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November 7, 2007

CNN.com: was a brutal crime including sexual abuse and genital mutilation. Now, new evidence may bring the conviction of three teens into question. An AC360 investigation.

Watch the video.


[note: the UNIDENTIFIED MALE in CNN's transcript is Gerald Skahan, one of Damien's attorneys.]

COOPER: In Arkansas tonight, new developments in a case that had captivated the country more than a decade ago. It was 1993. Three boys were murdered in the woods. Three teens were convicted of the unspeakable crime.

Now, right now, two of those, well, former teens are in prison for life. One is on death row. The question is, are they actually innocent? CNN's David Mattingly reports on some shocking new developments.


DAVID MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): What happened in these woods shook even hardened cops. It was a crime so terrible, families from miles around lived in fear. And, at the time juries had no doubt, three West Memphis, Arkansas, teenagers were guilty in the satanic ritual murders of three 8-year-old boys.

But, a decade-and-a-half later, many now believe it was a case of justice gone bad.

(on camera): The police, the prosecutor, the judge, the jury, all of them got it wrong?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: In our opinion, yes.

MATTINGLY: Reexamining old evidence and using DNA testing not available at the time of the murders, defense attorneys say the belief in a satanic ritual of sexual assault and mutilation was a fantasy, a satanic panic that they say sent three innocent teenagers to prison.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What we are saying is that there's no credible evidence that links any of these defendants to the crime.

MATTINGLY: The bodies of Christopher Byers, Michael Moore and Steven Branch were discovered bound, naked and submerged in a muddy ditch.

In a petition filed in federal court, defense attorneys say their experts today find no evidence of sexual assault and no evidence of a satanic cult.

And the evidence that horrified juries, signs of ritualistic torture and mutilation, may have actually come from animals attacking the bodies after the boys were killed.

(on camera): When we asked for a comment about the old case, Arkansas prosecutors turned us down. But, in an earlier statement, a spokesman for the state attorney general said that Arkansas will look at the new findings objectively. But they stand behind the old convictions and do not believe that the courts will change anything.

(voice-over): The oldest defendant at the time, 18-year-old Damien Echols, was sent to death row. Sixteen-year-old Jason Baldwin and 17-year-old Jessie Misskelley got life in prison.

RON LAX, PRIVATE INVESTIGATOR: They were victims of poor representation, poor resources, and a community that was already on track to convict somebody.

MATTINGLY: I returned to the scene of the crime with Ron Lax, a private investigator for the defense in 1993. Back then, he made this video of the woods where the three boys went to play, never to be seen alive again. Today, defense attorneys say they can find no DNA traces on evidence taken from those woods to show the convicted teenagers were ever there at all.

(on camera): Is this a crime that three teenagers could pull off and leave no trace of their existence out here?

LAX: It sounds pretty remarkable if they did.

MATTINGLY (voice-over): The woods were recently cut down and cleared way. But plenty of questions remain. If it's true the teens were not in these woods to commit these murders, then who was?



COOPER: Faces of evil or of wrongly convicted young men? Those three young men were found guilty of a triple murder, the victims, three boys, each 8 years old.

Prosecutors called the killings part of a satanic ritual. As we told you before the break, the defense team is hoping new evidence is going to lead to those young men's freedom. We're going to let you be the judge tonight.

Once again, here's CNN's David Mattingly.


MATTINGLY (voice-over): To many, they have become known as the West Memphis three. Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley were all teenagers sent to prison for the gruesome satanic ritual murders of three 8-year-old buys.

And, 14 years after the crime, proving their innocence may depend on two human hairs recovered at the scene.

THOMAS FEDOR, FORENSIC EXPERT: None of the defendants could have been the source of that hair. None of the victims could have been the source of either hair. None of the DNA evidence from the crime scene connects any of the defendants to the scene of the crime.

MATTINGLY: So, who could the hairs belong to? A defense petition in federal court says the DNA from one hair is consistent with that of Terry Hobbs. Hobbs is the former stepfather of victim Steve Branch.

(on camera): Mr. Hobbs, do you feel like that the attorneys are accusing you of this crime?

ROSS SAMPSON, HOBBS'S ATTORNEY: The answer to that would be no.

MATTINGLY (voice-over): Hobbs agreed to go in front of our cameras while his attorney did the talking. And through most of my questions, Hobbs remained silent. (on camera) Is it possible, Mr. Hobbs, that that was your hair?

SAMPSON: Sure. It was his son, Stephen Branch, who was murdered, and he's had to deal with this for the last 15 years.

MATTINGLY (voice-over): Defense attorneys say a second hair found at the scene is consistent with the DNA of Hobbs's friend, David Jacoby, and that the two were together in the hours before and after the victims disappeared.

Jacoby did not return our calls, but he did volunteer DNA samples to the defense. Authorities say they stand by the old convictions. West Memphis police have no plans to question anyone.

(on camera) Is there anything that you feel comfortable telling me?

TERRY HOBBS, FORMER STEPFATHER OF VICTIM: You live with this every day. And then, to have your friends and neighbors look at you and think, is there something else there? That's -- that hurts.

MATTINGLY (voice-over): After 14 years, the rampant fears of devil worshippers and murdered children have subsided, replaced by a new wave of emotion, demanding a reopening of the case of the West Memphis Three.

Now in their 30s, their entire adult lives spent behind bars, three grown men greet the DNA findings with hope, wondering if this latest twist will one day set them free.

David Mattingly, CNN, West Memphis, Arkansas.


COOPER: We'll continue to follow up on what happens next.