Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The West Memphis Three


Devil's Knot
Devil's Knot

As the controversy continues over the case of these three young men, Jason, Jessie and Damien, another book was published at the end of 2002, seemingly launched from the questions raised in HBO documentaries and offering what author Mara Leveritt claims is "the true story." In Devil's Knot, Leveritt again lays out the case of the murders of three eight-year-old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. However, her clear bias detracts from the book's larger impact. It would have been better to tell the story in the way it unfolded, without commentary, and let the reader decide. She chooses instead to interpret for the reader those things that seem significant for her own ideas about the case. In addition, she makes the defendants into innocents, their defenders into tireless heroes, and everyone on the other side into backwoods ignoramuses who performed inept investigations, exaggerated evidence and covered up the crimes of another suspect.

Judge David Burnett
Judge David Burnett

There's no doubt that we have a judge in this case who acted like a referee deciding in favor of only one team, that we have a state legal system that was equally blind to serious legal problems, and that we have serious flaws in both the investigation and prosecution. However, not all of those who speak out for the defendants are without flaws. We have a criminal profiler, for example, who interprets the pathology evidence of crime scene photos well outside his expertise and who has been as much criticized for his self-promotion as has the prosecution's "self-styled" expert in satanic crimes. Leveritt goes after one but does not question the other. Her seeming reluctance to examine both sides equally hurts her case and gives the impression that she's writing this book as an activist rather than as a journalist.

To review, the three victims were battered and murdered on May 5, 1993 (one sexually mutilated), and three other boys were arrested and convicted, based principally on the confession of one. Everything hinged on Jessie Miskelley Jr.'s trial, in which his confession was clearly shown to be inconsistent and flawed, although the jury was still persuaded it was authentic and not coerced. While Leveritt says that they did not get to hear the full testimony of the defense's key witness on coerced confessions, Dr. Richard Ofshe, the trial records indicate that the jury certainly did hear his ideas about the techniques used to get the confession. He quoted from a study in the Stanford Law Review in which juries had convicted an innocent person in 350 cases, and 19 percent of those convictions were based on false confession. He also described the techniques of coercion used to obtain false confessions.

Jessie Miskelley Jr. prison ID photo
Jessie Miskelley Jr.
prison ID photo

That Miskelley did not have a lawyer present was a violation of his rights as a juvenile, yet this got through the system anyway, even on appeal, and kept the machine rolling into the trial of Jason and Damien. The case was weakest against Jason, who had no criminal record and only a superficial association with Damien, but who Miskelley claimed had been the most brutal of the three. No one quite knows why Miskelley felt so compelled to provide such graphic detail of the brutality inflicted on the victims, and his conclusion after years in prison that "if you didn't do it, don't ever admit that you did," is incomprehensibly idiotic under the circumstances, but Leveritt makes no comment.

Yet the prosecution and jury seemed most bent on locking up Damien, who had a professed interest in witchcraft, who had admitted to drinking blood, and who preferred to read horror novels. He was also bipolar and took medication to alleviate depression. The second trial focused on the alleged participation of the "killers" in the dark arts, or the occult, rather than on any telling physical evidence. It's true that a suspect knife was found buried in a lake near Damien's house (Leveritt hints that it was planted by investigators) and that some fibers seemed consistent enough to link the defendants to the victims, but the case against them was made primarily on the fabricated testimonies of people who later changed their stories, who were seeking reward money or who were shown to have been lying. All three young men were convicted and Damien was sentenced to die by lethal injection.

Since these convictions, many voices have been raised in protest over the investigation and trial proceedings, and in support of the convicted boys, claiming a travesty of justice. An activist Web site was set up on their behalf by three Californians, who continue to pursue the case. Yet despite all efforts, the Arkansas Supreme Court upheld the convictions.

Damien Echols prison ID photo
Damien Echols prison
ID photo

HBO produced two documentaries, airing them respectively in 1996 and 2000. The officials reacted, claiming that the program was biased and incomplete. The residents of West Memphis were duly insulted. They claimed that outsiders just did not understand, yet many of these so-called outsiders, appalled at the outright ignorance displayed in the films, flung further insults back at this seemingly self-righteous community where people still believed in a literal devil.

Leveritt, an Arkansas reporter familiar with local attitudes, decided to look into both sides of the issue. She interviewed many participants, read court transcripts, and looked at the evidence that she was allowed to examine. The question she explored was one of perception: could people in modern times still be so afraid of devil worship that they would react out of fear and convict three people of murder based on no evidence? In other words, "if presumably rational processes had given way to satanic allusions, it was fair to ask both how and why such a thing had happened."

