Saturday, 23 July 2016

Rob Hamilton - Fighting cancer.

Due to serious illness I am unable to continue writing for this website. I would like to thank the hundreds of thousands of visitors who have read the articles. I would also like to thank the tens of thousands of readers who placed comments, wrote and emailed me over the years, many providing valuable information about wrongly convicted men and women.
My two biggest regrets are not having any impact on the circumstances of Vincent Simmons, who remains incarcerated after nearly forty long years for a crime he most certainly did not commit and Ronald Sanford, who was locked up in 1989, at the age of fifteen, for a crime he may not have committed when he was just thirteen!
Thank you to all the people who raised petitions, wrote to Governors, State Justice Departments, the various Departments of Corrections and Police Departments around the country. Don't stop now - every little helps in the fight against injustice. will remain open and all the articles will be available until the lease with the hosting company expires. Unfortunately, I have had to close the comments section as there will be nobody to moderate it.
Best wishes to all readers.

Rob Hamilton  (July 2016)


Rob Hamilton
1951 - 2017

Thursday, 7 January 2016

The Death Penalty: Is it a deterrent?

Facts about the death penalty in the United States of America.

  • As of December 2015, there were 3095 inmates across 50 states awaiting execution, a total that includes 56 women. 
  • Death row inmates by race: White 43%;  Black 42%;  Hispanic 13%;  Other 3%.
  • Most inmates currently on death row by state: California 746;  Florida 400;  Texas 265. 
  • Executions by these states since 1976; Texas 531;  Florida 91;  California 13. 
  • Since 1973, 156 people have been exonerated. From January 2000 to July 2015 there was an average of 5 exoneration per year. 
  • In Texas, a death penalty case costs an average of $2.3 million, about three times the cost of imprisoning someone in a single cell at the highest security level for 40 years.

Unfortunately, cold, hard facts, do not tell the real story.

The real story is about people.

"The truth is rarely pure and never simple."
Oscar Wilde, Irish playwright (1854 - 1900)

* * * * *

1.  James Willie 'Bo' Cochran

James Cochran 1997
Thursday, November 4, 1976. 9:45 pm. A & P Grocery Store, Birmingham, Alabama. 34-year-old James Cochran has just held up the store at gunpoint. He has taken $700 from the cash register, but he is being pursued by the store's assistant manager, Stephen Jerome Ganey.

Witnesses describe the pursuit as a "stop and go" situation. Cochran sees that the assistant manager is following him and he stops several times and points his weapon at Ganey, who stops each time, before continuing to pursue Cochran.

This standoff continues for about half a block before the two men disappear from the sight of the witnesses as they enter a mobile home park. Several police officers, now alerted to the robbery and pursuit, surround the area. They are aware that they are dealing with an armed robber.

At 10:10 pm, as officers close in on the suspect, a single shot is heard. Ten minutes later James Cochran is arrested. In his pocket is a bundle of cash amounting to $250. The wad of money has an A & P band around it. An hour later the body of Stephen Ganey is found lying under a trailer. He has been fatally wounded with a single shot to the chest.

Cochran's first trial in August 1977 is declared a mistrial after evidence is presented that the district attorney's office which prosecuted the case used peremptory challenges to strike black jurors based on their race. A former prosecutor who had worked in the district attorney's office declared that the philosophy of the office "was that prospective black jurors were anti-police, anti-establishment and should not be left on juries if at all possible."

James Cochran 1976
Cochran is re-indicted on October 7, 1977. He is convicted of capital murder on February 3, 1978, sentenced to death and transported to Alabama's death row.

On March 31, 1981, the conviction is reversed after the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Alabama's death penalty statute on a technicality. A new trial is ordered, the third, and on April 2, 1982, Cochran is again convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death for the second time.

Despite several appeals over the years it is not until 1995 that an appeal is granted, and yet again the conviction is overturned. It takes two years before the case comes before the court, which means James Cochran has spent a total of 21 years on death row. In June 1997, he faces his fourth trial for the capital murder of Stephen Jerome Ganey.

And finally the truth emerges.

Richard Jaffe, Defense Attorney.
Richard Jaffe, James Cochran's new defense attorney, discovers some serious anomalies with the prosecution case. He is astonished when he discovers the prosecution do not intend to offer the court any forensic evidence.

Why are they not offering forensic evidence? Because there is none - and never has been. Richard Jaffe also discovers that no forensic evidence was offered at Cochran's previous trials.

Unbelievably, no forensic tests had been done on the gun James Cochran had been carrying. There was no evidence to show that his gun had even been fired that night. No paraffin test had been done on his hands, a test that would have determined if he had actually fired the gun. He was sentenced to death on two separate occasions purely on circumstantial evidence.

James Cochran was arrested more than a hundred yards away from the fatal shooting. As police officers moved in, he would have had no time to move the body of Stephen Ganey under the trailer and then leave the scene. So, who shot Stephen Ganey and moved his body?

There was a very good reason why prosecutors never offered any forensic evidence.

The prosecution claimed that the fatal bullet could not be found. The only bullet allegedly found near the scene of the shooting did not match the gun Cochran was carrying. Autopsy photos of the victim showed a highly irregular entry wound; it appeared that the fatal bullet had been cut out before the body had been delivered to the coroner.

All the evidence uncovered by Richard Jaffe and the defense team pointed to an accidental police shooting and then a cover up. James Cochran was sentenced to death and spent 21 years on death row for a crime he did not commit.

How is it possible to sentence a man to death, not once, but twice, on such flimsy, circumstantial evidence?

In the first three trials, James Cochran met his court-appointed lawyers on the day of the trial. They were paid by the state at a rate of $40 an hour in court, $20 an hour out of court.

The state of Alabama can spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to prosecute a capital murder case, but, in this particular case, the state capped James Cochran's defense funding at $7500.

The lawyers assigned to the case did their best, but they were under-equipped, under-trained and under-compensated. Is anybody surprised that James Cochran, a man innocent of murder, was sentenced to death on two separate occasions.

In the fourth trial, respected defense attorney, Richard Jaffe, took the case on a pro bono basis and successfully challenged the prosecution's circumstantial evidence. Not all death row inmates are as fortunate as James Cochran to have (eventually) a good defense lawyer.

Many have to take whatever state appointed attorney they are given - and suffer the consequences.

2. Cameron Todd Willingham 

Monday, December 23, 1991. The Willingham residence. Corsicana, Texas. Cameron Willingham is at home with his three daughters, two-year-old Amber and one-year old twins, Kameron and Karmon.

Stacey Kuykendal, Willingham's wife and the mother of the three children, is out shopping.

Sometime in the late afternoon Willingham is napping in the front room when a fire breaks out in the one story building.

The fire spreads rapidly through the wooden building, creating a dense black smoke. Cameron Willingham tries desperately to save his three daughters who are in the bedroom, but he is beaten back by the ferocity of the flames. He receives minor injuries; singed hair on his chest, eyelids and head and has a two inch burn injury on his shoulder. His hands are blackened but he does not suffer any smoke inhalation.

His three girls die in the blaze.

In sworn statements, two witnesses at the scene state that they urged Willingham to return into the house to rescue his children.

Brandice Barbee said, "All I could see was smoke. He refused to go back into the house and went and moved his car. He then sat on a nearby lawn, not once attempting to go back inside to rescue his children."

Other witnesses described Willingham's mood as changeable. One moment he was distraught, screaming and shouting, the next placid and seemingly uncaring. It was also noted that Willingham became far more agitated when the fire department arrived, to the point of having to be restrained by the emergency services.

