Activists hope a $100,000 reward, offered by an anonymous donor on Tuesday, leads to an arrest and conviction in the West Memphis Three case.
The three men originally arrested in the 1993 murders of three Cub Scouts in West Memphis, Ark., were released last August after 18 years in prison. They offered an “Alford plea,” in which the three actively claimed innocence, but pleaded guilty for freedom in exchange for time already served.
The murders were described as Satanic and gruesome at the time, but no physical evidence, including DNA, linked the men, who were then teenagers, to the crime.
The three men – Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jesse Misskelley – became a cause célèbre within parts of Hollywood and the music industry, with stars ranging from actor Sean Penn to singer Eddie Vedder championing their cause. Since their relese in August, the three men have led a whirlwind life of attending celebrity parties, learning 21st century technology, and coping with freedom.
But West Memphis Three supporters want the men to have a clear name and won’t stop until the real murderer, or murderers, is behind bars.
“We know Damien, Jason and Jessie were not involved in this crime, and that those responsible are still in our community,” says Capi Peck, a founder of Arkansas Take Action, a group of concerned citizens seeking justice in case. “It may be difficult to provide information about a murder, but it is the right thing to do.”
In January, the defense team said that it had new evidence against Terry Hobbs, one of the Cub Scouts’ stepfather. Mr. Hobbs’s nephew allegedly told his friends that his uncle killed the three boys. The friends underwent polygraph tests. They passed the tests, according to the defense team.
Hobbs’s DNA has also been linked to the crime scene in previous investigations. Hobbs, however, has always maintained his innocence.
Billboards and radio advertising will promote the reward. A confidential tip line has also been created.
In 1993, a $30,000 reward was offered by the West Memphis Police Department. That reward contributed to luring Mr. Misskelley into a police interrogation that resulted in him falsely confessing to the crime and implicating Messrs. Echols and Baldwin.
Hollywood attention is continuing to keep the case in the limelight.
An HBO documentary, "Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory," was nominated for an Academy Award on Sunday. Another documentary, "West of Memphis," spearheaded by “Lord of the Rings” director Peter Jackson, debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January. A movie, based on a book about the case, is in the works with Reese Witherspoon and Colin Firth reportedly starring.
The case could even become an issue during the state’s 2012 political season if Prosecuting Attorney Scott Ellington, who signed off on the Alford plea, decides to run for Congress in the First District’s Democratic primary. The deadline for filing is Thursday.
“We are continuing to look at evidence brought to us by the defense team,” Mr. Ellington says. “If I decide to run, I’m certain I can address the questions people have about this case.”
The West Memphis Three saga continues to capture people’s attention globally.
Numerous websites follow the three men’s every move. Baldwin recently attended the Cinema for Peace Gala in Berlin and Sunday’s Academy Award ceremony. Echols, who served his time on death row, has recorded songs with Patti Smith, got a tattoo with actor Johnny Depp, and traveled to New Zealand to visit Peter Jackson. Misskelley lives a quiet life in West Memphis.
The enduring interest is now less about celebrity attention and more about finding a killer.
“Consider what's left: three unsolved murders,” says Brian Gallini, a law professor at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. “I think society, for good reason, is uncomfortable with, one, leaving such a high-profile case unsolved, and, two, implicitly telling the killer that she or he got away with murder. If these three defendants did not commit the crime, then who did?”