Devil's Knot: The True Story of the West Memphis Three, by Mara Leveritt, New York: Atria Books, 417 pages, $24
On the afternoon of May 6, 1993, the dead bodies of three 8-year-old boys were discovered less than half a mile from their homes in West Memphis, Arkansas. Stevie Branch, Christopher Byers, and Michael Moore were found naked, beaten, bound hand to foot with their shoelaces, and submerged in a water-filled ditch. Christopher Byers had been castrated. Four weeks later, West Memphis police announced the arrests of 18-year-old Damien Echols, 17-year-old Jessie Misskelley Jr., and 16-year-old Jason Baldwin, soon known as the West Memphis Three.
After six hours of questioning without a parent or lawyer present, Misskelley, a special education dropout with a history of behavior problems and an IQ of 72, implicated himself, Baldwin, and Echols during a rambling, factually impossible "confession" that he subsequently retracted.
"Most of his answers were vague," writes Mara Leveritt in Devil's Knot: The True Story of the West Memphis Three, her new book on the case. "Many were contradictory. Almost all began with a prompt by one of the detectives." The next morning, without a shred of physical evidence, the police announced they had their men. Although no one said so at the time, the official theory held the killings to be "satanic" in nature.
Leveritt, a contributing editor to the Arkansas Times and 1992's Arkansas Reporter of the Year, had a front row seat. She watched as the three were tried, dubiously linked to the occult, and convicted of murder. During the trial of Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin, the prosecuting attorney actually defined occult activity for the court as, in part, "an obsession with heavy metal music, change in forms of dress, wearing all black. And I believe the proof will show that [Baldwin] had fifteen shirts with the heavy metal thing."
Determined to find out whether "something similar to what happened at Salem had indeed occurred again," Leveritt set out in search of the truth. The result is a horrifying and infuriating look at how moral panics over youth culture can lead to the denial of justice. New ways for the young to entertain and identify themselves constantly arise, and these new ways often lead to prejudiced and absurd overreactions on the part of many authority figures.
For example, after the 1999 shootings at Colorado's Columbine High School, parents, teachers, and politicians fretted over black trench coats, video games, and the songs of Marilyn Manson. In 1992, when 18-year-old Wayne Lo went on a shooting spree at Simon's Rock College while wearing a shirt advertising the hard-core band Sick of It All, the group's aggressive lyrics became a part of the story. Rap star Eminem is regularly criticized -- and has been the subject of congressional hearings -- for allegedly fomenting homophobia, misogyny, and plain old violence. Congress is now equating electronic music events -- "raves" -- with depraved crackhouses, and suburban soccer moms are snooping for glow sticks.
The results of such moral panics are frequently just more additions to the history of misguided rhetoric -- though we shouldn't underestimate how hard such panics make social life and relationships with parents for kids with the demonized interests. In the case that Leveritt examines in Devil's Knot, the panic looks apt to cost at least one innocent youth his life.
Leveritt details a real-life horror show with six young victims: three brutally murdered, two in prison for life, and one, Damien Echols, on death row. She describes an investigation beset with problems and teeming with irregularities. The crime scene offered little physical evidence, including a complete lack of blood, a remarkable fact given the brutality involved. This scarcity of information, combined with the sensational nature of the murders, gave rise to wild speculation. "With the devil so prominent in news reports, ministers were quoted as experts," Leveritt notes. "Reporting on satanism beat skepticism, hands down."
Satanically speaking, the police actually had significant cause for skepticism. Not only did the crime scene lack blood, but there were no signs of ritual activity: no pentagrams, ceremonial candles, or the like. Although the moon had been full and the boys had been hogtied, the crime did not exactly scream Lucifer. Not until one self-styled occult expert was finished, anyway. County juvenile officer and amateur "cult cop" Jerry Driver conducted a sort of freelance investigation that, in Driver's words, immediately started "to zero in on Damien." Driver lobbied, almost single-handedly, for the occult theory of the crime, and his behind-the-scenes efforts paid off.
Police also received unorthodox contributions from Vicki Hutcheson and her 8-year-old son, Aaron. Operating with tacit police approval, Hutcheson investigated her neighbor Jessie Misskelley Jr. before he had been charged or implicated in the murders. With Jessie's help, she allegedly arranged a date with Damien Echols, during which she claimed to have attended a witches' gathering, or "esbat."
"If [police detective Donald] Bray instituted any protections for the young mother as she prepared to enter a realm that police suspected might harbor vicious murderers," Leveritt observes, "neither he nor she ever mentioned them." After the trial, Hutcheson conceded she might have been drunk that particular night and taken the "esbat" idea from the police. She consistently denied, however, that her actions were in any way influenced by the $35,000 reward she hoped to receive for bringing the killers to justice.
Hutcheson's young son, Aaron, provided even more help. He claimed he had visited the Robin Hood Hills woods (where the bodies were discovered) with the murdered boys and seen robed men engaged in bizarre activities. Later, Aaron's story evolved into a self-contradicting eyewitness statement that eventually included an admission of his own guilt.
"Encouraged to tell and retell his story," Leveritt writes, "he embellished his account from a man with yellow teeth to scenes of orgies in the woods, and finally to lurid visions of buckets of blood." Taken together, the Hutchesons' contributions prompted police to question Jessie Misskelley Jr.
Despite leading questions and repeated prompts from the officers, Misskelley's "confession," which led directly to the arrest of Echols and Baldwin, was wrong regarding almost every significant aspect of the crime. Misskelley claimed the boys were anally raped; the medical examiner found no such evidence. He claimed they were bound with rope (not shoelaces), that only their hands were tied (it was hand to foot), and that one boy could kick his legs "up in the air." Misskelley repeatedly maintained that the killings took place in the morning and that the victims had skipped school (they were there until 2:45 p.m.). "Every detective in the room knew, even if Jessie did not," Leveritt writes, "that the statement was absurd."