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Listen to ““THE IMPOSSIBLE MURDER OF JULIA WALLACE: and 4 More Terrifying True Horror Stories! #WeirdDarkness” on Spreaker.
IN THIS EPISODE: Haunted locations aren’t always buildings – or even necessarily on the ground. The legendary ship, Queen Mary is swimming with the paranormal. (The Mysterious Haunted Queen Mary) *** Things continually appear and disappear in Grandma’s creepy house. (My Grandma’s Poltergeist) *** Helen Bailey went on a walk with her dog one afternoon—and was never seen alive again. (The Tragic Murder of Author Helen Bailey) *** They were called “The West Memphis Three” – and they were tried and convicted of the murder of three boys in 1994. But a campaign for their release succeeded, and they walked out of prison in 2011. Was justice served? (The West Memphis Three: A Deal With The Devil) *** Did William Herbert Wallace stage an elaborate locked-room mystery to murder his wife Julia? (Impossible Murder)
MENTIONED LINKS, EPISODES AND EVENTS…
Next Weirdos Watch Party: Sunday, Jan 19th, 2020 – 11pm Central: http://EerieLateNight.com
STORY AND MUSIC CREDITS/SOURCES…
(Note: Over time links can and may become invalid, disappear, or have different content.)
“The Impossible Murder of Julia Wallace” from The Unredacted: https://tinyurl.com/r2mvag2
“The Mysterious Haunted Queen Mary” by Brent Swancer for Mysterious Universe: https://tinyurl.com/smk76tu
“My Grandma’s Poltergeist” by Russ Wilson – submitted directly to WeirdDarkness.com.
“The Tragic Murder of Author Helen Bailey” by Shannon Raphael for The Line Up: https://tinyurl.com/wb9jn3d
“The West Memphis Three: A Deal With The Devil” from The Unredacted: https://tinyurl.com/r7uc2xw
Background music provided by EpidemicSound and AudioBlocks with paid license. Music by Shadows Symphony (http://bit.ly/2W6N1xJ), Midnight Syndicate (http://amzn.to/2BYCoXZ), and Nicolas Gasparini/Myuu (http://bit.ly/2LykK0g) is also often used with permission from the artists.
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“I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness.” — John 12:46 *** How to escape eternal darkness: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2IYmodFKDaM
IMPOSSIBLE MURDER OF JULIA WALLACE
The 52-year-old insurance salesman seemed strangely agitated as he rode the tram to his destination that dark winter evening on January 20th 1931. Wallace was looking for an address he had never heard of before and, whether deliberately or not, his behaviour was ensuring he would be remembered.
The tram’s conductor recalled how Wallace repeatedly pestered him and his ticket inspector to alert him where to get off. When he eventually pointed Wallace to the correct stop, he seemed particularly keen to impart to the conductor – “I am a complete stranger around here”.
On alighting, Wallace struggled to find the house he was seeking. Did 25 Menlove Gardens East even exist? Was he on a wild goose chase? If the suspicion had entered Wallace’s thoughts, he had good reason considering the unusual way the appointment had been made.
A local cafe where he attended a chess club had received a call for him by phone the previous night, January 19th, the caller giving his name as R. M. Qualtrough. Although Wallace only attended the chess club sporadically, the caller appeared to know he would be there that night and left a message for him with chess club captain Samuel Beattie, asking to meet regarding insurance business.
Wallace had never heard of Qualtrough and had never received an unsolicited call like this at his chess club before. But 1931 was straitened times for depression-era Britain and he elected to keep the appointment, scenting there may be some valuable commission in it for him. The message directed Wallace to meet Qualtrough at 25 Menlove Gardens East the following night at 7:30pm.
And here he was, lost in the Liverpool night trying to find an address that seemed not to exist. He had asked the tram conductors, he had stopped people in the street, he had consulted street directories in newsagents, he even stopped a policeman and recounted to him the whole strange saga.
On each occasion, Wallace had made a particular show of mentioning what time he was due to meet this Qualtrough. Was this a cunning murderer’s attempt to lay himself a watertight alibi, as some believe, or a flustered insurance salesman failing to make an appointment on time?
It turns out there are lots of Menlove Gardens in Liverpool – North, South, and West. East, however, remains conspicuous by its absence, a fact that was no doubt the subject of local jokes. Whoever had made that call appeared to be pulling Wallace’s leg, sending him on a fruitless search for a fictional address.
Was this merely a prank or something more sinister? As the 7:30pm appointment evaporated into the night, and with no sign of his destination, Wallace eventually gave up and decided to return home.
It was around 8:45pm when John and Florence Johnston, Wallace’s next door neighbours, saw him outside of his house at 29 Wolverton Street. He was looking perturbed, telling them both the front and back door were locked and would not open. Seemingly concerned, he asked the couple – “Have you heard anything unusual tonight?”
The neighbours followed Wallace back to the rear of his house and watched on as he tried the back door lock one more time. Oddly, this time it worked and Wallace entered the house. As the Johnstons waited outside, Wallace lit a lamp and moved carefully around the house. A few moments later he stepped back outside and said flatly – “Oh come and see, she’s been killed”.
To the Johnston’s horror, Julia Wallace was laid out in front of the gas fire in the front room, violently battered to death, blood splatter splashed across the walls. “They’ve finished her, look at her brains”, a ghostly pale Wallace muttered.
Back in the kitchen, Wallace noticed the locked cupboard where he kept his insurance collection money had been wrenched open and the four pounds inside had been stolen. Was this a robbery that had turned to murder? If so it looked a targeted one, the house had not been ransacked and nothing else had been taken, including the money from Julia’s handbag which rested on the kitchen table.
At this point John Johnston took charge, ordering his wife and Wallace to stay in the house and touch nothing whilst he fetched the police and a doctor, the latter clearly a futile gesture considering the grisly state of Julia’s body in the room next door.
Twenty-five minutes later the first of a cavalcade of officers from the Merseyside Police arrived at the Wallace home. It’s fair to say their handling of the case over the next few days left much to be desired; the force had been seriously weakened by a major strike in 1919 that had led half of its staff to be dismissed, those remaining often filling in roles they were not properly qualified or experienced for.
The first officers on the scene, PC Fred Williams and Police Sergeant Breslin, made a cursory search of the property. It looked like someone had briefly rifled around in the bedroom, but the rest of the house appeared undisturbed. The officers made one important observation – underneath Julia’s body was a partially burnt Macintosh coat. Had this belonged to the killer or was Julia wearing it when she was attacked?
During the next hour, a pressman from the Liverpool Daily Post arrived to do double duty as the police photographer, and John Edward Whitly MacFall, a lecturer of Forensic Medicine at Liverpool University called to act as the police’s forensics expert. MacFall’s role would prove to be the most contentious, with many commentators feeling he bungled the chance to gather the most vital piece of evidence – the time of death.
Even in 1931, using the cadaver’s rigor mortis alone to determine how long someone had been dead was out of date. But that’s exactly what MacFall did, stating his opinion that Julia had died at about 8pm, 45 minutes before Wallace returned home, based on the body’s stiffness. MacFall would later change his mind on the time of death, despite no other tests been conducted.
A more detailed examination of the body revealed that Julia had been beaten severely about the head with a blunt object, the most severe blows occurring around the left ear were brain tissue could be seen protruding from the skull. The fatal blows were probably inflicted whilst she lay face down on the floor in front of the fire. Police believed she must have brushed the fire as she fell due to the singeing of her dress and the partial burning of the Macintosh coat.
Detective Superintendent Hubert Rory Moore arrived next, slightly the worse for wear after an evening in the pub. Like any good policeman, drunk or not, Moore had his eye on Wallace himself as the likely suspect. But there was also the possibility that the crime was the work of the Anfield Housebreaker, a burglar that had plagued the local area in the previous months. Perhaps one of his robberies had resulted in fatal consequences for Julia Wallace?
Whoever the culprit, so frenzied was the attack that it was obvious they must have been covered in blood. Splatter had sprayed around the whole room, blood drizzling the walls seven feet high. An examination of the house’s drains and sinks revealed they had not been used that evening, so the assailant must have fled the property drenched in his victims blood.
A more thorough search of the house, yard and surrounding area could uncover no trace of a murder weapon. The Wallace’s cleaner would tell police a thin metal fire poker and an iron bar from the parlor were missing. Was one of these the murder weapon?
Meanwhile, a subdued Wallace sat in his kitchen and calmly explained to Hubert Moore and the other detectives the strange circumstances of his evening, how he had been lured on a wild goose chase around Menlove Gardens by the chess club phone call from R. M Qualtrough. Around midnight he was taken to the police station to make a formal statement, stating – “I have no suspicion of anyone”.
In the following days, police began to develop some contradictory evidence regarding Wallace’s involvement in his wife’s death. A switchboard supervisor at the Liverpool telephone exchange had narrowed the call to the chess club to a phone booth just 400 yards from Wallace’s house in Wolverton Street.
Tellingly, this booth was adjacent to where Wallace had caught the tram to his chess club the night before the murder. And it was shortly before he had arrived at the chess club that the telephone message had been received. To police, this looked like too much of a coincidence; had Wallace placed the call himself in order to provide himself with an alibi for the murder?
The suspicions against Wallace appeared to be crystallising. He and his wife were, by all accounts, a strange couple; he was frequently ill with kidney troubles and she was described by their few friends as fastidious and peculiar. A former friend characterized their marriage as strained and lacking in feeling. Had Wallace finally snapped and decided to rid himself of his difficult wife?
Police had also noted Wallace’s strange demeanor, especially how he had made such a fuss on the tram and around Menlove Gardens, and the number of people had had stopped and asked for directions.
From the Johnstons they discovered the curious business with the locks shortly before the body had been discovered, and how they had magically opened once they were present. Was Wallace ensuring that he would have witnesses when the body was discovered?
