A crucial witness says her testimony in the West Memphis Three case wasn't true, but a product of police pressure to get results in the death of three children.
A woman who provided crucial testimony in the West Memphis 3 case now says her testimony was a complete fabrication.
Victoria (Vicki) Hutcheson says she was told what to say by West Memphis Police Department detectives, and that if she did not testify as instructed they could take her child away from her and implicate her in the slayings.
She also says the police hid her from defense attorneys after she testified in the first of the case's two trials, and that she knows of at least one piece of evidence destroyed by police.
Hutcheson's son Aaron, who was 8 years old at the time of the slayings and a close friend of two of the three little boys who were brutally murdered in 1993, is also recanting statements he made shortly after the murders. Aaron, now 18, says police "tricked" him and led him to say things that were not true.
Aaron's interviews with the West Memphis police were used to back up their theory that the slayings were related to the occult and to tie the teen-agers - now famously known as the West Memphis 3 - to the killings.
Assistant Police Chief Mike Allen dismisses Hutcheson's account. "It appears that Vicki Hutcheson is trying to get her 15 minutes of fame," he said.
Allen noted that she'd testified under oath in the trial of one of the three - Jessie Misskelly Jr. - and that the defense had a chance to cross-examine her. "I don't know anything about Vicki Hutcheson or her motives for over 11 years later coming out and lying about the events of 1993, but I can say that the case gets more bizarre everyday."
Hutcheson testified only in Misskelley's trial. Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin were tried together later. Misskelley and Baldwin are serving life sentences. Echols was sentenced to die. All three are appealing.
Mara Leveritt, a Times contributor and author of a book, "Devil's Knot," about the case, puts Hutcheson's significance this way:
Hutcheson's interviews with police gave them a theory to build a case around. With that theory, and a confession from the 17-year-old Misskelley, whose IQ was subnormal, police had what they needed to arrest Damien Echols, 18, and Jason Baldwin, 16.
The prosecutor had little else in the way of solid evidence and Misskelley soon recanted his confession. Nonetheless, the confession was leaked to a Memphis newspaper, which put it on the front page, and it was raised by the prosecution in the trial of Echols and Baldwin.
Dan Stidham, defense attorney for Misskelley, said that Hutcheson's testimony in Misskelley's trial was critical in all three convictions. "Vicki Hutcheson's testimony was crucial to the prosecution because it was the only real corroboration that they had for Misskelley's ridiculous statement to the police. Even though she did not testify in the next trial of Echols and Baldwin just two weeks after Misskelley's trial, everyone on the jury in Jonesboro knew about Misskelley's statement and Hutcheson's testimony.
"Hutcheson's recantation of her trial testimony was not all that shocking to me in that I have always known that she was lying. The real shocking thing to me about her recantation is the level of misconduct on the part of the West Memphis police. It obviously knew no boundaries." Stidham, a district judge in Paragould, no longer works on the case, but follows it closely.
On May 5, 1993, three 8-year-old boys - Michael Moore, Stevie Branch and Christopher Byers - were savagely murdered in a wooded area near Interstate 40 in West Memphis. One of the boys was sexually mutilated.
After a month passed with no promising leads, police turned to three local teen-aged boys - Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley - and charged them with the murders. To establish a motive, the police and prosecutor said the three were devil worshippers and had killed the three younger boys as part of an occult ceremony.
In four recent interviews, Hutcheson said she has been carrying the burden of putting three innocent boys in the penitentiary and can no longer keep the truth bottled up.
"I lied, instead of trusting in God," she says. "I was raised in a Pentecostal home and I knew to do right but instead I let the West Memphis Police Department scare me to death."
Hutcheson became linked to the case on May 6 - the day after the boys had gone missing, but before their bodies had been found - when she and Aaron were at the Marion Police Department on unrelated business.
Marion police officer Donald Bray tried to strike up a conversation with Aaron, who at first wouldn't talk or make eye contact. But eventually Aaron warmed up to Bray and told him two of the boys missing in West Memphis were his best friends.
The children's bodies were found while Hutcheson and Aaron were still in Bray's office. After talking with Aaron alone, Bray notified the West Memphis police that the child had told him he witnessed the murders.
But in a recent interview, Aaron said he is no longer sure whether he actually witnessed the murders or whether his mind was playing tricks on him during a traumatic period. The West Memphis police paid little attention to the changing and contradictory accounts he told or to the possibility that he could have gotten his version of events from news reports and neighborhood gossip. (See sidebar.)