He became so agitated that he was arrested and was eventually conveyed to hospital in handcuffs. 

On December 24, 1991, Assistant Fire Chief Douglas Fogg performed an initial inspection and investigation of the fire and filed a report. Three days later, on December 27, 1991, Manuel Vasquez, an investigator from the State Fire Marshal's Office, conducted a separate inspection and investigation, and filed a separate report.

Both reports classified the fire as arson and Willingham was questioned by detectives on December 31.

He was told that investigators had determined that the fire had been started by some sort of  liquid accelerant.

There was also evidence of char patterns in the floor in the shape of "puddles", multiple starting points of the fire and charring under the aluminum door jamb, all of which indicated arson. Investigators claimed that they had tested positive for an accelerant on the front porch, which confirmed their findings.

At this point, police had no clear motive, and Willingham's wife denied that they had fought prior to the night of the fire. With an accumulation of evidence pointing to arson, police arrested Cameron Willingham on January 8, 1992 and charged him with the capital murder of his three daughters.

Willingham's trial began on August 18, 1992. The prosecution's case rested upon two components; the testimony of Fogg and Vasquez, who both confirmed that the fire was arson, and the testimony of Johnny Evertt Webb, a cell mate of Willingham when they had both been confined at the Navarro County Jail.

The expert testimony of the two fire investigators convinced the jury that the blaze at the Willingham house was arson. Johnny Webb then told the jury that Willingham had confessed that he had set the fire to hide an injury or the death of one of the girls, caused by his wife. The prosecution had now demonstrated motive.

Unfortunately, Willingham's rugged appearance, subdued personality and liking for heavy metal music worked against him. The prosecution said that Willingham's tattoo of a skull and serpent fit the profile of a sociopath.

A psychologist interpreted Willingham's Iron Maiden poster of a fist punching through a skull as a signifier of violence and death. Psychiatrist James Grigson told the court that other Iron Maiden posters indicated 'cultive-type' activities. He also indicated that Willingham's extremely severe sociopathic condition was incurable.

The prosecution claimed that Willingham was a wife abuser, both physically and mentally and that he also abused animals. If the jury weren't already convinced of his guilt, they certainly were when the prosecution told them Willingham had tried on two other occasions to abort his wife's pregnancies by kicking her in the stomach.

Against the advice of his counsel, Willingham declined a life sentence in exchange for his guilty plea. He insisted that he would not admit to something he had not done, even if it meant sparing his life.

On October 29, 1992, Cameron Willingham was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death.

Over the course of the next decade, Willingham exhausted every avenue of appeal.

In November of 2003, the United States Supreme Court denied a judicial review of the case. Willingham's execution date was set for February 17, 2004.

In January 2004, three separate reports demonstrated that Willingham's conviction for murder was unsafe. The 'Hurst Report' discussed new forensic evidence in the Willingham case which demonstrated actual innocence. The report refuted the testimony of Vasquez and Fogg and determined that their conclusions were 'simply wrong' and that their 'expertise' was outdated.

The Arson Review Committee Report demonstrated that Vasquez and Fogg's testimony was 'wrong' on several counts. The report explained in explicit detail, using modern fire investigation techniques not available in 1992, why the original court testimony was erroneous. The conclusion was that the fire was not arson.

Finally, the Beyler Report stated: "The fire science and fire investigation communities are clear that the floor patterns cannot be reliably used as an arson indicator in fully developed fires."

John J. Lentini
John J. Lentini, a certified fire investigator and chemist with more than thirty years experience, testified before the Arson Review Committee: "All the evidence is consistent with an accidental fire. I would put the faulty wiring ahead of the space heater. The wiring on the exterior walls and over the doors, was an accident waiting to happen. If every inch of wiring had been checked by investigators they might have found the cause of the fire."

On January 26, 2004, based on the new evidence available, Willingham applied to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles for a commutation of his sentence, or a 90-day reprieve from execution to examine the new evidence.

On February 13, 2004, the board declined to recommend either form of clemency.

On the same day as he was turned down by Pardons and Paroles, Willingham filed a writ of habeas corpus with the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. The writ relied upon the three reports that demonstrated innocence.

The Court of Criminal appeal refused to consider the claim.

Willingham then turned to the Governor's Office. On February 17, 2004, Willingham's attorney faxed the Governor requesting a 30-day reprieve from execution. The Governor's office received the fax containing the reports outlining Willlingham's innocence at 4:52 pm. There is no evidence that anybody in the Governor's office reviewed the reports.

Governor Rick Perry denied a reprieve. At 6:20 pm on February 17, 2004, Cameron Todd Willingham was executed.

Following the execution, it was revealed that four years earlier, Johnny Evertt Webb had recanted his testimony. In a handwritten letter to the Navarro County District Attorney's Office (see below) dated March 30, 2000, Webb wrote that he "was forsed (sic) to testify against Mr Willingham by the DA's office and other officials. I was made to lie. Mr Willingham is innocent of all charges."
Johnny Everett Webb recants his testimony in March 2000

Following the execution, it was also revealed that there was no medical or police records that indicated Cameron Willingham had ever abused his wife or children. But there is more to this story than would appear. Why did Governor Rick Perry deny a 30-day reprieve when the evidence of innocence, collated by nine renowned fire experts, was so overwhelming? Why was the state of Texas so determined to execute Cameron Willingham?

Six years later the State of Texas Court of Inquiry issued this decree:

No Court can restore the life of Cameron Todd Willingham, and no court can restore to him or his family what they lost due to the actions of the State of Texas. This Court can, however, rule within the law in an attempt to provide a remedy.
Accordingly, it is hereby ORDERED, ADJUDGED and DECREED on this, the 22nd day of December, 2010, that the Petitioners properly invoked this court's jurisdiction under Article 1, Section 13 and Article 5, Section 8 the Texas Constitution.
The petitioners have proven to this Court that Cameron Todd Willingham was wrongfully executed, and he is hereby exonerated.
The reputation of Cameron Todd Willingham is hereby restored, and all legal disabilities to his survivors as a result of the harm to his reputation are removed.

If that's an apology from the State of Texas, it doesn't really work for me. How about you?


 Information and pictures for the two articles courtesy of:

Birmingham Police Department

Federal Bureau of Investigation - 

299th District Court, Travis County, Texas

The New Yorker

Incendiary: The Willingham Case - Yokel Production Company 

Corsicana Police Department

The Office of John J. Lentini

The Innocence Project

United States Supreme Court Archives

The Daily Mail - U.K. edition

Thursday, 26 November 2015

Anthony Ray Hinton: Thirty years on Death Row.

Anthony Ray Hinton, 10,425 days on death row.
Friday, April 3, 2015. 9:30 am. Jefferson County Jail. Birmingham, Alabama. At 9:30 am, 58-year-old Anthony Ray Hinton walks out of the County Jail to be greeted by family and friends. With all charges dismissed, he is a free man for the first time in 30 years.

Anthony Ray Hinton is one of the longest serving death row prisoners to be freed after new evidence discredited the prosecution's case regarding the weapon used in the homicides.

Not only did his attorney, Bryan Stevenson, discredit the only piece of hard evidence against Hinton, he also proved that forensic firearms experts, used by the state in the original trial, were either incompetent or untruthful.

Interestingly, the six bullets from the robbery-homicides that the prosecution said were linked to Hinton's gun, and proved to be crucial in obtaining a conviction, were never entered into evidence.

Anthony Ray Hinton was the 152nd inmate since 1973 to be released from death rows across 25 states, and the 6th to be exonerated and released from Alabama's death row in the last 20 years. Bryan Stevenson, lead lawyer and executive director of Equal Justice Initiative of Alabama, said "I don't think there's any question he's innocent."