Despite Wallace becoming the prime suspect, the reconstruction of the times surrounding the murder looked to be exculpatory for him. He was firmly placed on the tram to Menlove Gardens at 7:06pm, and several witnesses had come forward to state they had seen Julia alive between 6:30pm and 6:45pm. This would only have given Wallace a window of around fifteen minutes to kill his wife, clean himself up, change his clothes and go catch his tram.
It looked extremely unlikely Wallace could have done it in time. Police did try to increase the window of opportunity he might have had by staging a reenactment with a young officer sprinting from Wolverton Street to the tram stop, but it was obvious the ailing 52-year old insurance salesman was not capable of such a feat.
Whoever Qualtrough was, and whatever the purpose of the call, it had succeeded in providing Wallace with an almost cast iron alibi. The problem was, it didn’t look like anyone else could have committed the crime either. No weapon, no suspects, no witnesses and the body found in a locked house; whoever had killed Julia appeared to have pulled off the perfect crime.
It’s no wonder the great mystery writers were so enamoured with the case, it would have made a classic story by the likes of Agatha Christie or Dorothy L. Sayers. The aforementioned Raymond Chandler said of it – “The Wallace case is the nonpareil of all murder mysteries…I call it the impossible murder because Wallace couldn’t have done it, and neither could anyone else.”
Despite the paucity of solid evidence in the case, the police charged Wallace with the murder. At his short, four-day trial in April 1931, the prosecution tried to argue that the accused had committed the murder naked save for the Macintosh found beneath Julia’s body, a salacious theory that made a particular impression in the court-room. The defense countered with the timings that seemed to be exculpatory for Wallace.
The defendant himself cut a lonely, impassive figure throughout, rarely showing any emotion. When called to the stand he spoke nervously but calmy, refusing to become flustered by the often aggressive questioning of the prosecution.
Some thought Wallace’s demeanor was what sealed his fate with the jury, rather than the evidence. His round rimmed glasses, reminiscent of Dr. Crippen, probably didn’t help either. Despite a feeling by most observers in the courtroom that the prosecution had failed to make their case, and despite the judge summing up favourably towards the defense, the jurors returned in just a few hours with a unanimous verdict – “Guilty”.
“You, William Herbert Wallace, have been convicted of murder upon the verdict of the jury.”, the court clerk announced. “Have you anything to say why sentence of death should not be passed upon you according to law?” Wallace simply replied – “I am not guilty. I cannot say anything else”.
Judge Robert Alderson Wright donned the customary black cap, perhaps somewhat reluctantly, and sentenced Wallace to the mandatory sentence of death by hanging. There was little waiting on ceremony in 1930s England, and the provisional execution date, barring appeals, was penned in for just a months time in May 1931. That appeal, however, saved Wallace’s life.
The following month at the Court of Criminal Appeal in London, Justice Gordon Hewart made the unprecedented move of overturning the guilty verdict. The case against Wallace was not – “proved with that certainty which is necessary in order to justify a verdict of guilty”, he said. “The result is that this appeal will be allowed and this conviction quashed”. Wallace walked out of the courtroom a free man.
The press, of course, delighted in the whole thing. Lurid headlines surrounded the case from beginning to end. Wallace was painted as an occultist, a philander and most of all an intellectual, chess playing mastermind – “The chess player they couldn’t checkmate”, as one newspaper put it.
Straight from the pages of fiction, Wallace had impeccably plotted a fiendish murder that both outwitted the police and generations of armchair mystery solvers. But if Wallace really was a criminal genius, he did not have long to savour his victory.
Seemingly diminished by the ordeal of his wife’s death, the trial and the accusations in the press, Wallace moved away to a quiet bungalow in the Wirral. Suffering a recurrence of his old kidney troubles, he fell ill at Christmas 1932 and died in February 1933. If the mild-manner insurance salesman had any dark secrets he had taken them to his grave. Since Wallace’s death, the case has become one of the most debated in criminal history. Dozens of books have been written advocating various theories, some centered on Wallace’s guilt, others on his innocence. But the case remains stubbornly unsolved, as Dorothy L. Sayers put it – “The Wallace murder had no key-move and ended, in fact, in stalemate.”
Did William Herbert Wallace pull off the perfect crime and get away with murdering his wife?
Let’s look at the Evidence For conviction.
If there’s one thing reasonably clear in this most opaque and baffling of cases, it’s that the murder was not the result of a simple robbery that went wrong, ending with the tragic unintended murder of Julia Wallace.
Whilst William Herbert Wallace told police that four pounds was missing from his insurance collection tin, we only have his word for that. If this money was taken during the murder, then the burglar inexplicably replaced the lid and put the tin back where he had found it.
More troubling, the putative burglar failed to take anything else. Julia Wallace’s handbag, a classic honeypot for any genuine burglar, was resting on the kitchen table next to where Wallace says the insurance money was taken. The handbag contained money and silver, yet the burglar ignored it.
The fact there was no sign of a break-in and the murderer calmly left and locked the doors behind him all but rules out an opportunistic burglar like the Anfield Housebreaker. And no such robber would have had a key or have been allowed entry by Julia Wallace, who was paranoid about strangers.
Some theorists have suggested the Qualtrough call was an attempt to lure Wallace away from the house so they could steal his insurance money, but this does not stack up as a very credible plan. Whilst it’s true the chess club met in a public cafe and its schedule was pinned up on the noticeboard, nobody could have sensibly planned a robbery based on it.
The chess game schedule did show Wallace was due to play a match on the evening of the Qualtrough phone call, but it also showed that he had been scheduled to play several games in the previous month and had not turned up to them. The chess club met twice a week but by January 19th Wallace had not played since November 10th, missing numerous matches in the process.
Only one person in the world knew if Wallace would have turned up for his chess match on January 19th and thus receive the diversionary message from R. M. Qualtrough, and that was William Herbert Wallace himself. And if another culprit was somehow aware of this why did they simply not commit the crime on the 19th when they could be assured Wallace would be out all evening?
If not robbery, then who else would have had motive to murder Julia than her husband? By 1931, Wallace’s wife was an elderly woman, who lead quite a sheltered life and had few family or friends. Nobody has ever managed to come up with anybody who would have had a credible motive for Julia’s murder beyond her husband and age-old domestic strife behind countless other spousal killings.
That it was personal is evidenced by the degree of overkill, a classic sign of a crime of passion. A burglar would have no cause to batter Julia around the head so ferociously and for so long; eleven blows in all. It was only really Wallace who knew her well enough to have developed such an antipathy.
However, he had an alibi for the evening Julia was killed. Although to many, it seemed a bit too good to be true.
Central to the case against Wallace is his contrived and strange alibi for the evening of the murder. Normally not the most garrulous of men, during his hour or so sojourn to the nonexistent address in Menlove Gardens, Wallace stopped and discussed his prospective meeting with at least a dozen strangers.
Wallace says he left his house on Wolverton Street at around 6:45pm and caught the number five tram at 7:06pm. Both the conductor Thomas Charles Phillips and ticket inspector Edward Angus recalled how a visibly anxious Wallace repeatedly engaged them in conversation about exactly what route he should take in order to make his appointment at Menlove Gardens East. Both informed their passenger that they were not aware of such an address, but advised him which tram he should take next.
As an insurance salesman and collections agent, it was Wallace’s job to travel around Liverpool and he knew the city well. He would often make hundreds of collections in a given week, either by foot or by travelling on the tram and bus network. And he knew the surrounding area of Menlove Gardens quite well, his friend and occasional violin tutor Joseph Crewe lived nearby, indeed Crewe told Police that Wallace had visited his home on many occasions.
In light of what Crewe told police, it did not make much sense that Wallace would need to repeatedly pester the conductor about which route to take. Was his conspicuous questioning on the tram actually Wallace’s attempts to establish a timed alibi for his whereabouts during the murder? According to Thomas Phillips, Wallace did not even take his advice anyway, seemingly knowing exactly where he was going.
On alighting the tram Wallace talked to at least four local residents, a woman he stopped in the street, a man at a tram shelter, a young man named Sydney Hubert Green and Katie Ellen Mather who lived at 25 Menlove Gardens West. None of them had heard of Menlove Gardens East, and North and South didn’t even have a 25.
Wallace claimed in later statements that it was now it had dawned on him that he was on Green Lane, where his friend Joseph Crewe lived. He called at Crewe’s house but he was not home, he and his wife had gone to the cinema. Was it Wallace’s intention all along to stop at Crewe’s house, ensure the time was noted and thus give himself an unimpeachable alibi?
But with Crewe not there, Wallace next stopped PC James Edward Serjeant, leaving the Allerton Road Station at the top of Green Lane. Despite confirming to Wallace that there was no Menlove Gardens East, the naturally reticent Wallace became strangely lugubrious, volunteering the entire tale of the Qualtrough phone call and his wild goose chase around Allerton.
The most important thing Wallace discussed with Serjeant was the time – “It’s not quite eight o’clock”, he said. “No, its quarter too”, replied Serjeant. What better alibi than a policeman? And just as had done with all those he spoke to that evening, he had fixed the time of their encounter.
He wasn’t quite done. He ventured into a nearby post office and newsagents and spoke to several more people about his appointment. The newsagents even checked their account books for any Qualtroughs in the area but to no avail. Wallace says at this point he gave up and elected to return home.
There, we have the curious business with the door locks. His neighbours the Johnstons were alerted to Wallace’s predicament by the sound of him knocking on the back door to no answer. “I have tried both the back and the front doors, and they are both locked against me”, he told them. But with the Johnstons watching on, the backdoor to the kitchen then unlocked with little effort.
Some believe this to be a theatrical performance on the part of Wallace, designed to ensure he would have his next door neighbours the Johnstons as witnesses as he entered the house and discovered Julia’s body.
It’s certainly hard to reconcile with his innocence, even if his struggle to open the doors could be explained by old and rusty locks, as the defense maintained at the trial, it does not explain either why he appeared to be so confounded by locks he used dozens of times a day or how the true assailant had entered the property without any sign of force and then locked the doors when they left.