Bray met with Vicki and Aaron Hutcheson again a week later. He told her he suspected the killings were somehow linked to the occult or devil worshippers.
At this point, Hutcheson decided to "play detective," to try to determine if a boy mentioned by Bray - Damien Echols - was guilty.
Hutcheson denies accusations she was offered a reward to help the police. Bray, who might have known whether a reward was a factor, suffered a debilitating stroke shortly after the trials.
The 'lost' recording
When Hutcheson learned that a 17-year-old neighbor named Jessie Misskelley knew Damien, she asked Jessie to introduce her to him.
Jessie did so and the three of them met in Hutcheson's trailer one evening. She reported on the meeting to the West Memphis police the next morning.
The police encouraged Hutcheson to bring Damien back to her trailer, and obtained her permission for them to install a listening device under her bed, with the microphone attached to a lamp in the living room area.
"They put the recorder under the bed," she says. "It was a fancy one with several reels of tape so that one would begin when the other was filled."
Police suggested she tell Damien she was interested in becoming a witch, and that she check out books on witchcraft from the library to leave in prominent places in the trailer. (She didn't have a library card, so one of the detectives lent her his.)
Hutcheson turned the recorder on when Damien showed up a few days later. Hutcheson says he just laughed when she said she wanted to become a witch.
She told him she had heard that he liked to suck blood. Damien said he encouraged such stories as a "mechanism" to keep people from prying into his life.
"What's a mechanism?" she asked. She says Damien replied, "It means leave me the fuck alone."
Damien never said anything incriminating during the conversation, Hutcheson says.
The police retrieved the tapes the next morning, and asked her the following day to come to the police station to listen to portions of them.
"They would play parts of the tape and then stop it and ask me a question like, " 'Well what did he mean by that?' "
She said West Memphis Det. Bryn Ridge changed the tapes while Gary Gitchell, the department's chief detective, asked the questions.
"The quality of the tape was excellent," says Hutcheson. "You could hear Jessie, you could hear me, you could hear my roommate Christy. You could hear Damien excellent because he was sitting right next to the lamp."
But, according to the West Memphis police, the tape was of such poor quality it was not usable. Later, the police said they lost the tape.
Today, assistant chief Allen says he'd listened to the tape and it was not intelligible. "I also asked several other individuals about what I remembered about the tape and they remembered the same thing - that there was loud music playing in the background and you couldn't hear what was said."
Hutcheson says that on the day she was called in to review the tape, she noticed that photos of Echols, Misskelley and Baldwin had been put above Gitchell's desk and were being used as a dart board.
"I said that was absolutely uncalled for and Gitchell laughed. And he thought that was funny that I would take that personally. ... They already had their minds made up."
In Misskelley's trial, Hutcheson testified that she had personal knowledge that Misskelley, Echols, and Baldwin were involved with the occult.
Lacking solid evidence or leads and under intense public pressure, the police decided to pursue the "occult" angle. For that, they needed some shard of evidence to persuade the jury. According to Hutcheson, they chose her for the dirty work.
The highlight of Hutcheson's testimony was her description of a witches' meeting she said she'd been taken to by Damien Echols, with Misskelley along for the ride.
"Every word of it," she now says, "was a lie."
Hutcheson says she first thought it would be fun to cooperate with the police and "play detective." Within a few weeks, though, she had become enmeshed in a web she'd never imagined.
Hutcheson's testimony was a repetition of a statement she made to Detective Ridge on May 28. In this statement Hutcheson appears to tell the police without prompting that she attended an "esbat" (a witches' meeting) and that Damien Echols took her there. She said Misskelley went along.
Hutcheson says this May 28 statement followed a number of earlier interviews, of which there are no records. In those earlier interviews, she says, police told her what to say.
"It was like this: I was either going to say exactly what they needed - or else. 'We're going to make this easy on you, Victoria, and you're just going to say exactly what we need or things can get rough on you. You could be implicated in this murder. You could lose your son.' "
Hutcheson was susceptible to police pressure at that point in her life. She had been a suspect in another crime. "I was just … I didn't know what to do," she remembers.
In 1992, Hutcheson and her second husband moved from Fayetteville, where she'd worked as a legal secretary, to West Memphis. They moved into a comfortable three-bedroom home.
But then, she says, her husband walked out on the family, and Hutcheson and her two sons had to move into a house trailer.
She describes her situation this way: "My husband had just left me. I'm in a town I don't know. I have no money, a truck about ready to break down and a job on the line. I've got a child that's ADD. I'm paying $90 for his medications.
