The Paradise Lost films never dealt with Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley’s alleged alibis in any detail. The new film West of Memphis fills that gap with lots of alibi claims. Our case history section has a page devoted to the murderers’ failed alibis. This post looks at one particular alibi witness whose name has popped up repeatedly over the years and who shows up in West of Memphis: Jennifer Bearden.
Timeline background: many locals reported seeing the three murdered boys between 5:30 pm and 6:30 pm within a block or two of the entrance to Robin Hood Hills. They were last seen heading into Robin Hood Hills around 6:30 pm. Police, family members and friends started searching in and around Robin Hood around 8:15 pm. All the evidence indicates that the murders took place sometime between 6:30 and 8:00 pm near the ditch where the children’s bodies were found.
Echols changed his alibi several times. At trial, he claimed that his parents and sister picked him up around 4:00 pm on May 5 and drove him home. Aside from a family visit to the Sanders home between 7:00 and 7:30 pm, he was home all afternoon and night with his parents and grandmother. Echols stated on the witness stand that he talked to four different girls on the phone that night: “Holly George, Jennifer Bearden, Domini Teer, Heather Cliett”.
However, the Echols defense did not call any of George, Bearden, Teer or Cliett as alibi witnesses. There was a good reason for this. The police had interviewed all four girls, and none of them supported Echols’ alibi. They all claimed to have talked to Echols by phone on May 5, but none of those calls took place between 5:30 pm and 9:20 pm. Obviously phone calls before 5:30 pm or after 9:20 pm are irrelevant to Echols’ whereabouts between 6:30 and 8:00 pm. And on key points, all four girls’ earlier statements to police contradicted the story that Echols told on the witness stand.
Filmmakers don’t have to worry about cross-examination or explaining contradictions, of course.
Jennifer Bearden was 12 years old at the time of the murders. In a 2004 affidavit, she described her relationship with Echols:
It was in either late February or March of 1993 that Holly [George] and I met Jason and Damien. […] From the time that I met them to [the day prior to their arrest], I talked to Damien almost every day on the phone. […] I also saw Jason and Damien at Skateworld almost every weekend after we first met them. […] Damien and I had been an item, meaning that Damien and I had a teenager’s boy-girl relationship.
Bearden talked to WMPD detectives in September 1993. (The film shows Bearden reading from a transcript of this interview.) She told them that on May 5 she (a) called Baldwin’s house and spoke to both Jason and Damien sometime between 4:15 and 5:30 pm; (b) tried calling Echols at home at 8:00 PM, at which time Damien’s grandmother said Damien was not home; then (c) “I called back around 9:20, 9:30 and I talk to [Damien] for a little bit”. In this later call, she said Damien told her that he had been out with Jason Baldwin that evening. In her 2004 affidavit, Bearden repeated this account with slight variation: the phone call in which Damien’s grandmother told her Damien wasn’t home was a little after 9:00 pm, and her phone call with Damien “began at around 9:30 pm and ended around 10:00 pm”. Bearden again repeated this account at the Baldwin/Misskelley Rule 37 hearings in 2009, with the grandmother call sometime between 8:30 and 9:00 pm.
The problems for Echols’ alibi should be obvious. By her own account, Bearden had no knowledge of Echols’ whereabouts between 5:30 and 9:20 pm. Her statement that Echols was at Baldwin’s house around 4:30-5:00 pm directly contradicted Echols’ claim that he was at his own home (several miles away) then. Her statement that Echols was not home at 8:00 pm (or 9:00 pm or 8:30 pm) directly contradicted Echols’ claim to have been home all night. Echols claimed he did not spend any time with Baldwin on the afternoon or evening of May 5 — but Bearden told detectives that Echols told her at 9:30 pm that he had been out that evening with Baldwin.
In West of Memphis, Bearden complains that she was “never given a chance” to testify at the Echols/Baldwin trial. Never given a chance by whom? Echols’ defense lawyers had the opportunity to call Jennifer Bearden as a witness in 1994. They chose not to. The prosecution actually obtained an “Order for Attendance of Witness From Without the State” requiring Bearden to be available to testify. Repeat: the prosecution made sure she was on hand to testify, and the defense chose not to call her.
Despite all this, Echols’ appellate lawyers have continued to cite Bearden as an important alibi witness. One 2008 petition for a new trial included this bald-faced lie: “the declaration of Jennifer Bearden, who has absolutely no reason to perjure herself to assist Echols, puts him on the phone with her at the time the boys disappeared miles away.” Speculation about Bearden’s motives or honesty aside, the fact remains that the boys disappeared at 6:30 pm, while Bearden’s declaration puts Echols on the phone at 9:30 pm.
Echols’ lawyer Dennis Riordan used the same ploy in 2010 oral arguments before the Arkansas Supreme Court.
ASSC (Justice Robert Brown): I’m talking about consideration as to whether a new trial should be granted under the standard of compelling evidence. What evidence would be considered?
Riordan: Your Honor, we would submit that — that the answer to that question lies in section 208(e)(3) which says that the court is to consider the DNA evidence along with all other evidence whether or not admitted at the first trial. There’s certainly nothing in the term “all” that would suggest all means only some and some means only evidence of guilt. But let me give you an example. We submitted to the court a declaration from a witness who at the time of these offenses or soon thereafter in 1993 was interviewed by the police and stated that she was on the phone with Mr. Echols at 9:00 which would have made his participation in these crimes impossible.
The ASSC justices apparently did not know what time the three murdered boys went missing, because no one challenged Riordan’s claim.
An adversarial system of justice permits defense lawyers to play fast and loose with the facts. But what about documentary filmmakers? Should audiences expect more honesty?
The filmmakers behind West of Memphis have been immersed in this case longer than I have. They know what Jennifer Bearden said in 1993 and 2004 and 2009. They know that her account never supported Echols’ alibi. They know that Echols’ defense lawyers chose not to call Bearden as a witness in 1994. There’s no ambiguity here. For them to include Bearden in the movie as supporting Echols’ alibi is flatout intentional deception.