As for the mysterious Qualtrough, police searched Liverpool and found five people of that name, but all denied making the call. Naturally since the call was almost certainly part of a criminal plot, nobody would use their real name to make it.
Police believed it was Wallace himself who had made the call. He had the opportunity, the phone booth was next to the stop he had caught his tram to the chess club meet the night before Julia’s murder and the timing of the call is not contradicted by his known movements. It also acted as an excellent alibi for him, ensuring he was away from the murder scene on the evening his wife was killed.
Whether he could have adopted a gruff voice sufficient to fool his acquaintance, chess club captain Samuel Beattie, is far more debatable. It would be a risky move and if Beattie was to see through the subterfuge, Wallace would have had some serious explaining to do. But as with everything in this case, certainties are hard to come by.
The acting pathologist John MacFall had now revised his time down from 8pm to 6pm, a time which helped neither side as it was long before Julia had been seen alive by numerous witnesses. With the uncertainty about the time of her death, this gave Wallace a very slim but not impossible chance to have killed Julia either before or after his journey to Menlove Gardens.
However, he would have had to tidy himself up and change his clothes afterwards, due to the amount of blood splatter caused by the ferocious attack on Julia. It seems very improbable Wallace could have had the time to do this, however you move the puzzle pieces. Could he have had an accomplice?
Some students of the Wallace case believe he did not commit the killing himself but hired somebody else to do it for him. If correct, this would make many of the objections to Wallace’s guilt based on the timings of the murder go away. And there is some evidence that points in this direction.
In Wallace’s police statements, he states that he returned straight home after giving up on his appointment with Qualtrough and did not talk to another person again. This was contradicted by twenty-year-old typist Lillian Hall who says she saw him at around 8:35pm talking to another man on Richmond Road, close to Wolverton Street. Hall had known the distinctively tall and angular looking Wallace by sight for years; she was friends with his next door neighbour’s son.
Was this man an accomplice, the man who actually murdered Julia whilst Wallace was establishing his alibi? If this encounter was simply an innocent exchange with a friend or a stranger, Wallace would clearly have no reason to deny it and cast the glare of suspicion on himself.
The accomplice theory would resolve some of the most perplexing evidence in the case. If Wallace had supplied them with a key, it would explain how the killer had managed to enter the house without force and leave by locking the doors. And if Wallace had told him what day he would be attending the chess club, the accomplice could have posed as the mystery Mr. Qualtrough and placed the call to set up an alibi for him.
If Wallace had somehow procured the services of a professional hitman, we will probably never know his identity. But in recent years, some investigators into the Wallace case have suggested a possible suspect in the murder named Richard Gordon Parry. Parry was a young motoring enthusiast and occasional amateur actor with a string of petty crimes to his name.
At about 1am the morning after the murder, Parry drove into Atkinson’s all night garage in Allerton. Garage attendant John Parkes knew Parry from boyhood and was alarmed at how agitated he seemed.
Parry told Parkes to wash his car down with the high powered water hose. Parkes, who had always been somewhat afraid of Parry, did what he was told. There was an unspoken sense of menace about the encounter and Parry knew he was doing something wrong, but did not say anything.
Inside the car, Parkes found a bloody glove, prompting the watching Parry to say – “If the police got that, they would hang me!” He then proceeded to tell Parkes a confused story about disposing of an iron bar down a drain on Priory Road. When Parkes had finished washing the car, Parry paid him five shillings and promptly drove off.
The clearly looks extremely suspicious, but there is a problem. Parkes did not mention this incident until 1981, when he told it to author Roger Wilkes for his radio documentary “Who Killed Julia?” Parkes claimed he did not tell anyone at the time both because he did not want to be involved and because he was afraid Parry may retaliate. With Parry’s death in 1980 Parkes says he thought it finally time to tell the truth.
Parry is particularly interesting because Wallace and his wife both knew him well. A few years before the murder, he had worked alongside Wallace at the Prudential insurance company and would frequently fill in for him during his many illnesses. Parry had been in the Wallace’s house on countless occasions to pay takings from the rounds, had drunk tea with the couple and even struck up a friendship with Julia.
If Wallace really had paid someone to kill his wife, then Parry is an obvious candidate. Julia Wallace was extremely paranoid about strangers and would never let anybody in the house she did not know. Had she answered the door to Parry that night and invited him in as a friend? Or had Wallace provided Parry with a key to the house which he returned after the deed during the meeting observed by Lillian Hall?
There are some problems with the theory. Parry was a Jack the lad type who spent a lot of money; he owned an expensive car, a rarity for a man his age in 1930s Britain. But there is no evidence of him coming into a large sum of money, or that Wallace had the means to pay it.
William Herbert Wallace himself also suggested Parry as a possible suspect during his police interviews, listing him as one of a handful of people Julia Wallace would have let in her house. It seems unlikely he would have done this if the pair had plotted the murder together. Police also investigated Parry at the time and concluded he had a strong enough alibi to be discounted.
Famed crime writer P.D. James caused a stir in 2013 when she claimed to have done something that had eluded so many of her illustrious predecessors; she had solved the notoriously unsolvable Wallace case.
James’s theory revolved around an audacious premise – what if the Qualtrough phone call and the murder were entirely unrelated? A fatal coincidence that has confounded and confused everyone who has studied the case for more than eighty years?
“No rational person could possibly believe the coincidence that Wallace had decided to murder his wife on the same evening that a prankster had conveniently lured him from home and provided him with an alibi”, James set out in a Sunday Times article on the case.
James details how she believes Wallace committed the murder but that old Prudential Insurance co-worker Richard Gordon Parry made the call as a malicious prank. Parry had a reputation for dipping his fingers into the till, and it was thought he had syphoned off some of the collections money during his time working alongside Wallace at the Prudential.
Wallace may have informed his superiors about Parry’s stealing, leading him to be quietly dismissed from the firm. To get back at Wallace, Parry made the call to send the ailing 52-year old on a wild goose chase around Liverpool on a cold winters night. The prank was in character for the young man, garage attendant John Parkes had previously stated how Parry was prone to calling strangers and adopting funny voices for a joke.
As the author of countless fictional murder mysteries, PD James then applies a bit of lateral thinking. If Wallace was already planning to murder his wife, could he have used the happenstance of the Qualtrough call to provide himself with an alibi? Whether genuine or not, he could exploit the call to prove he was elsewhere when the crime was committed.
James’ theory is compelling to a point but falls down by relying on some of the unlikely ideas the prosecution used in the 1931 trial. In order to explain the witnesses who say they saw Julia alive and well between 6:30-6:45pm, James says Wallace may have dressed up in his wife’s clothes to fool them.
Wallace was a boney, 6ft 2in tall middle-aged man with a moustache. Unless wearing a thick veil, it’s hard to see how anybody could have been fooled into thinking he was a 5ft 3in, plump, elderly lady like Julia.
But what about the Evidence Against finding him guilty?
At the 1931 murder trial, the defense centered their case around whether William Herbert Wallace would have had enough time to commit the crime. The police’s reconstruction of his movements had firmly placed him boarding the number five tram at Smithdown Lane at 7:06pm, with both the tram’s conductor and ticket collector attesting to Wallace’s presence.
Working backwards from there, Wallace had to have left his home on Wolverton Street no later than 6:50pm. The day after the murder, a sixteen-year-old milk delivery boy came forward to say he delivered milk to number 29 Wolverton Street that evening, around 6:45pm, and even briefly talked to Julia Wallace about their respective colds.
Close’s story was seemingly confirmed by paperboy James Wildman, who glanced up at the clock on the nearby Holy Trinity Church as he made his way to Wolverton Street on his usual rounds. It was just after 6:35pm. A couple of minutes later, whilst delivering a paper to number 27, Wildman saw Alan Close at the Wallace house.
The two separate witness statements tally together, and one of them is backed up by the timing of a nearby church clock. Even the most generous of readings based on these witnesses gave Wallace only about 10 minutes to have beaten Julia to death, to have tidied himself up and change his clothes, to have hidden the murder weapon and to have locked up and left for his tram.
The police did their best to try and expand the time window Wallace had to murder his wife. They got Alan Close to reconstruct his milk round and concluded he could have reached the Wallace’s house as early as 6:31pm, despite the paperboys testimony. This, they said, meant Wallace had as much as twenty minutes to act out his grim business and leave for his rendezvous with Qualtrough.
This tendentious argument may have been enough to convince a jury already predisposed against Wallace to send him to the gallows. But the cooler heads of the appeal court quickly overturned their verdict and Wallace walked free.
Despite dozens of books and endless debate, the simple fact that William Herbert Wallace did not seem to have enough time to kill his wife remains the strongest reason to believe he did not.
Noted crime writer Edgar Lustgarten said of the Wallace case – “Any set of circumstances that is extracted from it will readily support two incompatible hypotheses; they will be equally consistent with innocence and guilt. It is pre-eminently the case where everything is cancelled out by something else.”
Lustgarten astutely sums up the case against Richard Gordon Parry. All of the arguments used against Parry by those who believe Wallace was involved equally apply if Parry acted alone or with his own accomplice.
Parry’s name had been alluded to by numerous writers on the case since 1931, and even William Herbert Wallace himself mentioned him as a possible suspect in his police interviews. Author Jonathan Goodman built his classic 1969 book The Killing of Julia Wallace around Parry, who he named only as “Mr. X” for legal reasons.
In 1981, a year after Parry died, Roger Wilkes’ radio documentary was the first to publicly name him as the possible real culprit in the murder of Julia Wallace, based on the testimony of garage attendant John Parkes who says Parry all but confessed to him on the night of the murder.
The evidence can be stacked up against Parry quite convincingly. He was a flash young man who had an expensive car and a lifestyle beyond his means. He had worked with Wallace a few years earlier at the prudential and knew the Wallaces and their home well. Crucially, he was also aware that Wallace kept often large sums of insurance collection money in the house.