Bob McGregor in 2010.
Bob McGregor from the Jefferson County district attorney's office, who died in 2010, led the 1986 prosecution team and said at the original trial that Anthony Ray Hinton was "one of the coldest killers who ever walked a sidewalk in Jefferson County. I have never had a case in my life that I've been so absolutely convinced by the evidence."

During the several appeal processes, McGregor referred to Hinton as "one of the most evil people," and "a sociopathic jerk." He also criticized attorney Bryan Stevenson for "selectively extracting information" to build a case for Hinton's innocence, while ignoring damning testimony and evidence.

He never actually highlighted what damning testimony and evidence Bryan Stevenson had ignored.

McGregor, who wrote a book entitled, "Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound" apparently never wanted to be a lawyer - he wanted to be a prosecutor and "get the bad guys." He also liked talking to juries and was "never afraid to bring anything to trial."

So what exactly did Bob McGregor bring to Anthony Ray Hinton's 1986 trial? Was it injustice on a grand scale? Was an innocent man convicted of crimes he did not commit? Or was the truth clouded by procedural incompetence? Can anything in this case be proved beyond a reasonable doubt? To answer these questions it is necessary to know what was going on in Birmingham, Alabama in the early months of 1985.

Mrs Winner's Fried Chicken Restaurant

Sunday, February 24, 1985. Birmingham, Alabama. A little after midnight Thomas Elliot, an exterminator, walks by Mrs Winner's Fried Chicken restaurant on 29th Street South and notices that the front door is unlocked.

Mister Elliot, a regular customer at the restaurant, enters the building and calls out.

No answer. He sees a light at the back of the restaurant and moves towards it. Lying in a pool of blood next to the cooler he finds the restaurant's 49-year-old Assistant Manager, John Davidson.

Davidson has been shot in the head and is bleeding heavily. The cooler door, which is slightly ajar, is covered in blood which is still dripping down onto the floor next to the prone body. Elliot finds a phone in a back office and calls 911.

After the call is made, John Davidson suddenly regains consciousness, stands up and starts stumbling around the restaurant, seemingly unaware of Elliot's presence. Unsure of what is happening, and fearing for his own safety, Elliot quickly exits the restaurant and waits outside for the paramedics to arrive.

Within minutes police and paramedics arrive on scene. Emergency treatment is administered to John Davidson before he is transported to the Medical Center East Hospital.

Despite extensive surgery, he dies the next day. He had been shot twice in the head, one bullet entering below his right eye, the other smashing the right side of his skull.

The two .38 caliber bullets recovered from the victim's head are turned over to the Alabama Department of Forensic Science for examination.

At the crime scene, the police investigation reveals that $2100 is missing from the safe. No fingerprints are found at the scene but Davidson's wallet is found on the front seat of his truck, which is parked outside the restaurant.

Police believe that John Davidson was accosted by a gunman as he left the restaurant and forced to re-enter, open the safe and give the robber the cash contents. Despite turning over all the cash to the gunman he was then bundled towards the cooler and shot twice in the head.

Police officers are stunned by the unnecessary violence used against an unarmed man.

Captain D's Seafood Restaurant

Four months later on July 2, 1985, a robbery occurs at Captain D's restaurant in Woodlawn, in the eastern section of Birmingham. A little after midnight, 39-year-old Thomas Wayne Vason, the Assistant Manager, is alone in the restaurant counting the day's takings.

Some fifteen minutes earlier, Earnest Horn, another employee at Captain D's, had plugged the alarm system into the phone before leaving.

At 12:45 am, Thomas Vason finishes counting the money and phones in the sales total to the restaurant's regional office, which logs the exact time of the call. It is presumed that Vason leaves the building immediately after making the call.

Seven hours later, at 7:45 am, the restaurant Manager, Reuben Valdez, arrives to begin his day's work. He notices Thomas Vason's car parked outside the front door but thinks nothing of it. Once inside the restaurant, Valdez is disconcerted to see that the safe has been left open. He then notices a bloodied body lying inside the cooler. Valdez quickly realizes that his Assistant Manager has been shot and appears to be dead.

He immediately calls 911 and leaves the building.

Birmingham police officers arrive just five minutes later, quickly followed by the crime scene unit. The investigators find a piece of paper lying on the floor with the combination to the safe scrawled across it.

Thomas Vason's wallet is found lying on his desk. It contains $165 and has, for some reason, been ignored by the robber.

The restaurant business records reveal that $650 has been taken from the safe.

The front door is open, the restaurant keys are found on the kitchen floor and there are no signs of a forced entry.

Police also find that the telephone alarm system has been switched off.

The only evidence found is a smudged fingerprint on a door near the safe. No other forensic evidence is recovered. Police believe that Thomas Vason left the restaurant and was approached by a gunman who forced him to re-enter the restaurant, switch off the alarm and open the safe. Despite the Assistant Manager complying with the robber's instruction he was pushed into the cooler and fatally shot in the head.

Again police are shocked by the unwarranted violence inflicted on a compliant victim.

The Jefferson County Coroner's Office determine that Thomas Vason was dead at the scene of the crime. The autopsy revealed that the victim had suffered two gunshot wounds to the head. The first bullet had entered below the right eye, the second smashed the right side of the skull and entered the brain, causing a fatal injury.

Birmingham PD South.
The four .38 caliber bullets recovered from the two robbery victims are compared by firearm experts who determine that the bullets were fired from the same gun.

With no other forensic evidence available the police investigation into the two fatal shooting grinds to a halt.

With the possibility of the restaurant shootings turning into a cold case, a series of incidents at another Birmingham restaurant gives the investigators the break they are looking for. They believed the gunman would strike again, they just didn't think it would happen so soon.

Quincy's Family Steak House Restaurant
Robbery-Attempted Murder

Less than one month after the second shooting, Sidney Smotherman, Night Manager at Quincy's Family Steak House restaurant in Bessemer, (approximately 10 miles south west of Birmingham) closes up for the night. It is fourteen minutes after midnight on July 25, 1985 when Mister Smotherman gets into his silver Pontiac Fiero and drives to a nearby Food World.

When he arrives at the store he meets two of his staff who have also dropped by to pick up some items on their way home. One of the employees notices a "strange looking guy" inside the store. He does not appear to be shopping and raises his hands to hide his face.

The man does not make a purchase. He waits a moment and then follows the restaurant manager out of the shop. The shop receipt shows that Sidney Smotherman leaves Food World at twenty six minutes after midnight.

Less than a mile down the road Smotherman's car is bumped from behind when he stops at traffic lights. When he gets out to inspect the damage the man in the car behind pulls a gun and forces him into his car, which is a large, dark colored, late 70's model sedan.

The gunman then drives to Quincy's and the two men enter the restaurant. Once inside, the gunman orders Smotherman to empty the safe and give him everything except the pennies. After pocketing the money, the gunman asks where the cooler is. Remembering the news reports of the two robbery-homicides at the other restaurants, Smotherman directs the gunman not to the cooler but to a storeroom which he knows will lock from the inside.

As Smotherman walks into the storeroom he turns to see the gunman pointing a pistol at his head. He ducks and throws up his hands just as two shots are fired.

As he falls, he kicks the door shut. It closes and locks automatically, preventing the gunman from entering

One of the bullets fired at Smotherman hits his finger and ricochets upward grazing the side of his head. He waits ten minutes before opening the door. With the gunman nowhere to be seen, Smotherman exits the building, finds a telephone and calls 911.