"There were times that I got down on my knees and said 'God, what is it? What have I done to deserve this?' "
The witches' meeting
Hutcheson said the "witches' meeting" was dreamed up by Jerry Driver, a county juvenile officer, at a meeting detectives held at Bray's storage facility in Marion.
(Hutcheson says that such meetings were part of a pattern. Rather than at police headquarters, they interviewed her either at a commercial storage facility owned by Bray, or at the Crittenden County Drug Task Force office, several blocks from police headquarters.)
Driver considered himself an expert on the occult, and had been watching Echols, whom he considered suspicious, for years. Gitchell and Bray were also at the meeting, Hutcheson says.
"Well, we were sitting there and he [Driver] goes, 'Okay, what really needs doing here is, I guess that maybe Victoria goes to one of those meetings they have - an esbat.'
"I'm not stupid, I knew what they wanted me to do. But I had no idea what an esbat meeting was, so he defined it for me."
Hutcheson says that when detectives tape recorded interviews with her, "they would shut the tape off, and tell me, 'No, that's not how it happened, Victoria. You come up with something better.' "
She says she believed their threat to implicate her in the murders if she did not agree to lie on the stand.
"Gitchell said to me, 'Don't you understand you could be the link between the two? On the one hand, you knew Michael and Christopher. And on the other hand, you know Jessie, and you've had Damien over to your house.'
"Of course, Damien was at my house for the police, but now they've got me as knowing Damien."
Even when she agreed to comply, Hutcheson says, the detectives were worried that she might flub the testimony.
When the Misskelley trial began in January 1994, Hutcheson says she was still so nervous she did not know if she would be able to pull it off either, though she'd been prescribed Valium.
On the day she was to testify, she says, she was kept in the judge's chambers while the trial proceeded.
"Gitchell and Ridge came back from time to time and they would ask, 'Are you sure you're going to be okay, do you need to take some more medication?' "
At one point she told them she did, so one of the detectives went to the spectators' area in the courtroom and solicited Valium tablets from the mother of one of the victims.
"We were all given the same thing, you know. We all went to East Arkansas Mental Health Clinic."
Hutcheson added that Brent Davis, one of the prosecuting attorneys, "would come back to check on me and say 'remember you're going to say this or that.' "
She also claims that assistant chief Allen, then a West Memphis detective, told her officials would arrange for her to leave town after the first trial, because they did not want her or Aaron available to defense attorneys in the second trial.
"They told me I would have to go to a place where defense attorneys couldn't find me - and I was all for that!"
She says she was given directions to a motel in Memphis where she and Aaron stayed during the second trial.
Today Allen says, "I never had any knowledge of Vicki Hutcheson being placed in a motel." He also says he never saw Jerry Driver at the police department during the investigation. He was a juvenile officer in Marion and had "very little" to do with the case.
A question of motives
If Hutcheson lied in 1994, why should she be believed today? And what moved her to come forth now, 10 years after the trials? There are reasons why Hutcheson might be better off by remaining silent.
Since the 1993 murders, Hutcheson has been to prison four times, for using drugs and writing hot checks. She is still on parole.
It is unlikely her coming forward now will make her popular with the law enforcement communities that have so much control over her life.
Hutcheson says she is speaking out now because of the ministry she encountered in prison. "I learned some principles in my life," she says. "And I learned, in order for God to forgive me, I had to clear my conscience."
In April, Hutcheson was talking with her Fayetteville attorney, Mima Cazort, about a Social Security issue. Cazort was questioning Hutcheson about her health when Hutcheson broke down and said she had been carrying around a secret that she thought had taken a toll on her health.
Hutcheson told Cazort her story, and said she wanted to do what she could to free three innocent boys from prison. Cazort asked Hutcheson if she wanted to go public with her story, and she replied that she did.
"Jerry Driver planted those boys … And I guess I implicated Jessie, because I said I know Jessie and Jessie knows Damien ...
"I guess I'm the whole reason Jessie is locked up. And that makes me very, very - I can't tell you what it does to me.
"And that's why I'm doing this now. I have to clear my conscience not just for me but for God. And I can't live like this anymore, with this on my shoulders.
"I know what I did was wrong, and I should have stood up to the police and done what was right no matter what.
"They had me so scared, and I seen what they were doing.
"I seen 'em set up three boys for murder, and not just one murder but three. And getting by with it.
"And who was I? They were going to put me right in the middle of it.
"I was scared. I mean I was scared to death."
Tim Hackler is a writer who lives in Fayetteville.
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