It was when Parry was filling in for his insurance rounds that William Herbert Wallace first noticed money was missing from his ledger. Parry had been dipping into the takings and would do so on other occasions during the next year. Although not sacked as some authors have alleged, Wallace did inform his superintendent Joseph Crewe about the thefts and this probably lead to a mutual agreement with Parry and his father for him to discreetly leave the firm in late 1929.
Most authors who promote the Parry theory believe the young man, perpetually short of money and with a string of petty criminal offenses to his name, decided to rob Wallace for his Prudential insurance takings. Some authors promote a variation on this theory where Parry himself had an accomplice, another former Prudential employee called Richard Marsden.
Parry frequented the Cottle cafe, where he was an occasional player in an amateur dramatics group that rehearsed there. The Cottle cafe was also where Wallace’s chess club met, and where the chess match schedule showing he was due to play on the 19th of January was pinned to the notice board for all to see.
According to John Parkes, Parry had a facility with affecting voices, and would often make prank calls to people. If Wallace himself had not posed as R.M. Qualtrough and made the hoax call to the chess club, then clearly Parry looks like a prime candidate.
Most Parry advocates theorize he made the phone call to lure Wallace away from his house. Using his car he could have parked on a street and surveilled Wallace, waiting for him to leave his house so either he or an accomplice could call round to commit the burglary.
Exactly how they gained entrance, and exactly what transpired inside to leave Julia’s battered body laying dead in the front parlour, is unknown. Both Parry and proposed accomplice Marsden were known to Julia, so it’s possible she let them in voluntarily, one distracting her as the other rifled through the kitchen for the insurance money. Perhaps Julia realised what had happened and tried to raise the alarm, resulting in her inadvertent killing.
Whatever actually occurred, John Parkes says early the next morning Parry stopped off at his garage and asked him to wash down his car inside and out. Inside was a glove covered in blood. Parry remarked darkly that he would hang if the police found it. Parry mentioned disposing of an iron bar, which the Wallace’s maid later reported was missing from the parlour.
If John Parkes’ story is true then it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Richard Gordon Parry was directly involved in the murder of Julia Wallace. The exact nature of his involvement or whether it included anybody else is, like most of this baffling case, likely to remain a mystery.
Most writers on the Wallace case agree that Julia Wallace’s killer must either have known her or had a key for 29 Wolverton Street. Two people who fit both criteria are the Wallace’s neighbours John and Florence Johnston. The couple were present in the backyard as Wallace struggled to gain entry to his house just before he discovered Julia’s body.
As was common practice in the 1930s, the Johnstons had a key for their neighbour’s house. They would also have been well placed to observe if the Wallaces were at home or not. In a 2001 newspaper article, authors Tom Slemen and Keith Andrews allege that John Johnston was the real murderer of Julia Wallace.
Slemen and Andrews say they tracked down a man who befriended an elderly John Johnston when he was living in an old people’s home in the 1960s. Johnston confessed to this man that he killed Julia in an attempt to rob the Wallace’s house. He believed Julia had left for Menlove Gardens with Wallace and killed her when she discovered him prowling around in her house.
All the usual caveats about latter-day testimony apply. Johnston was reportedly suffering from senile dementia at the time and may not have fully understood what he was saying. The Johnstons were also never regarded as suspects by the police. They did, however, move out of the area the very next day after the murder, which raised some eyebrows.
The Wallace case is like a jigsaw puzzle where the last piece never fits. No matter how many times we reassemble it, it stubbornly refuses to form a complete image. At the centre of that fragmented picture remains the unknowable figure of William Herbert Wallace; flustered insurance salesman or criminal genius?
It’s fitting we leave the last, typically ambiguous words, to Wallace himself. Sydney Scholefield Allen, a junior defense counsel at the trial who went on to become a long-serving British MP, was called to Wallace’s side as he lay dying of kidney disease in 1933. “Well we won sonny, didn’t we”, he told Allen.
Surely one of the most luxurious and world-famous cruise ships ever launched was the HMS Queen Mary. Born at the John Brown shipyard in Clyde, Scotland in 1930, the Depression halted construction of the ambitious ship through the early 30s, but when it was finally launched in 1936 it was considered one of the most crowning achievements of shipbuilding the world had ever seen. Larger and faster than even the Titanic, the HMS Queen Mary melded classic elegance with the most cutting edge technology of the time, and it would go on to hold the speed record for crossing the Atlantic from 1938 to 1952. It was one of the largest and fastest ships that has ever existed, and was the epitome of luxury and style for those who wished to cross the vast sea. At the time you could not get more opulent or travel in better comfort or style than aboard the HMS Queen Mary, and for the first 3 years of its life the colossal, 1000-foot long megaship ferried passengers across the Atlantic in unparalleled comfort and luxury, including some of the richest, most famous, and most powerful people of the era.
In 1939, the specter of World War II began to loom over Europe, and the HMS Queen Mary would be repurposed and refitted to transport troops for the war effort. Repainted a dull grey color, the ship became known as “The Grey Ghost,” and played an active part in carrying large numbers of troops as it outran enemy subs, with its carrying capacity also modified for this purpose. Indeed, by the end of the war the HMS Queen Mary would transport around 800,000 troops and set the record for the most people ever put on a floating vessel, at one point carrying a staggering 16,683 people at one time.
After its illustrious career as a military transport vessel, the HMS Queen Mary reverted back to a luxury passenger liner after the war, a job it would continue to do until the 1960s, when the popularity of passenger liners began to wane and the ship was eventually decommissioned in 1967, after which it was moored at Long Beach, California and turned into a floating museum and hotel. And thus ended the illustrious career of the great HMS Queen Mary, with a total of 1001 transatlantic voyages under its belt and various military accolades, its mark upon history assured. However, the story of this legendary vessel did not end there, and in the decades since being permanently docked, the HMS Queen Mary has accrued quite a sinister and eerie reputation for being intensely haunted
The tales of hauntings and paranormal phenomena aboard the HMS Queen Mary are almost as famous as her colorful history. In a way it makes sense that there should be some ghostly occurrences here, as there are at least 50 recorded deaths aboard the vessel during its lifetime, and the ship was also involved in a fatal accident during World War II, when it struck the vessel Curacoa resulting in 338 deaths. Perhaps some of these dead from the war have decided to stick around, and indeed ghostly wails and frantic banging are said to be heard on occasion from the hull and the bow area that had struck the Curacoa in the tragedy. Another one of these would certainly be the specter that reportedly inhabits the engine room. Here there are frequent reports of pipes banging, as well as sudden temperature drops, floating lights, the engine room door inexplicably heating up, and anomalous smoke, all said to be the doing of a 17-year old sailor named John Henry, who died here in a fire during war time. The massive, abandoned boiler room incidentally has at least one other spirit in the form of the ghost of a fireman named John Pedder, who was crushed by an emergency door here in 1966 and appears as a ghostly figure in blue overalls wandering the area around the door, known as “Door 13.”
There are certainly numerous other ghosts and phantoms on the vessel not connected to the war, and there are many areas of the ship that seem to be magnets for the paranormal. One intensely haunted area of the ship is the first and second class pool areas. The first class swimming pool, once a lavish space of shiny tile and opulent décor, now sits empty and used, yet there are often reported to be the sound of splashing or of wet footprints about even though there has long been no water in the pool. The specters of several women in period swimsuits can also be seen walking or lounging about here before blinking out of existence or phasing through walls out of sight. These particular entities seem to show no awareness whatsoever of being observed or of others around them, and they largely go about their business as if they are still on their luxury cruise.
Both of the pools also supposedly harbor the spirits of several children, who can be heard laughing, giggling, or running around. The most famous of these is a spirit called Jackie, which inhabits the second class pool and is said to be a girl who drowned during the luxury liner’s heyday. Jackie purportedly carries with her a teddy bear, often calls out for her mother, and will allegedly sometimes whistle or hum “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” Eerily, she is also known to hum or whistle back songs that visitors sing, with some ghost hunters doing this in an effort to draw her out. A companion of Jackie’s is the ghost of a girl called Sarah, who is known as being rather mischievous and prone to acting up, sometimes tugging at clothing, tapping, pushing or even slapping guests. Even spookier still is a ghost said to prowl the pool area that leaves behind the smell of cigarettes and is known for growling ominously, leading to the spirit’s nickname “Grumpy.” The pool’s changing rooms have their own strange phenomenon as well. A woman is said to have been murdered here, possibly raped as well, which has led to an oppressive sense of dread that can suddenly overwhelm visitors, and there is also sort of vortex that is said to swirl here through which various spirits travel to and from the ship.
Many of the ship’s other areas are haunted as well. Some of the staterooms are known to be intensely haunted, in particular stateroom B-340, which is so plagued with paranormal activity such as lights turning on and off, the phone ringing with no one on the line, faucets turning on by themselves, moving furniture, sheets ripped off of the bed, and numerous anomalous noises, that it is no longer rented out at all. Stateroom B-474 also has a spirit in the form of a little girl called Dana, who is said to have been murdered there along with her family. A shadowy figure of a man wearing a 1930s style suit is also often seen wandering about the staterooms on some inscrutable errand.
The ship’s playroom and nursery is home to disembodied infant crying and the pattering of unseen little feet. The Queen’s Salon and first class lounge has the specter of a pretty woman dressed in flowing white vintage dress, who can be seen dancing alone in the corner, and another mysterious woman in white is sometimes seen sitting at the front desk late at night. The lobby area is also supposedly prowled by a sinister spirit wearing a yellow fedora and apparently possessing rotten teeth. Other assorted areas of the ship that are haunted include the Captain’s cabin, the helm, and the Winston Churchill’s suite, which are often permeated by the smell of phantom cigar smoke, supposedly from the former captain Treasure Jones, who loved cigars. Then there is the ship’s bar, where the ghost of a man in 1930s clothing, with slicked back hair and a top hat, will sit down next to unsuspecting patrons and even talk to them, only to vanish right before their eyes or walk through the wall towards the men’s restroom.
