence and faced down the State of Arkansas’s threats of seeking the death penalty for him with dignity, honor and grace for crimes for which he is completely, actually and factually innocent. To this very day as co-founder and vice president of Proclaim Justice, he seeks the identity of the murderer(s) of Christopher Byers, Michael Moore and Steve Branch.