On May 6, 1993, the cold, rigid bodies of three children, inflicted with multiple stab wounds and bound hand-to-foot in a series of varying knots, were retrieved from a ditch in a wooded area behind the Blue Beacon Truck Wash in West Memphis. One boy had been castrated.
It was a heinous crime, and soon afterward, rumors of a possible link to satanic ritual began to spread. Suspicion quickly turned to Damien Echols and his friend Jason Baldwin, a couple of Marion, Arkansas, teens who had gained a notorious reputation locally for wearing black clothing and listening to heavy-metal music.
After police obtained a confession from an acquaintance of the two, a mentally handicapped teen named Jessie Misskelley Jr., Echols and Baldwin were arrested and charged with the murders. They maintained their innocence but were tried and convicted of first-degree murder, despite what critics of the verdict cited as a lack of hard evidence against them. Baldwin and Misskelley got life in prison. Echols was sentenced to death.
Almost 10 years later, Echols is still alive and all three defendants are appealing their cases. After a documentary on the case, Paradise Lost, aired on HBO, questions regarding the lack of evidence were raised nationwide. Many proclaimed the case was nothing more than a modern-day witch hunt. Arkansas Times reporter Mara Leveritt's new book Devil's Knot: The True Story of the West Memphis Three (Atria Books) attempts to tell the whole story from the first report of the victims' disappearances to the legal battles still going on today.
Flyer: Why has the case of the West Memphis Three piqued your interest? When did you get involved in covering it?
Mara Leveritt: I read about the murders as soon as they took place because they were sensational and widely reported. I was intrigued by what sounded like a very interesting motive that the police leaked after the arrests. They thought it had something to do with a satanic cult. I was very interested in what evidence might come out about that because I'd been reporting on crime and the criminal-justice system in Arkansas for some time, and I was aware that the FBI was saying there had been these scattered reports across the country of murders related to occult groups. The FBI issued a report saying they found no evidence in even one such case in all of the records they had checked, so if this was such a case, it was going to be -- as far as I knew -- the first one that had been confirmed.
After the trial, I read about it keenly, looking for what evidence would be brought to establish that this was such a crime. It seemed from what I was reading that there was not only no evidence of that but no evidence of any kind other than Jessie Misskelley's confession that was brought against the boys. And so after the trials were concluded and the police file was opened for the first time, I made a trip to West Memphis to look at it.
What's your opinion on the case?
I think the case was unfair, and I think the three who are in prison are innocent.
What were the biggest issues that signaled to you that the trial was unfair?
The search warrants: the way that they were procured and executed. A nighttime search is a very unusual thing, and I think that's highly suspect. The method used by police in the questioning of Jessie Misskelley Jr. The fact that the judge allowed a so-called expert witness in the occult, whose credentials have now been completely discredited, to testify when he limited the testimony of two much more credible witnesses.
How would you summarize the book?
The book is about the investigation of the murders and the trials of the three accused and a series of mistakes, errors, and possible corruption along the way that led to the result of a death sentence and two life sentences.
Why did you decide to write the book?
I felt that we had a situation where there was a lot of information that could not be compressed into documentaries. It was such a volume of information that it was hard to handle on the Web site [wm3.org]. I also felt that there was a lot of information I could get that wasn't available from any source. And through a book, I would be able to put that into one place where the whole story could be easily accessed. I feel that this case is a historic one and will be looked at for a long time to come. The kids have been in prison for almost 10 years now, but in the long term, it's still pretty current. The case is still being worked on.
What's the significance of the title, Devil's Knot?
We have these allusions to satanism and the occult that cropped up in the investigation and the trial. I started thinking about that in connection with the fact that the victims were all tied with several different types of knots. As I began to play around with those words in my mind, I realized that what it seemed to be was a devil's knot, referring to the legal ties that ended up binding the three defendants in this case.
Do you think your book could possibly open the minds of people who might be able to do something about the situation? What are your hopes?
While this case is going to have to be corrected in court with a legal proceeding, it did not unfold in a vacuum. It unfolded in the community, particularly in Arkansas, and I hope that Arkansans and people of this nation become more aware of things like the fact that we can send people to prison without evidence -- and even to execution without evidence. I want them to see the way we treat juveniles in this system and the way these kids' civil rights were treated -- their right to practice religion, their right of association, and, in particular, the right of expression -- the way those First Amendment rights were trashed. I hope that, as people become more aware of that, we'll all become more sensitive, not only to what happened in this case but what's happening in many others around us every day.
Have you had any complaints from the victims' families or anyone on the other side of this case?
Not that have come to me.
Did you actually interview Damien, Jason, and Jessie in prison? How are they holding up?