The promenade is also supposedly haunted by several spirits. One is said to be that of a man named William Eric Stark, who in life made the mistake of drinking the contents of a bottle of cleaning fluid thinking it was gin. His health would rapidly deteriorate until he died in a fit of coughing and choking, and this choking and gagging is a distinct attribute of his ghost as well. Stark can apparently be seen as a spectral figure around the promenade, hacking and coughing even in death. Also on the promenade is the ghost of a boy of 5 or 6 years of age, who is called Daniel. This particular ghost is always seen wearing blue clothing, and can be spotted wandering about the promenade and the observation bar, often just standing in the dark staring at people.
Other assorted phenomena throughout the ships include shadow figures lurking about or looming behind visitors, the potent feeling of being watched, moving or levitating objects, ghost lights, banging, knocking, disembodied voices of footsteps, electrical malfunctions, drastic temperature fluctuations, various unexplained odors, and many, many others, to the point that the HMS Queen Mary holds a reputation as being one of the most intensely haunted places there is. This reputation has made it a haven for ghost hunters and paranormal investigators, including TV shows such as Ghost Hunters and Most Haunted, and it is a popular destination for psychics. Indeed, the famous late psychic named Peter James spent a good amount of time here, and was instrumental in uncovering and identifying many of the lost souls wandering the corridors of this vessel, and there are estimated to be hundreds of individual spirits clinging to this place, eternally anchored to this one vessel.
Why should so many spirits find themselves tethered to this one particular place? After all, there are many retired ships in the world with pasts perhaps even more peppered with death and tragedy than the HMS Queen Mary. How is it that this place has managed to draw about it so many ghosts and why are they so hesitant to let go of it? Are they individual, free roaming entities or are they just some sort of imprint of the past, as an image to a photograph? Or is this just spooky tales and an attempt to play up these scary stories for tourist dollars? It is a mystery as to exactly why certain places should become haunted and attain such spooky reputations as the lairs of ghosts, but whatever the reason is, the HMS Queen Mary is certainly ranks up there as one of the more intriguing, looming there over the waves as it always has, its ghosts, whether real or imagined, lingering about as they perhaps always will.
MY GRANDMA’S POLTERGEIST
I’ve seen quite a few dead people, and strange things happen to me but here is a story about my grandmother’s house. My grandparents got married in 1939 and moved into a terrace house in a Kent town near Chatham Dockyard in the UK. My Gran lived in this house until 1997. As a child I would have really vivid nightmares no more so than when I stayed with my grandparents. The house was very old over 150 years, it wasn’t that creepy but as I got older strange things started to happen after my mum and my grandad died. I’d see a black mist behind me in a mirror, i’d have strong feelings that my mum or my grandfather were standing behind me. My grandfather smoked a very pungent tobacco, five years after his death the area where his chair once sat used to suddenly fill with the smell of tobacco and dissipate very soon afterwards. My Gran I didn’t smoke. These ghosts were friendly but there was one ghost that was not, a medium friend of my gran told her there was a Victorian woman in the house and was pacing the room in agitation and trying to keep calm but was wringing her hands. Objects would disappear and reappear in odd places. I got into the habit of demanding they were brought back and they always were but not where you left them. At night if you stayed up late the room would grow cold and you felt this feeling of agitation and worry. My Gran told me she woke up one night and saw a woman in a long black dress walking across the room. When my gran died in 1997 things got much worse. I’d have the most vivid horrible nightmares, I’d wake up to find the window in the room opened. I asked my then boyfriend to move into the house with me, he worked nights and was often in the house alone in the daytime, I never said anything about ghosts but he told me he could smell tobacco in the house, which made me go cold, one night we come home from a night out and found a poster I had on the wall in another bedroom, had migrated to our bedroom and was squarely in the center of our bed. At night the atmosphere in the house was thick and unwelcoming. We were packing up to leave the house and we were going out. We had a silly argument as my boyfriend was late home and were going to be late but he wanted a bath. I went upstairs to get a towel.The Bathroom was downstairs off of the kitchen. As I came towards the Kitchen I swore I saw a man that wasn’t my boyfriend at the sink. All the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end, then he was gone. We moved out not long after that. One of nicest stories about my grandfather’s ghost happened on the day of his funeral. My Grandad was much older than my gran and had been married before in 1920’s, he wore a ring his first wife gave him all his life. My Gran told me that in the future that’s your ring. On the day of the funeral my gran wore my granddads ring even though it was too big for her. When she back to the house she was distraught as she had lost the ring. We pulled the house apart after the wake we couldn’t find it, My gran said out loud “Please Oswald bring the ring back.” I went upstairs to tidy up where we had been pulling everything out. All the contents of my Grans dressing table were on the floor moved during the search, In the center of the empty dressing table was the gold ring. There’s no way id have missed it. That ring is now my wedding ring.
MURDER HELEN BAILEY
In February 2011, Helen Bailey and her husband, John Sinfield, took a much needed vacation to Barbados. It was the perfect time to escape the dreary skies of a London winter.
Sinfield, the founder of a licensing rights company, and Bailey, a successful author, were sitting beachside in their lounge chairs when Sinfield got up to take a dip in the ocean. Shortly after beginning his swim, however, Sinfield disappeared among the waves. A riptide pulled him down, drowning him. Bailey found herself alone for the first time in decades.
A prolific writer, Bailey had long expressed herself on the printed page. She wrote the successful young adult series, Electra Brown, which was beloved by readers for its humorous depictions of teenage life. But her writing took a more serious tone in a website that she created to discuss her grief after Sinfield’s death, called Planet Grief.
Bailey hoped that Planet Grief would serve as a place of comfort and healing for others who had experienced loss. Bailey herself had been feeling more optimistic in the years after her husband’s death. She had met someone through a support group on Facebook a few months after John’s passing. She was a widow, and he was a widower. They connected and exchanged letters and emails. She referred to him as the “Gorgeous Gray Haired Widower” (GGHW) on her website. His real name was Ian Stewart.
he couple became engaged sometime in early 2016. Bailey moved into a sprawling home with Stewart in Royston, the first time she had lived away from London. She had written that she missed London but was looking forward to her future with Stewart. Stewart’s two sons also lived in their home, as did Bailey’s beloved dachshund, Boris. Boris was famous in his own right—an animated version of the dog appeared on the cover of Bailey’s published book about grief and healing, When Bad Things Happen in Good Bikinis: Life after Death and a Dog Called Boris.
On April 11, 2016, Bailey took Boris for a walk around the Royston neighborhood, as she did nearly every day. The pair were never seen alive again.
Three days later, Stewart reported her missing, telling police that Bailey failed to return home from her walk with the dog. He also showed police a note, allegedly written by Bailey, which said that she was going to take time away at a family home.
For weeks, the search for Helen Bailey continued. Then, in July of 2016, the police made a grisly discovery in a septic tank beneath the garage of the Royston home: Bailey and Boris’s remains.
Ian Stewart was arrested and charged with murder.
Those close to Bailey have since said that Stewart purposefully preyed on her. The woman, who had enjoyed great success with her young adult novels, had amassed quite a fortune—around four million pounds, in addition to a luxurious home. Stewart used Planet Grief as a way into Bailey’s life and began “love-bombing” her almost immediately to make his target utterly reliant on him. Their similar circumstances allowed Stewart a way in, and he soon used that to convince Bailey to change her will and leave all of her belongings to him.
Once Bailey had changed her will, Stewart began plotting a way to get rid of her. He started slipping Bailey sleeping pills months prior to her murder. Bailey had noticed a change in her demeanor and considered seeking medical help. On the morning of her death, she had Googled, “Why do I keep falling asleep?”. She had also, heartbreakingly, Googled a wedding location that she had been looking into.
It’s been speculated that Stewart was aware that Bailey was starting to question what was happening to her and that going to a doctor would blow his cover. And so, Stewart decided to act.
On the day that Bailey was killed, Stewart visited a doctor for a post-op appointment following a minor surgery he had done earlier. Although this appointment was likely meant to give Stewart an alibi for the day of Bailey’s disappearance, the police timeline shows that he killed his wife well before his appointment.
Stewart spoke on Bailey’s behalf at a meeting with a lawyer regarding the selling one of Bailey’s homes that very same day. Stewart told the couple’s lawyer that Bailey was absent because she was “unwell”. Stewart went to his older son’s bowling game that day, and the two ate Chinese in their home afterwards. Bailey’s body, by that point, was already in the tank beneath the home.
For nearly three months, Stewart acted the part of a concerned husband-to-be. Bailey had disappeared without explanation. He made flyers with pictures of both Boris and Bailey and confided in police that he thought that someone may have kidnapped his fiancée.
On July 15, three months after Bailey disappeared, police received a search warrant for the grounds of Bailey and Stewart’s home. The tip traced back to comments made by a neighbor, who told police about a septic tank hidden below her neighbors’ garage. There, authorities discovered the remains of Bailey and Boris. The next day, Stewart was charged with murder.
Stewart was tried in January of 2017. He was found guilty of killing Helen Bailey on February 22, 2017, almost exactly six years after John Sinfield died. Stewart was sentenced to life in prison. He will not be eligible for parole until he is 90 years old.
WEST MEMPHIS THREE
Few people who have watched the documentary film Paradise Lost remain unconvinced by its central tenet, that the young men imprisoned in 1994 for the murder of three boys at Robin Hood Hills in West Memphis, Arkansas, were wrongly convicted.
The film makes a persuasive case that the accused men – Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley and Jason Baldwin suffered a miscarriage of justice; victims of a prejudiced police and legal system that discriminated against them because they were weird kids who dressed in black and liked heavy metal music.