Police and paramedics arrive within minutes. While treating Mr Smotherman, paramedics discover one of the bullets fired at the restaurant manager has somehow found its way into his shirt pocket without injuring him or damaging the bullet. The .38 caliber bullet becomes a vital piece of evidence.

The Police Investigation

Forensic experts determine that the two bullets recovered from Quincy's restaurant were fired from the same gun that took the lives of John Davidson and Thomas Vason. Unfortunately, investigators are unable to lift any fingerprints from either Mr Smotherman's car or from inside the restaurant.

However, Sidney Smotherman, having spent more than fifteen minutes with the gunman, most of that time staring down the barrel of a .38 special, is able to provide an exceptionally detailed description of the robber.
Anthony Ray Hinton, September, 1986.

Police construct a composite drawing of the suspect and issue it to the media. Once the picture has been published in newspapers and shown on television, several people come forward to say that they recognize the man in the picture.

None of the names given to police include that of Anthony Ray Hinton.

On July 30, 1985, Sidney Smotherman  is shown an array of photographs. He picks out a picture of Hinton and states, "That's him."

The two restaurant employees who first notice "the strange guy" in Food World, and then watch him follow Smotherman out of the store, also categorically identify that man as Anthony Ray Hinton.

As the investigation continues, Police discover that Hinton had met Reginald White, an employee of Quincy's restaurant, two weeks earlier and asked him questions about the Manager at the Bessemer restaurant. Hinton was told that the restaurant had recently acquired a new Manager called Smotherman who drove a Fiero. Reginald White also told police that Hinton had inquired about the closing times of the restaurant.

With the positive eye witness identifications and the witness statement from Reginald White, police obtain an initial arrest warrant for Hinton.

On July 31, 1985, Sergeant Clyde Amberson of the Jefferson County Sheriff's Department, accompanied by an officer from the Walker County District Attorney's Office, go to Hinton's home and arrest him on robbery charges. Under no obligation to do so, Hinton gives permission for his car and his bedroom to be searched. No incriminating evidence is found in either place.

Anthony Ray Hinton, July 31, 1985.
Hinton's mother is asked if there is a gun in the house. She says there is a gun kept in the kitchen drawer, but when she goes to retrieve it, the drawer is found to be empty.

She eventually finds it under a mattress in a back bedroom. Mrs Hinton gives the gun, an old .38 special with a rusted barrel, to the officers. She also gives them two bullets.

Firearm experts at the State Department of Forensic Science test-fire the .38 Smith and Wesson and determine that all six bullets recovered from the robberies were fired through this gun. Hinton is charged with the capital murder in the deaths of John Davidson and Thomas Wayne Vason.

The Trial
Jefferson County Circuit Court
September 10, 1986

Anthony Ray Hinton goes to trial on capital murder charges. He is never tried for the robbery and shooting of Sidney Smotherman at Quincy's restaurant. Two firearms experts testify that bullets from all three crimes carried out at the restaurants were fired from the .38 revolver found at Hinton's mother's house. This is the only hard evidence that state have, but it will condemn Hinton to death row.

Anthony Ray Hinton, September, 1986.
Despite not being charged with the robbery at Quincy's restaurant, Hinton watches as Sidney Smotherman takes the stand and identifies him as the gunman for that robbery.  

Smotherman's two co-workers also identify Hinton as the "strange guy" they saw in Food World. Anthony Ray Hinton is identified for a crime he is not charged with, and his defense attorney does not object, because he can't.

It is called consolidation and is used by prosecutors to link defendants to crimes for which that have not been charged. It is a legal anomaly that works for the prosecution and against the defendant.  

A further consolidation occurs when Reginald White takes the stand and testifies that Hinton asked him for details about Quincy's Restaurant, including what sort of car the night manager drove and the restaurant opening and closing hours.

The defense calls Andrew Payne, a consulting engineer with some expertise in firearms identification. He tells the court that no determination could be made that the bullets had been fired from the gun in question - and he is later proved to be absolutely correct.

But the prosecution demolishes Andrew Payne's testimony. He admits under oath that he has no training or expertise in firearms identification. He also admits that he is visually impaired - he only has one eye - and that he cannot use a microscope. Payne tells the court that results of his examination of the bullets are inconclusive.

Andrew Payne's testimony is a huge blow and Hinton's attorney struggles to build a creditable defense.

Witnesses for the defense testify that on the night of the Quincy's shooting Hinton was at work in Bruno's Warehouse, a twenty minute drive from the scene of crime. Hinton's supervisor, Thomas Doll, states that Hinton clocked on at 11:57 pm and was given his work instruction. The supervisor tells the court that he saw the defendant several times over the course of the shift, as did several other co-workers, and that, due to the high security, it was not possible for anybody to leave the warehouse before the end of the shift at 6:00 am.

Hinton also tells the court that he did not own a late 70's dark colored sedan, which was the car identified by witnesses. He says he owns a small red Nissan. Unfortunately, the state present evidence that Hinton did own a 1975 Chevrolet Caprice. If the jury wasn't convinced of Hinton's guilt, they are now.

Unfortunately, the jury is never told that the 1975 Chevrolet in question was repossessed some months before the robberies occurred. Had they known that, the jury would probably still have convicted, but it was just another inconvenient fact that was never revealed to the court.

Anthony Ray Hinton on his way to death row.
During the closing arguments prosecutor Bob McGregor reminds jurors of the one-eyed "charlatan" whose testimony was "startling and disturbing, alarming and almost sickening."

A strange choice of words for a prosecutor to use, but there is no doubt that Andrew Payne's flawed testimony sealed Hinton's fate.

On September 19, 1986, the jury, out for less than two hours, convict Hinton on two counts of capital murder. They also vote 10-2 for the death penalty. Circuit judge James Garrett sentences Hinton to death.

29-year-old Anthony Ray Hinton will now spend thirty years on death row awaiting execution for a crime he did not commit.


In 2002, during yet another futile appeal against Hinton's death sentence, three forensic experts, one of them a former chief of the FBI firearms identification unit, said that not only could they not match the bullets to any single gun, they could not match Hinton's .38 special to any of the six bullets because it was mechanically incapable of firing that particular ammunition. The Alabama Department of Forensic Science ballistics expert who testified at Hinton's trial was asked what he had used to determine that the six bullets were all fired from the same gun.

He declined to answer.

And still the state of Alabama refused to accept that a miscarriage of justice had occurred. Prosecutor Bob McGregor said he knew Hinton was "evil" just by looking at him and insisted that Hinton should remain on death row. McGregor cited the eye witness testimony of Sidney Smotherman and his two co-workers as conclusive evidence of Hinton's guilt.

Anthony Ray Hinton, 1986
Indeed, Sidney Smotherman, having stared down the barrel of a gun for fifteen minutes, was an ideal eye-witness. But anybody who has read about, written about or investigated miscarriages of justice will know, some investigators are adept at getting witnesses to pick out the photograph of the person they want in the frame.

It wouldn't have been too difficult to get Smotherman and his two co-workers to pick out Hinton's picture, and they would have done so believing they were doing the right thing. This theory is given credence when you know that one of the employees later confirmed that a detective attempted to coerce him into identifying Hinton at a lineup and placing him at Food World. This damning piece of evidence was, of course, never revealed to the defense or the jury at the original trial.

And what about Reginald White? Was he also coerced by investigators into making a false statement regarding Hinton's request for information about Quincy's restaurant? Would anybody be surprised if he had been coached by detectives? The jury believed Reginald White's highly convenient story, but did not believe Thomas Doll, supervisor at Bruno's warehouse, when he testified that Hinton clocked on at 11:57 pm and did not leave the warehouse before 06:00 am.