Damien has been placed in a cell on death row that is very isolated. It wasn't a punishment. It was just a decision in rearranging quarters for the inmates. That's been hard on him, but he's an avid reader. He's very intellectually active, so he's been able to deal with that, although it certainly has been hard on him. And as I mentioned in the book, he's married, and I think happily so. Jason is very involved in civic activities in the prison. He's a good inmate and is respected. He has a lot of leadership positions in the prison, and he has a girlfriend that he's very much in love with. And Jessie Misskelley is now in the same prison with Jason in Varner, Arkansas. All three had been in different prisons until fairly recently. They are able to have some contact. They run into each other.
How hard was it to gather information for the book? Did you have to use the Freedom of Information Act?
All of the case file was available at the police [station in West Memphis], although it was not well organized. The private investigator [Ron Lax] allowed me to reference his records, and, of course, the trial transcript is public record. Those three sources plus interviews were mainly what I worked with.
There are a few scenes in the book where two or three people are alone in a room talking and are referenced in direct quotes. Where did the quotes in the book come from?
Everything that I used in direct quotes came from police records as a quote from a transcript of a police recording. They came from transcripts of the trials where a clerk was transcribing exactly what was said. They came from recordings that were made by Ron Lax or my own interviews.
Damien claimed to be a Wiccan, a religion that doesn't believe in Satan, yet he was being accused of murdering the children during a satanic ritual. Why didn't the defense ever call an authority on Wicca and witchcraft to clear that up?
When you read the part about the trial, you'll see there was some question as to whether the prosecution was even going to raise the issue of Wicca and the occult. My understanding is that the defense attorneys didn't believe it was going to happen, so they were not prepared to defend against that.
Damien's reading choices and poetry were used as evidence against him. Is that common in capital murder cases? Doesn't that violate First Amendment rights?
I find that to be one of the most distressing parts of this whole story: that the prosecution used Damien's choices in reading, his own poetry and writing, his style of dress, and his choices of music against him in the trial. It was not to prove that he had done the crime, but since it was entirely a circumstantial case, it was to suggest to the jury, as Fogleman told me, the state of mind of someone who could have committed such a crime. I think that when these kinds of tactics are used in trials, we all have to be very concerned, because if reading Stephen King suggests the state of mind of someone who might commit such a crime, then millions of people in this country have that state of mind. That type of approach in a trial that hung entirely on circumstantial evidence and lacked anything with more substance is one of the big concerns I think we all should have about these trials. It was one of the reasons I wanted to write the book.
In your book, it seems like Judge Burnett granted all the prosecution's requests and turned down most of the defense's. Do you think the judge was biased against the defense from the start?
I tried not to go into the minds of anybody dealing with this case, and I'm not going to do that now. I think their actions speak well enough.
Damien's new defense lawyer, Edward Mallett, is quoted in the book as saying, "Courts don't look favorably on young people's groups and Web sites." Do you think that support groups such as wm3.org can make a difference?
I think that public support indicates the climate in which these trials occur. For instance, at the time of the trials, the prevailing opinion in Northeast Arkansas, according to the defense attorneys, was that the three were guilty. The climate in which these things happen often does not have an official effect, but it does have an effect on what happens in a courtroom. I think that it's important now for people to make it clear that we don't live in the Middle Ages in Arkansas. We do like to have rational proof. That kind of public attitude, I think, can have an effect.
What do you think of the speculation that the real killer could have been John Mark Byers, the stepfather of one of the victims?
I think that there are at least other two suspects in this case: Byers and the Bojangles guy. [The police responded to a call involving a bloody African-American man cleaning himself in the restaurant's bathroom on the night the victims disappeared.] I think both of those suspects are better choices than any of the three kids who were arrested and convicted in this case.
Have any developments been made on the case since you finished writing the book? Is Echols still awaiting a ruling from the Arkansas Supreme Court for his appeal and petition?
His lawyers have asked for an extension on that, and the court has granted it. So what might have happened before the end of this year now looks like it might happen next spring. Jessie had put in a request for the testing of the DNA, and Damien has joined in that request now. There was to have been a hearing on that in November, but the lawyers have also asked for more time to prepare. All of these things look like they'll be postponed until after the first of the year. Jason also has new lawyers, and they're all working together.
There was some controversy about whether or not Damien would be allowed to read certain books in prison, such as Elaine Pagels' The Origin of Satan and The Gnostic Gospels. What happened with that situation?
He was never allowed to read The Origin of Satan. That was a fine book, and anyone who's familiar with Elaine Pagels knows she's a respected scholar. But all three of them enjoy getting books. Anybody who sends them books has to order them from an online source where it's sent directly from the company or from a bookstore where the book is mailed directly from a store. The prison doesn't want books that might have contraband stuffed inside.
Do you think Echols will be allowed to read your book?
He already has. All three have received the book. At least two of them have finished it.