It’s an all too familiar story, and one those in the audience for true crime documentaries are predisposed to believe. Many similar films have documented sad true stories of minorities, misfits and outsiders been railroaded and wrongly convicted of heinous crimes by small minded, conservative legal systems.
The films thesis follows the familiar pattern. Damien Echols and his friends were scary and strange teenagers, who liked heavy metal music and even indulged in satanic rituals in the woods. When three young boys are murdered and dumped, hog-tied and naked in local woodland, provincial-minded police quickly focused, with scant evidence, on the teenagers as the likely perpetrators.
The small minded local community turned on the accused, false testimony and confessions were suborned by the police and, with the recent Satanic panic scare still in people’s minds, prosecutors distorted facts and unfairly used the boys lifestyle and demeanour against them at the trial.
But what if the prejudice in this case was the other way round? What if the real distortions and manipulations were committed by the films, rather than the prosecution? Is it possible there was a genuine case against the three men, one that is a lot stronger than depicted in Paradise Lost? Could liberal audiences, rightly outraged by similar miscarriages, have rushed to their own judgments?
This possibility has been almost entirely overlooked by the extraordinary juggernaut created by Paradise Lost. From the original 1996 documentary by directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, its sequels, several other films and the advocacy of major Hollywood figures such as Johnny Depp and Peter Jackson, a huge innocence campaign was spawned that eventually led to the men’s release in 2011.
Although never actually exonerated of the crime, so great was the negative publicly generated against the Arkansaw justice system that an unusual and little-used legal technicality was negotiated between the defense team and the state and the three men were finally released after serving 18 years of their sentences.
It’s not hard to see why the ordeal of the West Memphis Three has had such strong impact on the public consciousness, and why the three men’s case has continued to be promoted by high-profile figures in the film and music world such as Henry Rollins, the band Metallica, and director Peter Jackson, who donated $10 million to their defense.
The story fixed in the public mind by Paradise Lost and its sequels, of troubled teenagers persecuted because they were different, is one millions of people around the world can identify and sympathize with, not least those in the creative industries.
But with so much myth, propaganda, and rumor having been spread since the three men were jailed in 1994 it’s easy to forget exactly why they were convicted in the first place. The films and the innocence campaigners have done such a good job of editing out many of the inconvenient facts and evidence that many are unaware that a solid case exists against the men at all.
Could it be those original detectives and prosecutors, most of whom maintain the men are guilty, were right after all? To understand why Hollywood may have made a grave mistake in their advocacy of the West Memphis Three, we must travel back to a nightmare day in 1993, when this terrible story begins.
Police in the small Arkansas city of West Memphis were first alerted that something was wrong on the night of May 5th 1993. The parents of three local boys had reported their sons, 8-year-olds Steve Branch, Michael Moore and Christopher Byers, missing. A small search was conducted in the surrounding area but no trace of the children was found.
Concern for the boys deepened after they had still not been found by the following morning and a major search was launched by the police and Crittenden County Search and Rescue at 8:00am. A police helicopter swept the whole area and 50 searchers, including many local volunteers, focused on an area of woods in West Memphis called Robin Hood Hills.
That afternoon, the grimmest of discoveries was made. Parole officer Steve Jones found a black tennis show near to where the woods bordered the Blue Beacon car wash. In a nearby ditch, Sergeant Mike Allen then discovered the naked body of a boy, his hands tied together with shoelaces. Following the course of the ditch, the bound bodies of two more boys were soon found.
The boys clothes were found scattered around the creek, some items had been pushed into the mud with sticks and the trousers were inside out. One of the boys, later identified as Chris Byers, was covered in lacerations and had had the skin from his penis and scrotum removed.
The autopsies found that Chris Byers had died from knife wounds and Steve Branch and Michael Moore from drowning. Luminol tests revealed enough blood on the ground to indicate they were probably killed where they were found. A lack of tracks or drag marks also indicated the boys had been attacked and killed in the woods.
The fact there were three victims, and they were tied up with three different types of knots, pointed to multiple killers. Although only 8 years old, it was difficult to see how one man could have subdued and murdered the three boys without at least one of them escaping and calling for help.
With stories that satanic ceremonies were occurring in the woods already circulating in the local community, the idea there was some ritual element in the murders quickly spread. Steve Jones and another juvenile parole office, Jerry Driver, immediately suspected a troubled local 18-year-old man named Damien Echols.
Echols’ history of psychiatric problems and strange, violent behavior singled him out to Driver. With EVIL tattooed across his knuckles, his black clothes and self-confessed interest in the occult, the teenager also outraged Driver’s conservative, insular mindset. The day after the murders, Driver made his suspicions about Echols known to the West Memphis Police.
The innocence campaign has made legitimate criticisms about the blinkered attitude of people like Steve Jones and Jerry Driver. Much of their aversion to Echols was based on petty prejudice rather than hard facts. However, once the police were made aware of the teenager, a very real case quickly developed against him, and one nothing to do with how he dressed.
Police first interviewed Damien Echols on May 7th and would talk to him several times in the next few days. Echols told them he was at home the night of the murders and spent much of the evening talking on the phone with several of his girlfriends.
Aside from his alibi, some of Echols statements in these interviews are strange and alarming enough to naturally attract the suspicion of detectives. Whilst Echols denied any knowledge of the murders, he appeared to have some startling insights into the killers.
West Memphis police detective Bryn Ridge’s notes state – “When asked about how he thought the person felt that had done the homicides, he stated that the person probably felt good about what he had done and that he felt good that he had the power to do what he had done. ”
The teenager also had something to say about the killer’s methodology – “Damien stated that he figured that the killer knew the kids went into the woods and even asked them to come out to the woods. He stated that the boys were not big, not smart, and they would have been easy to control. He also felt the killer would not have been worried about the boys screaming due to it being in the woods and close to the expressway.”
Innocence advocates have dismissed these statements by Echols as simply a cocky, intelligent teenager been smart with local cops, whom he probably regarded as his intellectual inferior. Whilst this is clearly a possibility, with three children having just been murdered, no detective could reasonably make the same determination.
Echols’ interviews in the days following the murders also brought another name to the attention of the police, a 16-year-old friend of his named Jason Baldwin. Unlike Echols, nothing Baldwin told the detectives stood out as particularly unusual.
It was a phone call received by the police on May 9th that really turned Echols into a major suspect. Narlene Hollingsworth, the aunt of Damien’s girlfriend Domini Teer, called the West Memphis Police to report a sighting of Echols near the murder scene on the night of the killings.
According to Narlene and three other members of her family, they saw Echols at around 9:30pm, walking in an area very close to where the bodies were later found. He was also ‘covered in mud’.
It is one of Paradise Lost’s most egregious distortions that it casts the police’s focus on Echols as unwarranted. The West Memphis Police’s honesty and competence have been repeatedly questioned over the years, but by May 10th they had genuine reason to believe that Echols was both lying to them about his alibi, and was near the murder scene at the time the boys died. Knowing this, no police force in the country could regard him as anything other than a major suspect.
The case against Echols developed further when the name of another local teenager, 17-year-old Jessie Misskelley, came to the police’s attention. Misskelley’s role in the story would perhaps become the most controversial and debated aspect of the entire case, and pivotal to the arguments of both the innocent and guilty camps.
Misskelley was a local dropout who worked odd jobs, had a low IQ and a history of petty crime and violence. Police first talked to him as a witness on June 3rd. Sensationally, within hours Misskelley would confess to the entire crime, stating that he, Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin had beaten and murdered the boys.
On the basis of the confession, Misskelley, and the other two suspects were arrested and charged with the murders. Misskelley’s statements would form one of the cornerstones of the case against the three men. Because of this, Paradise Lost and the innocence campaign also focus on Misskelley and his confessions, arguing they were coerced by the police.
According to Paradise Lost, Misskelley was a vulnerable minor, a teenager with a very low IQ and learning difficulties who was interrogated for 12 hours on his own without his parents or legal representation. Under intense pressure from detectives, Misskelley falsely confessed to a crime he and his two friends did not commit.
This false confession narrative is central to the entire innocence campaign, but it is seriously misrepresented in the films. In actual fact, Jessie Misskelley confesses multiple times, often in private to his own defense lawyers and away from police pressure.
Similarly misleading is the way the films treat Misskelley’s alleged intellectual dysfunction and the circumstances surrounding his police interviews. Even when Paradise Lost makes a valid point, it is often undermined by its one-sided treatment of the facts and omission of proper context to what’s happening.
Because he was accusing the other two suspects, Misskelley was tried separately from Echols and Baldwin. Despite the shortcomings of the prosecution case alleged by the innocence campaign, two separate juries in 1994 were sufficiently convinced to convict the three men. Echols was sentenced to death and Baldwin and Misskelley were sentenced to life imprisonment.
None of the films make any attempt to interview the jury members to try and understand why they thought the men were guilty, settling instead to insinuate that they were gullible and prejudiced for doing so.
The first Paradise Lost film was released in 1996, building on an inchoate campaign that was developing on the then emerging internet. Sequels released in 2000 and 2011 follow supporters of the men and their attempts to get the verdicts overturned.
West of Memphis, produced by Peter Jackson and Damien Echols himself, was released in 2012. Covering much the same ground as Paradise Lost, the film concludes with the deal made between prosecutors and the defense team that saw the men released in 2011.
The rarely used Alford plea allowed the men to be released on the condition that they admit the state had enough evidence to convict them should the case go to another trial. Essentially it allowed Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley to protest their innocence for the cameras whilst officially pleading guilty to the crime.
These later films have attracted criticisms for making allegations against some of the murdered boys fathers. Suspicion is cast variously upon both John Mark Byers and Terry Hobbs, often using the same kind of scant evidence and innuendo the film-makers accused the prosecution of using.
The case of the West Memphis Three would probably be unknown outside of Arkansas if not for these films and especially the high profile support Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley have received from the film and music industry.
