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Dropout Found Guilty in Deaths of 3 Boys : Crime: Jessie Lloyd Misskelley Jr., 18, is sentenced to life in prison for the brutal slayings. Two other defendants await trial in Arkansas.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

An 18-year-old high school dropout was found guilty Friday in the brutal murders of three 8-year-old boys.

“It doesn’t change anything for my son, who was tortured and murdered!” Melissa Byers shouted after Jessie Lloyd Misskelley Jr. was found guilty of one count of first-degree murder and two counts of second-degree murder. “He (Misskelley) deserves to be tortured! He murdered three 8-year-old babies!”

Misskelley was sentenced to life in prison.

Second-graders Steve Branch, Chris Byers and Michael Moore disappeared May 5, 1993, while riding their bikes in their West Memphis, Ark., neighborhood. Their nude, battered and hogtied bodies were found the next day in a drainage ditch less than a mile from their homes.

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According to medical examiners, Branch and Moore drowned after suffering fractured skulls. Byers, who was castrated during the attack, bled to death.

During seven days of often graphic and emotional testimony, the boys’ parents sat in the one-story county courthouse as the prosecution showed more than 40 gruesome photographs taken at the crime scene.

Witnesses, some choking back tears, described how the boys’ skulls were shattered and how their bodies were sexually mutilated.

The discovery of the bodies grabbed headlines and set into motion a massive police hunt that ended with Misskelley’s confession last June.

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Misskelley--who did not testify at his trial--had told police that he watched as two other defendants, Charles Jason Baldwin, 16, and Damien Wayne Echols, 19, killed the boys.

Because of the publicity surrounding the case, the trial was moved about 120 miles north of West Memphis to the small town of Corning.

West Memphis police Detective Bryn Ridge testified that before Misskelley confessed to being present at the murders, he had talked about belonging to a cult.

Police Inspector Gary Gitchell testified that Misskelley confessed after police played him a tape-recorded message in which an unidentified young boy said: “Nobody knows what happened but me.”

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The defense charged that the tape was one of many measures used by the police to coerce Misskelley’s confession.

His attorneys, Daniel Spidham and Gregory Crow, also argued that Misskelley wasn’t at the scene of the crime. Several of his friends testified that he had been at a wrestling match the night the boys died.

“There is no physical evidence linking little Jessie Misskelley to the crime scene, not even a little bit,” Spidham said in closing arguments Thursday as his client sat with his head down, nervously swaying back and forth. “No fingerprints, footprints, no hairs, nothing.”

But the prosecution’s most powerful weapons were Misskelley’s own words. During the confession, he gave details about the injuries inflicted on the children.

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And most damning was his admission that he helped capture Moore as the second-grader tried to escape. “If this defendant didn’t chase down Michael Moore, he would have gotten to go home and be with his parents,” prosecutor Brent Davis told the jury in his closing statement Thursday. “Jessie Misskelley Jr. didn’t let Michael Moore get away. He chased him down like an animal.”

“A guilty verdict for one is a start,” Chris Byers’ father, John, said Friday as he hugged his crying wife. “There are still two more to go.”

Baldwin and Echols face trial later this month.


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