Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Opinion: West Memphis Three, Outrage in Arkansas

What's Wrong With the Case of the West Memphis Three? Nearly Everything.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Mara Leveritt. Also please see out feature story on the case: The West Memphis Three

I've been pretty outspoken these past few years regarding the West Memphis Three. In August 2010, when Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder, Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks, legendary singer Patti Smith and actor Johnny Depp took to a stage in Little Rock for a sold-out concert on behalf of these three men, I appeared along with death-row prisoner Damien Echols, one of the West Memphis Three, in a short video that was shown during the performance.

My role was to help explain the status of Echols' appeals. I did that, and added, for the benefit of the Arkansas audience, "This is our case and it's our disgrace."

Book cover: <em>Devil's Knot</em>
Book cover: Devil's Knot

I haven't always been so unreserved. When I wrote Devil's Knot, I worked hard to tell the story of the murders, the investigation and the trials as fairly and accurately possible, without inserting my opinion. I believed that only a thorough and rigorously unbiased account would allow readers to see for themselves the stunning audacity of the charges, the emptiness of the prosecutions, and the shameful judicial hand-washing that has sustained the convictions since.

In 2002, when Devil's Knot was published, one reviewer called the book "a deft and even-handed account of a legal travesty," and other reviewers agreed. Only Fiona Steel, in her review on this site, perceived a "clear bias" in my book and suspected that "some aspects of the story may be missing" because of it.

Mara Leveritt
Mara Leveritt

Ah, well. I can understand how outrage might creep in unbeknownst to even the best of writers attempting to tell this story. In Ms. Steel's own truTV account, she noted pretrial publicity could be seen as severely prejudicing the case; how it did appear that "the offer of a reward...was too much for some people to resist;" how the prosecutors' decision to try Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin together was necessary because "a case against Jason standing on its own merits would be very risky for the state;" how the credibility of a juvenile officer who testified was highly questionable; and how the whole thing ended up being an injustice, a case that went terribly wrong.

I went nowhere near that far in my book, and I certainly wouldn't have written, as Ms. Steel did, that the testimony by the prosecution's so-called expert in the occult was "a repetition of the many myths and fears surrounding witchcraft and Satanism which were widely known by the West Memphis community already." Or that his testimony "would have spoken deeply to the superstitions and fears of the jury and any attempt to refute them would probably have fallen on deaf ears." I think I avoided such speculation.

Because I took such care, the reputation of Devil's Knot has held up well. Only after the book had been out for a couple of years, when I'd heard an Arkansas official say one too many times that the only people criticizing the case were "outsiders" who didn't know the case facts, did I begin to advocate publicly for new trials. I am, after all, an Arkansan. And I do know in awful detail what transpired in the case of Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr.—the West Memphis Three.

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