Their advocacy catapulted the relatively obscure case into an international cause celebre, cited as a notorious miscarriage of justice in countless newspaper stories, magazine articles, books and television programs. West Memphis itself was widely depicted as a rural backwater with a corrupt and incompetent police and courts.
Little attention was paid to dissenting voices. Award-winning journalist Billy Sinclair began writing about crime and justice whilst serving a 40-year prison sentence for murder in the 1970s. Now released, Sinclair believes the West Memphis Three are guilty.
“I concluded, and am still convinced, that they were guilty,” he said. “My gut feeling is that if a person is truly innocent, who has spent 18 years fighting for his innocence, he’s not going to go and plead guilty to killing three 8-year-old boys unless he’s guilty.”
Are skeptics like Sinclair right? Were the West Memphis Three guilty of the murders of the children at Robin Hood Hills in 1993?
The murders were thought to have occurred sometime between about 6:30pm, when the boys were last seen, and 8pm. Although glossed over in Paradise Lost, none of the men have been able to produce a convincing alibi for this time.
In his May 10th interview, Echols states that was at home all night, talking to various girls on the phone. However, when police found and interviewed the four girls named in Echols’ statement, they all contradicted his account.
13-year-old Jennifer Bearden did talk to Damien a few times that day, but it was not during the time-frame of the murder. In her statement she says she called Echols at around 8pm but his grandmother answered and said he was out.
Two other girls, Heather Cliett and Holly George, also talked to Echols by phone that day, but were unable to contact him between about 9 and 10:30pm. The next day Holly later told Heather that Damien said he had been out “walking around” at the time.
Even more damaging for Echols is the testimony of the Hollingsworth family. Narlene Hollingsworth, along with three members of her family, were driving in the area of Robin Hood Hills at around 9:30pm when they saw Echols with his girlfriend Domini Teer walking along a road just 200 yards from where the bodies were found. According to the family, Echols was “covered in mud”.
All four of the Hollingsworth family knew Echols well, and their sighting was, and remains, a major problem for the innocence campaign. Not only does it place Damien Echols near the murder site at around the time the boys were killed, it contradicts his own alibi. The fact the murdered boys were found dumped in a muddy ditch also casts the observation that Echols was covered in mud in a further suspicious light.
Echols has continued to lie about his alibi in his many media interviews. In 2010, he told CNN – “At the time the police say the murders took place I was actually on the phone with three different people. The problem was, my attorneys never called them to the stand.”
Clearly, if Echols’ lawyers had evidence that he was elsewhere when the crimes occurred then they would have used it. That they don’t call the girls is because they would have contradicted their client’s alibi, an inconvenient fact that both Damien Echols and the Paradise Lost films are keen we don’t know.
There’s also no reason to believe the defense team wouldn’t have had access to the phone records for that night. Tellingly, since Echols would probably have been acquitted if the phone alibi story was true, they don’t use them.
Jason Baldwin’s alibi proved too flimsy and inconsistent to use at trial. His lawyers found it so difficult to piece together any coherent timeline of Jason’s whereabouts on the day that they took the unusual course of not presenting any alibi witnesses at all.
One of the defence team lawyers, Paul Ford, explained this decision in 2008 – “I concluded from my efforts that I did not find successfully what I was looking for, for the purposes of establishing an alibi that I felt would not unravel on me, which I believe is much more detrimental than not presenting one at all.”
Jessie Misskelley’s alibi initially looked stronger. His defence attorneys found several people who were willing to testify that Misskelley was attending a wrestling game in Dyess at the time of the murders. The wrestling story features prominently in Paradise Lost and West of Memphis, but the films leave out some important context.
In actual fact, the alibi largely crumbled under cross-examination, as the witnesses were inconsistent and contradicted each other. The prosecution team also produced a receipt which suggested the trip had probably occurred in April, before the murders. Tellingly, Misskelley never mentions the wrestling trip in any of his police statements
Is it really credible that none of the three accused men are able to provide a good alibi for the most infamous night in West Memphis history? Real innocent people are obviously somewhere else, and they leave a trace behind. If the men really are not guilty, then they are incredibly unlucky to be unable to convincingly account for their true whereabouts.
The films, and latterly Echols himself, have done a good job in portraying the then 18-year-old as an outsider who was persecuted in a small Christian community because he was a goth who had an interest in the occult. They concede he was suffering from angst and mild depression, but these are perfectly normal teenage problems.
What the innocence campaign studiously avoid is the fact that Echols was actually mentally ill at the time of the murders, a self-confessed psychopath with a long history of serious psychiatric problems.
Echols had been hospitalised for mental health issues twice the previous year, his behaviour often so extreme his own parents had become frightened of him. They told Echols’ case worker that they were “frightened of him and what he can do, not only to them but to other children that reside in the home.”
During the sentencing phase of the trial when it was apparent that Echols may face the death penalty, his defence team prepared a large dossier, known as Exhibit 500, detailing his psychiatric history over the previous few years. This was a standard procedure as it could be used as a mitigating factor in order to reduce a death sentence to life imprisonment.
This document had unintended consequences when it was made public due to the catalogue of aberrant behavior it detailed. Although downplayed by his advocates, the dossier details the deeply troubled mind of a young man teetering on the edge of psychopathy, who was prone to violence and suffering delusions of grandeur.
The report recounts Echols frequent homicidal and suicidal thoughts, how he was obsessed with satanism and the occult, believed he was possessed by a spirit called Rosey and even believed he was God.
Echols’ frequent aggression was also a major concern. Several expulsion reports from Echols’ school detail his routine threats and violence against his classmates. He attacked many of his friends and even tried to gouge out the eye of one boy. Two incidents are documented of him setting fire to his classroom.
The aggression extended to his family members. Whilst detained at Craighead County Juvenile Detention Center in 1992, a hospital’s psychological assessment reported that Echols was – “presently in detention in Jonesboro, picked up for violation of probation, threatened to slit parents throat and eat them alive.”
One recurring theme from the Exhibit 500 is Echols fixation with drinking blood. Several incidents are documented of him licking blood off other patients at hospital and trying to suck blood from people’s necks. One particularly disturbing episode is described in his psychological evaluation – “…one of the kids at the detention hall cut his wrists, Damien grabbed his arm and began to the suck the blood, smeared it over his body and said he’s a devil worshipping vampire.”
Echols himself felt he was so mentally ill that he could not work. At the time of the murders he had applied for and was receiving Social Security disability benefits for his psychiatric issues, describing himself on the application as – “Homicidal, suicidal, manic depression, schizophrenia, sociopathic”.
More lurid allegations that Echols murdered and dismembered a dog are difficult to verify, and hotly contested between both the pro and anti camps. However, there is already enough in Exhibit 500 to conclude Echols was a dangerous individual who exhibited enough red flags to believe he was at least capable of doing something as terrible as the murders he was charged with.
Another recurring feature of Echols’ behaviour is his compulsive lying. With the innocence campaign having almost entirely captured the mainstream narrative, Echols has been free to make several obvious and unchallenged lies about the case in many of his media interviews.
Amongst Echols’ most notable lies are his claim in 2010 that he did not live in West Memphis at the time of the murders. As established at the trial, on May 5th 1993, Echols actually lived at the Broadway Trailer Park in West Memphis, about two miles from the murder scene.
Echols has also stated on several occasions since his release that he hardly ever visited West Memphis and was not familiar with Robin Hood Hills, where the murders occurred, This is hard to square with the fact that he had once lived in the Mayfair Apartments, which overlooked the area. The apartments were so close to the murder scene that the crime scene tape was just yards from their front entrance.
In the 1992-93 timeframe, Echols would often be seen walking around the area of Robin Hood Hills, and even stated so himself at his in trial in 1994. His later attempts to distance himself from the crime scene are part of a wider attempt to rewrite the history of his involvement, something the films, especially the Echols produced West of Memphis, have allowed him to do with impunity.
By far the most egregious misrepresentation in Paradise Lost and its sequels concern Jessie Misskelley’s confessions. If the films are to be believed, Misskelley was a man with a very low IQ who was interrogated without representation for 12 hours until he broke down and falsely confessed to the murders.
The first misrepresentation concerns Misskelley’s IQ. It suited the defence case to portray Misskelley as borderline retarded as it re-enforced the narrative that he had been bullied into confessing by the police and his statements could not be trusted.
Undoubtedly Misskelley had quite a low IQ, he scored between 70 and 80 in various tests he was given. However, Misskelley was told by his lawyers a low IQ score would reduce the chance of him getting the death penalty. There is some evidence that his tests show signs of ‘malingering’, or deliberately acting dumb to try and achieve a low score.
Regardless of what his IQ tests say, Misskelley was a functional adult. He was literate, held down jobs and had relationships with women. He operated at the level of millions of other Americans who manage to lead normal lives without been particularly smart. He even enrolled in college after his release. He was certainly not the gullible, mentally retarded man-child he was often depicted as by innocence campaigners.
The key aspect of the false confession narrative advocated by Paradise Lost is that Misskelley was interrogated for 12 hours, without his parents permission or the presence of a lawyer. Even a cursory study of the police records show this to be untrue.
In actual fact, Misskelley was first contacted by the police as a witness. Sgt Mike Allen talked to his Misskelley’s father on the morning of the 3rd of June about interviewing Jessie. His father agreed and went and fetched his son, who was then driven to the police station by Allen. His father knew what was happening with his son at all times. He even went to the station mid-morning to sign a permission form to allow Misskelley to be administered a polygraph test. Misskelley failed the test.
It is often claimed by innocence advocates that Jessie Misskelley was not read his Miranda rights or did not understand his rights during this interview. This claim had been made so many times that it’s become a kind of article of faith, despite the fact it’s entirely untrue. The tapes and transcripts of the interview, aswell as two initialed forms, clearly reveal that Misskelley is actually read his rights on multiple occasions during the June 3rd interview.