Throughout the early part of the book, the spotlight is on John Mark Byers, the stepfather of one of the victims, Chris Byers. Given his checkered background, his brutality to family members, and his long list of crimes, he became a key suspect for the defense lawyers, the HBO filmmakers, and Leveritt herself. There is a strong implication in this book that he was close with the lead investigator, who was willing to overlook certain things, as well as with a judge who played an important role in the case. When Leveritt interprets his behaviors in a suspicious manner time and again, it's as if she is doing the same thing she accuses the investigators of doing: presuming guilt before he has been tried. That hurts her claim to objectivity, and by association, diminishes the impact of her thesis about the defendants.

Nevertheless, the shocking problems with the investigation are persuasively laid out, along with the social hysteria during the 1980s and early 1990s about widespread organized networks of Satanists. The way the media immediately assumed that "monstrous evil" was behind the gruesome murders indicts prominent news networks and magazines as much as it does the inept justice system in Arkansas. Other potential suspects—including one who confessed—were ignored, and several officials involved appeared not only to have been unqualified for their positions, but to some extent were outright voyeurs. They seemed, as Leveritt portrays them, to take great pleasure in the salacious details that they imagined about the murders. Apparently, a psychologist who assessed the so-called "ringleader" was not nearly as alarmed. Even Damien's supposed drinking of blood from friends seemed merely an adolescent fad.

Jason Baldwin prison ID photo
Jason Baldwin prison
ID photo

Much like the hundreds of children in the McMartin Preschool case that occupied the 1980s in California, where seven people's lives were ruined because untrained social workers coached children to create false scenarios of abuse, the story told by Miskelley, who claimed that he and his two cohorts killed the three victims, was both inconsistent with the evidence and patently absurd. Yet adults wanted to believe them. Investigators also seemed to think that this confession was their best shot at closing the case. Even though Miskelley recanted at one point, the momentum was too great to let go. This book, while undermining itself in places, is a good study of the social psychology of a bad investigation, where so little means so much.

Damien Echols had a perfectly good alibi, but the tug to pin this on Satan was strong in a conservative religious community like West Memphis. Damien did say some things that were taken to mean he had knowledge about the crime, so to some extent, he hurt his own case. Not only that, he adopted the air of an alienated adolescent who views himself as socially disaffected, even bad. Few jury members were charmed. However, Leveritt accepts the superficial media grouping of Damien Echols' favorite authors, Anne Rice, Dean Koontz and Stephen King. They are all labeled horror writers yet only King can truly be called that. Most of Koontz's novels emphasize the way ordinary people rise up to meet a larger-than-life bad guy and defeat him. They end on a high note. Anne Rice created universes for vampire characters, but they are more clearly in the genre of vampire romance than horror. She also has a family of witches who figured at that time in three novels, and Echols had said many times that he was interested in witchcraft in the religious sense, not in Satanism. Koontz has only one book in which a character builds an altar to Satan, and that character is destroyed. Rice has no such books.

Until one understands the distinctions among these authors, and then takes the time to learn what Damien Echols liked so much about these books, there's no way to know whether and how they might have influenced him. In fact, they could have exerted a positive influence, but assumptions got made by investigators, and Leveritt does nothing to clear them up. Each time she mentions any book that Damien read, she fails to provide much background. In a trial in which so much was riding on how Damien formed his character, this lack of analysis is disappointing.

In many ways, the meatiest part of this book is the section containing more than 400 references and notes. The real problems with the investigation, as well as with piecing together a coherent account, are shown in the many instances of confusion and inconsistent reporting.

It's also interesting to read about the incidents that occurred during the making of the documentaries, since these happened during the legal proceedings and afterward. For example, John Mark Byers gave the filmmakers a hunting knife with blood on it that turned out to be consistent with his stepson's, who had been castrated. They turned this over to the police. However, nothing much was made of it.

Similarly, the bite mark issue raised in one of the films was dealt with badly, both in the film and in this book. If there truly was an issue in which a bite mark could have exonerated the defendants, an exhumation could have been ordered to bring up the body and provide both sides with means for careful examination. As it stands, it appears to have been merely a side issue raised by a man with no training in forensic pathology and it was quickly dispensed with in the courtroom.

While there is much to appreciate about how this book offers behind-the-scenes investigative details and prosecutorial strategies, the author's apparent bias gives the impression that some aspects of the story may be missing. Certainly, everyone hopes that genuinely innocent people sitting in prison will be exonerated and freed, but this book will probably fall short in having much impact toward that end.

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