Thomas Doll, now a maths teacher, says there is no way Hinton is guilty. "I really don't see how he could have done this. It's amazing. I think about him often. I hope the best for him."

On June 10, 2005, two and half years after state ballistics experts were proved wrong, still no ruling was made. Attorney Bryan Stevenson wrote to the Alabama Criminal Court of Appeals. The 120 page memo began, "Anthony Ray Hinton is innocent. Mr Hinton seeks an expedited review because he has been on death row for 18 years for two capital murders he did not commit."

Amazingly, on August 26, 2005, the state of Alabama responded with the following statement: "Hinton was guilty in 1986, and he is still guilty today. Simply wrapping an old defense in a new cover does not prove innocence. Beneath the new wrapping still lies the same defense and evidence rejected by the jury."

Takes your breath away, doesn't it. As an exonerated death row inmate said when he was released, "Man, once they got ya, they ain't letting you go easy."  

Unbelievably, it would take another nine years for this miscarriage of justice to be righted - and even then Anthony Ray Hinton would not be exonerated. In February 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court vacated Hinton's conviction and ordered a re-trial. Even at that point the state of Alabama still wanted to proceed to trial. The state prosecutor brought in more ballistic experts to re-examine the gun and the bullets. The experts concluded (yet again) that the bullets taken from the victims could not be linked to the gun found in Hinton's home.

On April 2, 2015 a judge granted the motion by Jefferson County District Attorney to dismiss the charges and Anthony Ray Hinton was finally released.

Anthony Ray Hinton

10,000 days on Alabama's death row for a crime he did not commit.

And they took his freedom,

and the best years of his life...

but they couldn't take his soul.

Information and pictures courtesy of:

Equal Justice Initiative -

National Register of Exonerations

Death Penalty Information Center

The Birmingham News (2005)

Jefferson County Sheriff's Department

Alabama Department of Correction

State of Alabama - Office of the Attorney General

Monday, 10 August 2015

Vincent Simmons: Words from an Angola Prison cell

Monday, August 10, 2015. Louisiana State Prison, Angola, LA. 3:36 pm. Today is 13,958 days since Vincent Simmons was unlawfully arrested on a quiet street in Marksville, Avoyelles Parish, Louisiana.

An innocent man, convicted of a rape he did not commit in 1977, is still behind bars nearly forty years later. Read the full story of this unbelievable miscarriage of justice here.

Below, Vincent Simmons relates, in his own words, exactly what happened to him on the fateful day he was walking down a street in Marksville.

Why was he stopped and arrested? Was he armed? No. Was he walking down the street equipped to carry out a crime? No. Was he disrespectful or aggressive to the officer who stopped him? No. Was he wanted for any crime, anywhere in the United States? No. The simple truth is that Vincent Simmons was arrested because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time and, of course, he was black.

"My name is Vincent Alfred Simmons Jr. I am a black Afro-American. I am from a small town called Monsuro, Louisiana. I am innocent of the charges I was falsely arrested, charged, indicted, tried and convicted for.
On May 23rd, 1977, I was arrested in the town of Marksville, Parish of Avoyelles, State of Louisiana. I was placed in handcuffs, put in a police car and taken to Avoyelles Parish jail. Upon arriving there, I was taken to a physical lineup.
Vincent Simmons #4 - still in handcuffs!
According to the police, I was allegedly identified as a rapist. I was taken to another section of the jail, to this detective office. 
Upon arriving there, I was told by the two arresting officers that I was going to give them how I committed the crime. I told them I was not giving any statement because I didn't rape anybody.
Still in handcuffs one of the police officers hit me and knocked me to the floor and commenced to kick me. I managed to get back to my feet, and was asked if I was ready to talk. I again refused. This officer then grabbed me and I grabbed him and held him in an attempt to shield myself from further assaults. This officer's partner, who was in the room with us, called out to his partner to move.
I was pushed against the wall and when I looked up after balancing myself, I was looking down the barrel of a gun. I heard the shot and felt a burning in my chest. The shock I experienced I will never forget. I hit the floor, hollering for water to put out the fire burning in my chest.
I prayed to God not to let me die like this. I experienced my soul traveling out of my body. When I re-entered my body I was laying in a hospital room where my mother and a Catholic priest was sitting praying. When the police department found out I had survived they immediately came and transported me back to jail.
I remember talking to two white guys, who claimed to be lawyers appointed by the court. They asked me did I have $50,000 dollars. If so, they would represent me and free me at the preliminary hearing. 
I told them I didn't have that kind of money. They asked me if I wanted to plead guilty to the charges. I cursed them out and told them I didn't rape anybody. The next time I saw these two lawyers I was on trial.
I was still suffering from the gunshot wound in my chest. So that had a great effect on my thinking at the time. The lawyers really didn't talk to to me but once before the trial. The only evidence they had was the victims' testimony. And those testimonies were perjury lies.
I knew there was something wrong when the District Attorney, Assistant District Attorney and my Attorney made a motion to approach the bench. They all went up to the Judge's desk and talked in secret. Then when they walked away the Judge talked to all the officers' who were involved in the case, and had been called as witnesses, and they were released from subpoena duty.
I was subsequently "found guilty" by an all white jury, there was one alternate jury member who was black. Lies were told to the trial jury by the alleged victims and their cousin (Keith Laborde). The District Attorney asked each of them, do you see the person that raped you in the courtroom? Answer. Yes. Can you point him out? Answer. Yes. How do you know that this is the person who raped you? Answer. He told me/us his name was Simmons, while raping us."
(I'm sorry, I have to break into Vincent's story at this point to make a small point. While raping two young girls at gunpoint, the rapist said, "My name is Vincent Simmons. Just thought you'd like that snippet of information for future use - especially at my trial!" For those who have not read the main article, the original statement given to police two weeks after the alleged rapes contained no names. In fact, one of the girls said, "No, I don't know his name, he never mentioned it." That is a direct quote from the original police statement. Why was it not challenged in court? Why indeed. Let's go back to Vincent's statement.)
"The jury believed the perjured testimony. I was sentenced to 100 years, 50/50 on each charge. I was immediately transferred to the State Penitentiary. 
On my way to Angola, the two officers who were transporting me pulled off the road. Three separate times they tried to get me out of the car and run. 
Each time I refused to get out of the car. They gave up and drove me here to the prison.
When I arrived at the prison, I was placed in a maximum-security one-man cell. I had repeated nightmares of being beaten and shot by those police officers and I was still suffering from the bullet wound.The bullet was still in my back under the skin which consistently caused me excruciating pain. I made continued complaints to the doctors here at the prison before they removed the bullet from my back.
I continued to have severe nightmares because I knew I was innocent, I just needed to prove it. The only way I could do that was to find out what those police officers and the State District Attorneys had on me.
I started writing letters to officials requesting police reports, statements of victims, medical reports, pictures, arrest reports and warrants. Each time I submitted my request, I was denied. I read law books and continued to make requests for information, and the state repeatedly denied me the information I sought.
The years passed and I learned about the law. I then filed a suit in the court where I was convicted seeking access to that information. The court still denied me access saying I was not entitled to the information. I appealed that decision, which was again affirmed. I appealed to a higher court. Two years later that appeal was denied.
Then the prison officers began focusing in on me, moving me from one place to another. A form of distraction. I ended up in Camp J after being moved around and losing all my legal material. 
Ten years passed. I still didn't get my hands on the information.
I made another request to the District Attorneys office. That request was ignored. I then filed a law suit into the civil district court where I was convicted. The court ordered the District Attorney to show cause by December 7th, 1993. Before that date arrived, I received a big brown envelope from the State District Attorneys office.
What was in the envelope shocked me, and brought tears to my eyes. There was the following documents: 1. Investigative reports. 2. Police arrest reports. 3. Victim statements. 4. Arrest warrants. 5. Medical examiner's reports. 6. Line-up photos. 7. Bill of indictments."
(These documents are now in the public domain and can be downloaded and read as PDF's. They are available from  The Vincent Simmons Project. )
Medical report. (Click to enlarge)
"Nowhere in the victims' statements did they say the alleged rapist told them his name was Simmons.
The doctor said he found no bruises or scars and that one of the alleged victim's hymen was still intact. The other alleged victim had no bruises or scars, but she did have venereal disease.
The rapes were reported on May 22nd, 1977. Not even 24 hours later I was stopped, arrested, put in a line-up, allegedly identified, beaten, and then shot. There is no evidence connecting me to the crime, and nobody said Vincent Simmons did anything.
The police, the District Attorney and the alleged victims know that I am not the rapist. They are lying to protect the police who shot me, and that is attempted murder. They had no probable cause to even arrest me. They committed perjury at the trial. None of the police testified at the trial because they knew the truth would come out if they testified."
(What Vincent Simmons writes next could be considered to be a bad case of the "Conspiracy Theory Syndrome". But if you consider the overwhelming amount of evidence that came to light in 1993, proving beyond doubt that Vincent Simmons had nothing to do with the rape of the girls, the question remains. Why is he still in prison?)
"The two lawyers that were appointed to represent me were working with the state District Attorney to send me to prison so that they would cover up and protect what the police did to me. The Assistant Attorney that helped prosecutors in 1977 rose to become a Louisiana Supreme Court Justice. She is using her corrupted influence to keep my case from being heard.
These things are being done to people here in the deep south of Louisiana because there is nobody here to expose, fight or create laws and enforce those laws. There is nobody to punish politicians, law makers, court officials, District Attorneys or lawyers"
Vincent Simmons #85188  