Misskelley also fully understood what his rights were. He had had numerous prior encounters with law enforcement and had read and signed Miranda waivers on at least four occasions before. The transcript also reveals that Misskelley was offered, and turned down the opportunity to have a lawyer during this interview.
Misskelley arrived at the police station at about 10pm. He confessed to the crime at 2:20pm. Only a few hours of this 4 and a half hours actually consisted of interviews. There never was a 12-hour interrogation, it is an invention of the innocence campaign and Paradise Lost.
False confessions are quite well understood in criminology. They happen under situations of intense stress and pressure and are almost immediately retracted when the suspect is released from the pressure of the interrogation. Misskelley does not fit this pattern at all.
After his June 3rd confession, he makes numerous other confessions. Eight days later Misskelley confesses again, in private to his own defence lawyers Dan Stidham and Greg Crow. In further prison interviews with Stidham in February 1994, Misskelley confesses again, on one occasion with his hand on a bible.
After his conviction in February, Misskelley again admits he committed the crime to two police officers transporting him to prison. Then, in an extraordinary tape recorded conversation with his attorneys on February 17th , Misskelley stridently reaffirms his guilt as Stidham and Crow can be heard pleading with him not to. He is then interviewed by the prosecution team where he gives a long and detailed account of how he, Baldwin and Echols murdered the boys.
Paradise Lost and West of Memphis fail to mention the 17th February confession, or the many other confessions Misskelley made. They don’t fit the narrative of a mentally inadequate man been coerced into confessing by vicious police bullying. No explanation has ever been given as to how a man who apparently is coerced into falsely confessing is also able to confidently and defiantly resist the coercion of his own lawyers not to confess.
Some evidence exists to suggest Misskelley confessed even before the police first talked to him. A friend of Jessie Misskelley named Buddy Lucas told police that on May 6th Misskelley told him he was present when the boys were murdered. Lucas stated that Misskelley broke down and cried whilst talking to him. Numerous other witnesses, including Miskelley’s father’s girlfriend reported similar uncharacteristic crying fits from teenager in the days following the murders.
Although less central to the case, there were also some accounts of confessions to the crimes from Echols and Baldwin. Two peripheral friends of the boys, William Winford and Ken Watkins both reported to police that they had heard Echols claim responsibility for the murders.
A group of girls at a softball game also reported hearing Damien Echols brag about the crimes. Echols denied making the statements at his trial, and innocence campaigners have long rubbished the girls testimony. However, in later years, Echols admitted he did brag about killing the boys at the softball game, but stated he probably said it as a ‘joke’.
It is often claimed that no physical evidence connects the West Memphis Three to the murder of the boys at Robin Hood Hills. However, a knife found in the lake behind Jason Baldwin’s trailer provided a solid, if not entirely undisputed, link between the teenager and the crimes.
In November 1993, while the suspects were awaiting trial, West Memphis police began a search for evidence relating to the crime and quickly focused in on a large area of water behind the trailer park where Jason Baldwin lived at the time of the murders. This looked a likely place where possible murder weapons may have been disposed.
Police divers found various items in the lake, including footwear and a jacket. Amongst the items was a large survival type knife with a serrated edge and a circular opening in the base of the handle that had one held a screw in compass.
Police believed the saw like serrated edge of the knife matched some of regularly spaced, incised wounds observed on the bodies of Chris Byers and Steven Branch. At the trial, prosecution lawyers famously attempted to demonstrate how this knife could have made the wounds by using it on a grapefruit.
The prosecution also called witnesses who claimed to have seen the knife in Jason Baldwin’s trailer around the time of the murders. Deanna Holcomb, Damien Echols’ ex-girlfriend, also told the court that she had previously seen Echols with a similar knife.
The defense team and innocence advocates have tried to counter the knife evidence in various ways over the years. They have dismissed the knife like marks on the boys bodies as teeth marks or animal predation.
Paradise Lost 2 tries to argue some of the wounds were human bite marks and insinuates they were made by John Mark Byers, whose eccentric behaviour and recent dental surgery had caused rumours to spread in the local community that he may have been involved in the murders.
More recently, two forensic dentists have re-examined autopsy photos of the wounds and dismissed the bite mark thesis. Homer Campbell and Peter Loomis are both specialists in tool and bite mark identification who have given expert testimony in several court cases over the years. They both believe the wounds to the boys were produced by the so-called lake knife.
“I believe the injuries to the left forehead and upper lid of the left eye were produced by the knife recovered or one similar. I also sent the photos of the injuries and the knife to another for evaluation and he agrees”, Campbell stated.
Loomis measured the wounds to Steve Branch’s forehead and found they corresponded exactly to the dimensions of the knife. “The 3 lacerations under the eyebrow look like they were made by the serrations on the back side of the knife. The lacerations measure 11.2mm between them, and the serrated points on the knife vary between 11.1 and 11.4 mm”.
The circular butt of the Baldwin knife, measuring 29.8mm in diameter, also matched almost exactly the 30mm diameter of the circular wound that had been dismissed by the defence as a bite mark. The extraordinary way the size of the wounds precisely match the dimensions of the knife is striking.
Whilst speculation, if this knife had made the injuries to Branch’s forehead whilst the compass section was still intact, then the metal pin at the centre of the compass would also match exactly the clear x-shaped mark at the centre of the wound.
The knife is problematic for innocence advocates. It provides a solid forensic link between Jason Baldwin and the fatal wounds to Steven Branch. But like so much in the crime, this evidence is still far from conclusive and remains heavily disputed.
But if a knife almost exactly matching the size and nature of the wounds was found in the water behind Jason Baldwin’s trailer entirely by coincidence, and it is unrelated to either the men or the crime, then yet again the West Memphis Three have been extraordinarily unlucky.
At the trial, the prosecution presented several pieces of forensic evidence linking the suspects to the crime. The innocence campaign and the Paradise Lost films have rightly pointed out how weak much of this evidence is. The truth is, with the possible exception of the lake knife as discussed, no physical evidence firmly links either the West Memphis Three or any other suspect to the crimes.
Attorneys often bemoan the expectation modern juries have for DNA and forensic evidence in murder trials. This expectation has become known as the CSI Effect, fostered by the widespread use of often exaggerated crime scene forensics in films and television shows.
In reality, even today in an era of extremely sophisticated DNA techniques, very few criminal cases revolve around forensic evidence. One study has only 13% of criminal cases having any kind of forensic evidence at all, and it’s estimated that usable DNA evidence is left behind in only 4.5% of homicides.
The lack of DNA evidence at the murder site in Robin Hood Hills is sometimes cited as an argument for the boys innocence, but the truth is the absence of such evidence is much as would be expected, especially so because the boys were killed outdoors. Not only was the crime scene heavily contaminated by searchers and investigators, but the killers also dumped the bodies in water which washed off any forensic evidence that may have been present.
What evidence there was was inadequate as a serious argument for the men’s guilt. Fibre evidence presented by the prosecution was too vague and could have matched almost anyone, not just the suspects. Some of the other evidence used by the prosecution was tendentious at best.
Blue candle wax found on one of the victims clothing was only similar to wax found in Echols’ bedroom, and could have matched any number of other people who had candles in their home. DNA evidence found on Echols’ necklace was consistent with that of Steven Branch, but also millions of other people.
Whilst the frequent claim that Jessie Misskelley was coerced into confessing is not supported by the evidence, much of what he says is undermined by its inaccuracy. A large amount of Misskelley’s confession does not match the known details of the crime and Paradise Lost and the innocence campaign have done a good job in highlighting the manifest inconsistencies in his statements.
Whilst he does get some important details correct, there are enough major discrepancies to make it hard to reconcile them with Misskelley actually been present during the murders. Several times in his confessions he states that the victims were tied up with brown rope. This is untrue, they were tied up with their own shoelaces.
If Misskelley was present could he really have gotten such a basic detail wrong? The rope statement does sound like someone trying to imagine or guess how the crime was committed rather than having real first-hand knowledge. Misskelley almost certainly heard the many rumours about the crimes that were circulating in the area and this may also have coloured his statements.
Numerous similar factual discrepancies have been highlighted by innocence campaigners and are prominently featured in the Paradise Lost films. Misskelley tells police they skipped school that day and killed the boys around noon. They were actually killed in the late evening. He states that he witnessed Baldwin and Echols rape the boys, but the autopsies showed that this did not occur.
There are some possible explanations for the inconsistencies in Misskelley’s statements. By his own admission he was very drunk during the attacks, and the liquor bottle he says he threw under a bridge was later found by the police. He also admits to only been peripherally involved in the murders themselves. It’s at least plausible that a combination of intoxication and distance from the acts of murder themselves account for his inaccuracies.
We must also bear in mind that Misskelley, even if he was involved, was also a witness to a crime. Even genuine eyewitnesses are notoriously unreliable and often give details that prove to be entirely untrue. This is not evidence they did not witness the crime, just that the human memory is faulty and that when people are involved in shocking, chaotic and confusing events their recollections of them are often massively out of kilter with what actually happened.
The case of the West Memphis Three is a miasma of claim and counter claim. The murders are still fiercely debated online, largely curated by those who passionately believe in the innocence of the convicted men. The discussion is often bad-tempered with little ground given on either side.
There is no doubt that the campaign kicked off by Paradise Lost in 1996 has proven to be one of the most successful in legal history. It led to the release of the men, created global outrage about their plight and tainted the community of West Memphis with a lasting shame. This has lead to a great deal of resentment in the town about how they have been depicted in the media.
Whether the men are guilty or innocent may never be determined. Perhaps only another confession or the capture of the real killers will settle the matter once and for all. The polarised nature of the debate seems to force us to make a binary choice between two grave injustices – either three young men lost 18 years of their life for a crime they didn’t commit, or three heinous murderers were unfairly released.
Whatever the truth is, there was a real case against them back in 1994, regardless of what the makers of Paradise Lost and Damien Echols would now have us believe. It’s just sometimes, prejudice works both ways.