The Deposistion of Elizabeth Hubbard agged about 17 years who testifieth and saith that on the 28 February 1691/92 I saw the Apperishtion of Sarah Good who did most greviously afflect me by pinching and pricking me and so she continewed hurting of me tell the first day of March. -- from the trial transcript of accused witch Sarah Good, Salem, Massachusetts, 1692
Several women, many of them no older than 17, also accused Good of appearing to them in ghost form and harassing them with pinches and pricks. Others accused her of bewitching their cattle, resulting in premature deaths. Good and several others were found guilty by the county of Essex, Massachusetts, and sentenced "to be hanged by the Neck untill they be dead."
March 17, 1994, the trial of Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin: "In looking at young people involved in the occult, do you see any particular type of dress or jewelry or body markings, anything like that?" prosecutor John Fogleman asked.
"I have personally observed people wearing black fingernails, having their hair painted black, wearing black T-shirts, black dungarees, that type of thing," occult-expert witness D.W. Griffis said.
The passages are from Devil's Knot, a new book on the trials of the West Memphis Three by Arkansas Times reporter Mara Leveritt. The similarity between testimony in the Salem witch trials and in the West Memphis case is striking, as much for its absurdity as anything. West Memphis police confiscated 11 black T-shirts from the home of Jason Baldwin and books by Stephen King and Anne Rice from Echols' home to be used as evidence against them. And like Good more than 300 years earlier, Echols was sentenced to death.
Leveritt asks her readers to consider the Salem witch trials as they read a tale that closely resembles a modern-day witch hunt.
Any good reporter knows that you tell the whole story and you never attempt to sway readers one way or the other. You are to remain objective -- tell the facts. And Leveritt does just that. Although she states her opinion bluntly in the prologue, she never reveals it in the body of the book. She blends the facts from trial transcripts, police files, and personal interviews into an easy-to-follow narrative and allows her readers to draw their own conclusions.
The book reports on the injustices that took place in the courtroom but also reveals new information about the case. For instance, Arkansas state police were actually investigating several members of the West Memphis police force at the time the small-town cops were investigating the West Memphis murders. Why? Missing drugs and guns from the police evidence locker.
But Leveritt also points out the faults of the accused. Although Damien Echols maintained his innocence throughout the trial, he sure didn't do himself any favors by his behavior. Sneering for press cameras and blowing kisses to the victims' families outside the courtroom may have partially led to his conviction.
Leveritt manages to paint compelling portraits of all three of the accused boys, not just freak-show poster child Echols. Her profile of Jason Baldwin reveals a quiet, smart kid who just happened to be friends with the town weirdo. Jessie Misskelley Jr. is the classic small-town, mentally handicapped guy whom you can't help but feel a little sorry for. If you don't have any compassion for the three, you will after reading Leveritt's book.
The text on the court proceedings makes for some dry reading, but Leveritt packs the section full of quotes that give the reader a sense of being there. The book is as compelling as a novel. Devil's Knot is hard to put down. And though it's a story that remains unfinished, there's little doubt that the eventual ending won't involve anyone living happily ever after. -- BP
The case of the West Memphis Three may be old news, but almost 10 years later, there are still a number of inconsistencies and questions left unanswered. Mara Leveritt's book Devil's Knot: The True Story of the West Memphis Three raises those questions again.
* On the night of the victims' disappearances, the manager of a Bojangles restaurant called West Memphis police to report that a disoriented African-American man, covered in blood, had entered the women's restroom to clean himself off. The police showed up and took blood samples, which were mysteriously lost. How did they manage to lose what could have been valuable evidence?
* Why did it take over a month for medical examiner Dr. Frank Peretti to release the autopsy reports?
* Vicki Hutcheson, a West Memphis woman who took it upon herself to play detective, testified in Jessie Misskelley's trial that she had ridden with Damien Echols to a satanic "esbat" in hopes of finding proof that the boys were involved in satanism. Later, she retracted the comments in an interview with private investigator Glori Shettles. She said she "feels that she went, but she was drunk and is not sure with whom she went," and she recalled that the meeting was in Turrell, Arkansas, but "cannot recall if Damien and Jessie went with her or not." Why does this new information not warrant a mistrial?
* Why did blood on a knife that John Mark Byers (stepfather of Christopher, one of the victims) gave the crew of the documentary Paradise Lost match that of his stepson? And why was he trying to get rid of it by pawning it off on the film crew? Did his status as a drug informant for Shelby County police have anything to do with the fact that he wasn't given more consideration as a suspect?
* Why did police insist that the murders took place where the bodies were found, considering the lack of blood at the scene?
* After refusing to comment during Misskelley's trial, medical examiner Peretti finally came forward with the victims' estimated time of death during Echols and Baldwin's trial. He said the boys were killed somewhere between 1 a.m. and 5 or 7 a.m., which contradicted what Misskelley had said in his confession. Why was the medical examiner's estimation of the time of death not taken into consideration? -- BP