Vincent Alfred Simmons Jr.
The Louisiana Whipping Boy. 

Pictures, information and statement courtesy of:

Vincent Simmons
Louisiana State Penitentiary, Angola, LA.

The Vincent Simmons Project

Saturday, 4 July 2015

The West Memphis 3: A Miscellany of Incompetence.

This article contains graphic descriptions and pictures from a murder scene.

The Murders.

Wednesday, May 5, 1993. West Memphis, Arkansas. 7:00 pm. Several neighbors see eight-year-olds, Christopher Byers, Michael Moore and Steven Branch riding their bicycles on Goodwin Avenue towards a wooded area known locally as Robin Hood Hills, where the boys often played together. On a balmy evening in West Memphis, nobody could possibly envisage the horror that is about to unfold over the next twenty-four hours.

Christopher Byers is the first boy to be reported missing. According to the police log, John Byers, Christopher's adoptive father, phones the West Memphis police at 8:08 pm and tells them his son has not returned home. A little over ten minutes later Officer Regenia Meeks arrives and interviews Byers. An initial search of the area is made but nothing is found.

Around 9:00 pm, Michael Moore's mother calls at the Byers' home and reports to Officer Meeks that her son is also missing. She tells the officer that Steven Branch was with him. With the light fading, a cursory search of the area reveals nothing. As darkness descends on West Memphis, the search is abandoned and people begin to fear the worst. Prosecutors later claim that the boys were murdered between 9:30 and 10:00 pm, which, if the timing is correct, means they were still alive while the search was going on.

John Mark Byers. 1993
The next morning the Crittenden County Search and Rescue team is called in and focuses attention on Robin Hood Hills, a dense, wooded area with a creek and a large drainage channel.

11:45 am, John Byers talks to a local news crew. "I'm scared for the safety and welfare of all three boys. And would appreciate any help anyone can give us in recovering our three boys."

Several hours into the search a boy's black shoe is found floating in shallow water. This discovery leads searchers to the bodies of the three boys, which are found in the creek. Against all crime scene protocol, police move the bodies to a shallow ditch nearby.

Following an autopsy, forensic pathologist, Frank J. Peretti, indicates that the three boys had been stripped naked, beaten and mutilated. Christopher Byers had suffered the most with lacerations to most parts of his body. He died of multiple injuries. Michael Moore and Steven Branch died of multiple injuries with drowning. Police also believed all three boys had been raped.

Two of the injuries were particularly significant. The left side of Steven Branch's face had been gouged out and Christopher Byers had been castrated. Both these injuries became focal points during the subsequent trial. In all, the autopsy revealed that the boys had sustained 146 specified injuries. The pathologist suggested that a serrated knife had been used to inflict the injuries.

Christopher Byers
All the boys were hog-tied with their own shoe laces, right ankle to right wrist, the same with their left arms and legs.

Several Items of clothing were found in the creek. Some of it had been twisted around sticks and thrust into the muddy waters in an attempt to hide it.

Police discovered that five socks and two pairs of underwear belonging to the boys were missing, leading investigators to believe that they were killed elsewhere and then dumped in the creek. However, even if the creek or ditch was not the murder scene, police recovered a significant amount of forensic evidence from this area, which, when DNA profiling became available some years later, should have led investigators to the sadistic murderers of the three young boys - unfortunately, it didn't.

The Police Investigation.

The BOLO (click to read)

At 10:38 pm, May 6, 1993, police issue what they call a 'BOLO' - Be On Look Out. Although the BOLO refers to "two white male hitchhikers in their 20's". detectives assigned to the case believe the most likely perpetrators to be sexual deviants, transients or even truckers passing through the area.

Robin Hood Hills is adjacent to a popular truck stop a little more than a block away from the murder scene. Names and credit card receipts from anybody visiting the truck stop the previous day are checked. Several transients and truck drivers are taken in for questioning; all are cleared and released without charge.

After just twenty-four hours, the investigation, led by Chief Inspector Gary Gitchell, is faltering as forensic evidence has failed to provide any real clues the investigators can use. With increasing frustration, Gitchell now orders his men to canvass more than 500 addresses in the neighborhood adjacent to Robin Hood Hills.

No significant information is uncovered.

Damien Echols. 1993
On the same day police are questioning truckers, the name of Damien Echols, an eighteen-year-old with a history of mental illness, is raised for the first time by assistant juvenile probation officer, Steve Jones.

Echols, who dresses all in black and listens to heavy metal music, is seen by West Memphis residents as a weird loner who engages in satanic rituals - an accusation which is simply untrue.

Apparently, rumors of cult activity in the West Memphis area, including satanic rituals, sexual deviancy and animal sacrifice, were being bandied about by neighborhood teenagers who had "seen things".

Steve Jones tells investigators that he himself has seen "a marked increase" in "satanic-related graffiti" in the neighborhood. He also states that Damien Echols has a tendency to violence and is "capable of murder".

It is likely that if Detective Gitchell and his men had been following up solid leads or suspects, the nonsense spouted by Steve Jones and some of the residents of West Memphis would probably have been ignored. Unfortunately, with little physical evidence, the investigators have to follow up whatever leads they can get, and, presumably, if investigating so-called satanic rituals help to solve the murders, then so be it.

Damien Echols. 1994
Within hours of Steve Jones' statement, Damien Echols is interviewed by detectives. Photographs are taken. They are looking for marks or scratches on his hands, face and torso which may indicate involvement in the murders.

There are none.

