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Page last updated at 16:26 GMT, Thursday, 28 July 2005 17:26 UK

'Satanic' killers hope to prove innocence

By Rob Winder
BBC News

Jessie Misskelley
Jessie Misskelley has been in prison for 12 years

Campaigners across the US and around the world have been meeting to publicise the case of three men they believe have been wrongly convicted of a horrific triple murder.

More than 50 concerts, film screenings and meetings were held at the weekend to show support for Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley - convicted in 1994 of the killing of three Arkansas children.

Events were held as far apart as Moscow and McMurdo research base, in Antarctica.

The campaign has drawn high-profile support from actress Winona Ryder and rock band Metallica.

Ritual killings

On 6 May 1993, the bodies of three eight-year-old boys were found, one of them horribly mutilated, in woods just outside West Memphis, Arkansas.

The police quickly identified and arrested three prime suspects - Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley - all teenagers at the time.

At the trial of Echols and Baldwin, the prosecution alleged the young men were members of a satanic cult and that the killings were ritualistic.

The jury agreed - Baldwin received a life sentence without parole whilst Echols, as the alleged leader of the group, was sentenced to death by lethal injection.

Misskelley had already received life plus 40 years at an earlier trial.

But soon serious doubts were raised about the convictions and 12 years on, campaigners are intensifying their efforts to prove the innocence of the "West Memphis Three."

'Ridiculous'

The men's lawyers believe that the police were under great pressure from the local community to find and charge the perpetrators of a terrible crime quickly.

"A horrible mistake was made," says Jessie Misskelley's lawyer Dan Stidham.

He argues that there was a widespread belief amongst international law enforcement agencies in the early 1990s that the satanic ritual abuse of children was far more commonplace than was actually the case.

There were many high-profile cases during the 1980s and 1990s, including the McMartin pre-school case in California and the Orkney abuse scandal in the UK, in which satanic ritual abuse was alleged but later disproved.

"All the major prosecution witnesses have also since recanted their evidence and the case seems even more ridiculous after 12 years," Mr Stidham said.

Witchcraft

Jessie Misskelley, 17-years-old at the time, was convicted partly on the strength of his confession to police.

He has a substantial learning disability and was questioned for twelve hours without the presence of a lawyer or other adult.

Only 20 minutes of this questioning were recorded and played to the court - Misskelly later claimed his confession was false and was made under intense police pressure.

The case is a very long way down the road to execution
Dennis Riordan, Damien Echols lawyer
No murder weapons or conclusive forensic evidence linking the three to the crime scene were produced in court - and neither was a motive - apart from their alleged satanic beliefs.

Damien Echols was interested in the Wicca religion - a pagan belief system that incorporates witchcraft.

But the prosecution suggested that his wearing of black clothes, listening to heavy metal music and reading Stephen King horror books were also evidence of his guilt.

And it emerged during cross-examination that the police's expert on witchcraft had bought his PhD from a mail order company and not taken any classes to gain it.

On top of this, the police also admitted to losing evidence that could have pointed towards alternative suspects.

A television documentary about the original trial, Paradise Lost, sparked interest in the case across the US and a campaigning group was set up by those sympathetic to the three.

Burk Sauls has been involved in the campaign since 1996.

He believes the prosecution successfully played on the jury's fear of satanic ritual abuse instead of concentrating on the evidence.

"The forensic science and the evidence were ignored and superstition and allegations of devil worshipping cults took precedence over the facts."

"These guys were also dirt poor - from the trailer parks of Arkansas - and they didn't have the money to launch a proper defence."

Federal appeal

Despite the lack of evidence against them the West Memphis Three have lost all their appeals to date.

The Arkansas Supreme Court found at Echols' and Baldwin's original appeal that there was "substantial evidence of their guilt" and that Echols "admitted on cross-examination that he had delved deeply into the occult and was familiar with its practice."

That judgement pointed to witnesses who said they saw Echols near the crime scene and others who claim to have overheard him admitting to the murders.

The three men and their supporters now hope that DNA evidence taken from over 1,000 items at the crime scene will finally exonerate them.

Echols and Baldwin have also launched a new appeal to the federal courts, although for Echols, time is running out.

"I'm guardedly optimistic about the three's chances but we are running out of time and we need to get some justice," said Mr Stidham.

"We need to get this train off the tracks if we are going to save Mr Echols."

The BBC News website contacted both the Arkansas state prosecutor in the case, Brent Davis, and the West Memphis Police Department - both declined to comment.

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