Marking the twenty-second anniversary of the deaths of Stevie Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore, three eight year old boys left in a muddy ditch after being murdered in West Memphis on May 5, 1993, about 30 people rallied on the steps of the Arkansas State Capitol today, asking that the state reopen the investigation into the boys’ deaths.
The first speaker to the lectern was Rev. Thompson Murray, a United Methodist minister who stood in for “Devil’s Knot” author Mara Leveritt, who is in Ashdown covering the retrial of Tim Howard. Murray said that he’d been largely ignorant of the facts of the West Memphis Three case until he asked Leveritt, who lives across the street from him, to explain where the case stood some years ago. During that conversation, Murray said, “I went from being an objective observer to a serious inquirer.” He said he soon came to believe that the three teens accused of the crime — Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley — were innocent, and that the real murderer of the children was still walking fee. While the facts can be undermined, Murray said “the truth can never be fully destroyed.”
Following Murray was keynote speaker John Mark Byers, who limped to the podium, sweating heavily in the heat under a gray suit. After starting with the Serenity Prayer, Byers said that the rally could “start a new day in what could be justice for six families.”
Byers, at times weeping so hard it was difficult to understand him, said that though news accounts have often referred to him as Christopher Byers’ stepfather, he considered himself the boy’s father. He said he was the only father Chris ever knew.
“Despite my mistakes and my poor decisions,” Byers said, “I loved my son with all my heart. And 22 years ago, a big part of my heart was taken away.”
Byers spoke at length about the last time he saw his son, saying he’d spanked Christopher for riding a skateboard in the street. He said it didn’t know it would be the last time he’d ever speak to him.
“Words, they cannot describe the thoughts, the wishes, the regret I’ve felt for 22 years for spanking my son… I wish I’d done anything except spanking him,” he said.
Byers said that after he learned of his son’s death, “between the drugs, alcohol, anger and hurt, I was crazy.” He said he was consumed with madness and anger for years, but soon came to believe that there were holes in state’s the case against Misskelley, Echols and Baldwin, among them: How could “three skinny teenagers” be such efficient killers? How could they leave a crime scene devoid of evidence? How did they know to calmly hide the bodies and the boys’ clothes instead of “freaking out” and leaving the crime scene in a rush? “That’s not the mind of a teenager,” Byers said. “That’s the mind of a skilled killer.”
“If I could figure it out so clearly, blinded by anger and hate, blinded by the loss of my son,” Byers said, “don’t you good people all around the world think that the state of Arkansas could figure it out? Of course they could.”
Misskelley, Echols and Baldwin were released from prison in August 2011 after 18 years behind bars, agreeing to a rare legal maneuver called an Alford Plea, which allowed them to plead guilty while maintaining their innocence.
Byers called the idea that the Alford Pleas closed the case and proved that the WM3 are really the ones who killed his son, “a crock of garbage.” He said now is the time to push for change, and for the case to be reopened.
“To the great State of Arkansas: investigate this case,” he said. “Follow up on the evidence we have given you. Quit hiding behind the meaningless Alford Plea and prosecute the men who killed these children.”