He answers all their questions, although the detectives consider some of his answers odd. This is hardly surprising as Echols has spent several months in hospitals and detention centers undergoing therapy for his many personality disorders.

With the investigation veering off in all directions, investigators begin to rely on polygraph tests (lie detectors), which are notoriously unreliable. Unfortunately, West Memphis detectives decide that if a person of interest passes the test they are dismissed as suspects. It is believed that at least one of the murderers underwent a polygraph test, passed it, and was released.

In the days that follow, Damien Echols is interviewed several times by different detectives assigned to the murder investigation. On May 10, 1993, unaccompanied by a lawyer, Echols is yet again interviewed and then subjected to a polygraph test. Investigators report that Damien "had been untruthful, and according to the polygraph, was involved in the murders".

That may well have been the police view, but, other than hearsay and rumor, investigators do not have any evidence against Damien Echols. Reluctantly, they are obliged to release him. And now they really do have problems. As each hour passes and the case grows colder, the pressure to find the murderers forces investigators into making unwise decisions.

Victoria Hutcheson. 1994
Firstly, they listen to West Memphis resident, Victoria Hutcheson, who informs them that both Damien Echols and Jessie Misskelley were involved in cult activities and in the murders.

And then investigators, for reasons best known to themselves, interview Victoria's eight-year-old son, Aaron Hutcheson, who tells them he often played with the murdered boys in Robin Hood Hills and had seen men sitting in a circle singing songs to the devil and doing "what men and ladies do".

But that, apparently, was not all he saw. Aaron Hutcheson is interviewed by police on several occasions. In one interview he says he witnessed the murders but can not identify the attackers. In another interview he tells police that he saw a victim being abducted by a black man in a maroon car.

His subsequent statements become even wilder; in yet another interview he says that he was forced to participate in the murders. He then identifies John Mark Byers as the murderer until the arrest of Damien Echols whom he then identifies as the murderer. And still investigators listen to him. He is down to testify as a witness, but, unsurprisingly, he is never called to the stand.
Victoria Hutcheson is given a polygraph test which police report as being "truthful".  (She later recants her statements and testimony saying she "probably slept the night drunk on the lawn".)

Jessie Misskelley. 1993
One month after the murders, investigators interview Jessie Misskelley. Despite his low IQ (borderline intellectual functioning) and his status as a minor, he is questioned without a guardian or a lawyer present.

Against all police procedure, Misskelley is questioned for more than twelve hours, only 46 minutes of which is recorded. Eventually, he tells police what they want to hear. Despite several inconsistencies in his story police shape what they are told to fit the known facts.

In one example from the confession detectives correct Misskelley and actually tell him what he saw. In the transcript, Detective Bryn Ridge says, "Alright, we are going to correct that even further ... you were standing at the top of the bank on the west side, were you looking down at what was going on?"

Three words in brackets.
Indeed, the detective noted at the end of his report that Misskelley was "lying his ass off" during the polygraph. If he was lying his ass off, at what point did he begin telling the truth?

The confession implicates Damien Echols and 16-year-old Jason Baldwin, a schoolfriend. Despite a lack of physical evidence against any of the three boys, on June 3, 1993, Misskelley, Baldwin and Echols, are arrested and each charged with three counts of capital murder.

June 4, 1993. During a press conference following the arrests, Chief Inspector Gary Gitchell is asked how strong the case against the three boys is, rated from 1 to 10 - he unwisely replies, "Eleven."

The Trials.

August 4, 1993. A pre-trial hearing is held before Judge David Burnett in Marion, Arkansas. Judge Burnett rules that Misskelley should be tried separately. Controversially, the judge also rules that Misskelley's "confession" can be introduced by the state, even though it was obtained under coercive circumstances. He further rules that the three defendants can be tried as adults.

January 18, 1994. Jury selection in the Misskelley trial begins. It is a difficult process because most prospective jurors know all about Misskelley's "confessions", (Police record at least three different versions). Although West Memphis detectives deny having anything to do with it, the "confessions" are conveniently leaked to news media several days before jury selection begins.

Police also choose this very moment to reveal that they have discovered a serrated knife in a lake some forty-seven feet from Jason Baldwin's home. Even though forensic evidence taken from the knife does not implicate Jason Baldwin or Damien Echols in any way, (it looks similar to one Echols may have owned previously) investigators make sure that a connection between Echols and the knife is made public knowledge. Police also maintain that the lacerations and marks on the bodies of the murder victims are made specifically by this knife.

During the trial, twenty different knives are entered into evidence. Three were found near the murder scene, four were retrieved in searches, six came from suspects, six unaccounted for and one came from the lake behind Jason Baldwin's home. This final knife becomes State exhibit 77.

Judge David Burnett. 1994
Misskelley's trial begins on January 26, 1994. His defense argues that his "confession" does not match the facts of the case on key issues.

An expert witness for the defense, Dr. Richard Ofshe, testifies that the interview that leads to Misskelley's "confession" is a classic example of police coercion.

He goes on to say that the tapes sound as if the police are confessing to the murders. During the interview, leading questions containing confidential information about the murder scene, known only to the investigators, are directed at Misskelley, Graphic details, of which he has no knowledge, are provided by his interviewers.

After several hours of  persistent and relentless interrogation, he just agrees with everything investigators say and tells them what they want to hear.

Two major flaws in the confessions stand out.

Firstly, the time Misskelley says he was at the murder scene is at least three hours too early. The persistent questioning by detectives, suggesting different times to Misskelley, eventually pays off when they get him to admit to the time they believe the murders were committed.

Secondly, at the time of the Misskelley interrogation, detectives believe that the boys have been raped and ask him about that. Misskelley admits that "he watched Damien rape one of the boys". There is no forensic evidence indicating that any of the boys have been raped. DNA profiling later confirms it.

And that flawed "confession" is all the evidence the state have against the defendant. It doesn't matter. On February 5, 1994, 18-year-old Jessie Misskelley is convicted of one count of first-degree murder and two counts of second-degree murder. He is sentenced to life plus 40 years.

Following the trial, prosecutors apply pressure to Misskelley, (they offer him a reduced sentence of forty years for his testimony) and he agrees to testify against Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin.

He makes a statement under oath accusing Echols and Baldwin of murdering the three boys. Twenty-four hours later, he changes his mind and decides not to testify. In all, Jessie Misskelley makes five separate "confessions" to police about the West Memphis murders - and then on June 3, 1993, claims his innocence, before making his sixth and final "confession".

Juror's notes - pros and con re. Jason Baldwin
Three weeks later, Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin go to trial. The prosecution has no forensic evidence that links either Echols or Baldwin to the murders.

It is suggested that the motive for the murders is "occult sacrifice" and "devil worship". Black t-shirts and heavy metal lyrics are introduced as evidence of cult tendencies.

A juror's notes - pros and cons referring to Jason Baldwin - is pictured right. It is all hearsay and speculation with not one iota of hard evidence regarding the murders.

The blacked out section contains the words "Jesse Misskelley confession" - something these jurors should not have been considering. Indeed, written next to it are the words "NO. DISCARD". Had this been known to the defense lawyers at the time they could have called for a re-trial.

Jason Baldwin. 1994
Again, the lack of hard evidence and jury coercion does not seem to matter. On March 19, 1994, Echols and Baldwin are found guilty on three counts of murder. Damien Echols is sentenced to death, Jason Baldwin receives a life sentence.

Steve Jones, the probation officer who thought Damien Echols "capable of murder", later says that he "cannot, in retrospect, accurately attribute to Baldwin any interest or association with the occult". He also acknowledges that he does not believe Jason Baldwin was involved in the murders.

As they say in Arkansas - a day late and a dollar short.

The Aftermath.

Following the trial, there is widespread criticism of the West Memphis Police Department. An attorney involved in the case states that the crime scene was contaminated from the moment the boy's shoe was found in the creek. So many different people had entered the scene that the area was "literally trampled, especially the creek bed".

The bodies are removed from the creek before the coroner arrives, making it difficult for him to determine a time of death. Police then allow the bodies to decay on the creek bank, exposing them to sunlight and insects. Investigators involved in the case also fail to control disclosure of information relating to the case. Sensitive information, vital to solving the crime, is allowed to enter into the public domain.

One attorney is quoted as saying, "Police records were a mess. To call them disorderly would be putting it mildly".

Damien Echols is held in solitary confinement and on death row for more than eighteen years. He writes the following words. "For a split second today I could smell home. It smelled like sunset on a dirt road. The world I left behind was so close I could almost touch it. Everything in me cried out for it. It's amazing how certain shades of agony have their own beauty."

State Exhibit 77 - The Lake knife
Despite numerous appeals over the years, Judge David Burnett steadfastly refuses to sanction a hearing, no matter how strong the evidence appears to be.

On 29 October, 2007, Damien Echols' defense lawyers file papers seeking a retrial or his immediate release from prison. The papers cite new DNA evidence linking Terry Hobbs (stepfather of Steven Branch) to the crime scene, Defense lawyers also have a damning statement from Hobbs' ex-wife.

Lawyers are able to show that the bodies had not been mutilated with a serrated knife. They can also prove that many of the lacerations and wounds, including the castration and the ripping of the flesh on one of the boys faces, had been caused by animals predating the bodies.

And the legal papers also reveal that bite marks on the face of one of the victims (unbelievably, not noticed until after the original trial) do not to match any of the three convicted men.

Unfortunately, this is still not good enough. Almost one year later, on September 10, 2008, Judge David Burnett denies the request for a retrial, citing the DNA tests as inconclusive.

(Interestingly, Terry Hobbs and John Mark Byers had all their teeth removed in the mid-nineties before police were able to compare bite marks to those found on the victims. Both men said they suffered from periodontal disease.  

Denis Riordan. Defense lawyer. 2010
Echols' defense lawyers, refusing to cede the case, appeal Judge Burnett's ruling to the Arkansas Supreme Court, which agrees to hear arguments in the case.

The court convenes on September 30, 2010, more than two years after the papers seeking a retrial had been filed.

Five days later, after hearing all the arguments, the Arkansas Supreme Court finally grants the West Memphis Three an evidentiary hearing in which all new evidence could be presented to the court.

And then something very strange happens. After 18 years and 78 days incarceration, the West Memphis Three are called to appear before an unexpected circuit court session - four months prior to the scheduled evidentiary hearing.

Rather than wait years for a retrial, they enter Alford guilty pleas whilst stating their innocence, in exchange for being sentenced to time served. In other words, the state tells them that the convictions are not being overturned, but plead guilty to these crimes and you walk free - today.

Scott Ellington. Prosecuting Attorney.
After denying eighteen years of appeals, refusing to review new evidence and seemingly hell bent on keeping these three wrongly convicted men incarcerated, why did the state of Arkansas suddenly change tack and go down this particular road? Can any body answer that question?

Well, one man tried. Step forward Mr. Scott Ellington, Prosecuting Attorney, 2nd Judicial District of Arkansas. What follows are his exact words transcribed from the news conference on the day the West Memphis Three were released.

Scott Ellington, "Some are happy, some are sad and some are perplexed. And that's the case at the end of every trial, and it's no different in this case. Guilt or innocence was never on the table. Today's proceedings allow the defendants to have the freedom to say that they're not guilty. But, in fact, they just pled guilty."

(That allows the state of Arkansas to have their cake and eat it. Very Clever, Mister Ellington.)

Question from the media: "Were you concerned about the evidence the defense was going to present at the upcoming evidentiary hearing, including allegations of juror misconduct?

Drawing the short straw...
Scott Ellington: "When the Supreme Court handed down this decision re-opening issues of juror misconduct and all the other matters, and on the basis of new DNA, then that causes some troubles."

(I'll bet it does, Mister Ellington)

"And this Judge was most likely, (yep, Judge Burnett has gone and he can no longer help you) and I mean we would have done the best we could with the evidence, but these defendants could most likely have been acquitted."

Of course they would have been acquitted, Mister Ellington, they were innocent of all charges. That DNA profiling is just so inconvenient at times. It is also hard to string a coherent sentence together under this pressure, isn't it?

And, of course, if they overturn this miscarriage of justice it means paying out tens of millions of dollars in compensation to the three defendants, and the real killers will have to be found. Much, much, easier this way.

18 years and 78 days later...freedom

Are the real Murderers finally uncovered?

In 2013, Billy Wayne Stewart and Bennie Guy sign affidavits detailing the circumstances surrounding the murders of  Christopher Byers, Michael Moore and Steven Branch. While the level of detail is plausible, it does beg the question as to why they wait twenty years to tell their stories. 

And, as of July, 2015, West Memphis PD have shown no interest in the affidavits.

Terry Hobbs and David Jacoby. 1993
What did Billy Wayne Stewart say happened? 

On May 5, 1993, he was driving around West Memphis in Terry Hobbs' truck with David Jacoby, Hobbs' friend, and two local teenagers, L.G. Hollingsworth and Buddy Lucas.

(In the days following the murders, Terry Hobbs, stepfather to Steven Branch, is interviewed by detectives and passes a polygraph test. Some years later, DNA profiling links both him and David Jacoby to the murder scene. Police decide it is inconclusive.) 

On the day in question, they are drinking whiskey and smoking pot. It seems that Terry Hobbs is bi-sexual, with a preference for sex with young boys. At some point they reach Robin Hood Hills and Hobbs, Jacoby, Hollingsworth and Lucas go into the woods and engage in homosexual activity. It is at this point that the three boys appear on their bikes. Hobbs shouts, "Get them little fuckers."

Terry Hobbs. 2011
While Jacoby beats one of the boys, Hobbs orders Hollingsworth and Lucas to pull off the boy's pants. Hobbs then cuts the boy's genitals before announcing that the other two boys have to be killed because of what they have seen.

Hobbs and Jacoby kill all three boys. Their clothes and bodies are thrown into the creek, their bicycles dumped in the drainage channel.

Bennie Guy's affidavit tells a similar story with a few added details. Apparently, Terry Hobbs becomes enraged when one of the boys kicks him. Hobbs beats the boy around the head and says,"I'm going to teach your fucking ass."

Guy's account confirms that Terry Hobbs cuts the genitals of one of the boys with a knife before dumping the body in the creek

Bennie Guy also states in his affidavit, that he sent a detailed letter to Prosecutor, Scott Ellington, (yes, that's the same Scott Ellington who can't string a coherent sentence together) explaining the whole scenario. Guy says Mister Ellington never responded.

Is anybody surprised?

And that's it. 4000 words, and still no conclusion. 
Let's hope the perpetrators of this crime burn in perpetuity.


Christopher, Michael and Steven

 Three tragically unfulfilled lives.

* * *

Information and pictures courtesy of:

Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory. Joe Berlinger & Bruce Sinofsky. (HBO)

University of Missouri - Kansas City.

The Daily Mail (UK)

Martin David Hill 

Arkansas Judiciary

Arkansas Supreme Court

Office of the Arkansas Attorney-General

West Memphis Police Department