How a musical moral panic destroyed three young men.
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."
As it turned out, Misskelley knew even less than the confession indicated. After a Christian group presented him with some soul-saving literature, Jessie had a question for his lawyer, Dan Stidham. "There I was, sitting in a jail cell with this confessed Satanic killer," Stidham later said, "and he's asking me who 'Satin' is."
The detectives seemed to ignore alternative avenues of investigation that will seem obvious to readers of Leveritt's book. John Mark Byers, stepfather of the castrated boy, was no stranger to law enforcement. A failed pawnbroker and jeweler, Byers was also a convicted drug dealer and undercover drug informant.
As a result, he knew several of the investigating officers personally. In 1987 Byers was convicted of terrorizing his ex-wife after threatening her with a stun gun. City attorney John Fogleman, who successfully prosecuted the West Memphis Three six years later, handled that case. Byers received a light sentence: three years of probation plus child support and gainful employment—conditions he failed to fulfill. In 1992, without explanation, Crittenden County Circuit Judge David Burnett formally expunged Byers' record of this conviction. Burnett would go on to preside over the trial and conviction of Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley.
Given his violent past and the killer or killers' emphasis on his stepson, John Mark Byers certainly warranted attention. "But if the West Memphis police followed up on this lead," Leveritt writes, "they entered no record of it in the file."
In fact, Byers was never pressed on several key discrepancies concerning the boys' disappearance. According to Christopher's 13-year-old brother, Ryan Clark (Byers adopted only Christopher), Ryan had searched the Robin Hood Hills woods with two friends until close to midnight, then gone home to bed. Byers, however, told police that Ryan joined him in another round of searching after midnight. Furthermore, Byers claimed to have searched the woods alone without a flashlight. Again, the police "did not press for details about the times Byers had been alone in the vicinity of where the bodies were discovered."
During an interview that appeared in the 2000 HBO documentary Revelations: Paradise Lost 2, Byers chillingly described how the trials brought back memories of his own "torture" as a child. "It was like they were reading off what happened to me," he stated.
Almost three years after her son's murder, Byers' wife, Melissa, also died under suspicious circumstances, a "possible homicide" that remains unsolved. Perhaps the most alarming facts arrayed against John Mark Byers, however, concern a hunting knife he gave the makers of the HBO documentary for Christmas. In December 1993, eight months after the murders, West Memphis police searched the Byers and Moore homes, an extremely unusual move with three suspects already set for trial. Conveniently, Byers presented his gift just one day before the search.
The knife, which matched police descriptions of the murder weapon, contained blood consistent with that of both the slain boy and his stepfather. Byers' statements only compounded this mystery. Although he originally told police the knife "had not been used at all," Byers later testified that he had, probably, cut his finger on it.
In November 2000, Dan Stidham, Jessie Misskelley's lawyer, filed a motion with Judge Burnett requesting new DNA tests of several items, including Byers' bloody knife. "Additional testing with new, more sensitive, and more discriminating tests," Stidham wrote, "may help resolve previously inconclusive test results." To date, Stidham has received no response.
Ultimately, black clothes, heavy metal music, and weird beliefs outweighed improper procedures, false testimony, and reasonable doubt. "I have personally observed people wearing black fingernails, having their hair painted black, wearing black T-shirts, black dungarees," testified Dale Griffis, the prosecution's "occult expert." Although the defense argued that Griffis' mail-order Ph.D. from "Columbia Pacific University" did not qualify him as an expert, Burnett disagreed. The prosecution also introduced the cover of Metallica's Master of Puppets album, the fact that Echols practiced Wicca and enjoyed books by Stephen King and Anne Rice, and testimony "that eleven black T-shirts had been found in Jason's home."
The prosecutors' linkage of rock with Satanism and murder has deep roots. Rock, like its predecessor the blues, has in many ways cultivated an evil reputation. Blues legend Robert Johnson, whose songs include "Hellhound on My Trail" and "Me and the Devil Blues," is said to have sold his soul for musical skills. The Beatles placed occult icon Aleister Crowley on the cover of their seminal album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. The Rolling Stones solidified their bad boy image with the 1968 hit "Sympathy for the Devil." There's a huge catalog of more explicitly Satanic classics, such as Slayer's "Altar of Sacrifice," Morbid Angel's "Fall From Grace," Iron Maiden's "The Number of the Beast," and Venom's "In League With Satan."
It goes without saying, of course, that none of these artists actually wants to murder children or bury the world in brimstone. Rather, they wish to shock and delight audiences with dynamic music and the excitement of transgressive identities.
Yet while Leveritt clearly understands this, she fails in Devil's Knot to fully explore the gross misinterpretation of popular music at the heart of the case. Instead, Leveritt also plays to prejudice—against Christians rather than pagans. She is all too willing to write off the police, prosecutors, and their witnesses as deluded by their religious beliefs. "The spiritual landscape was rigorously Christian," she intones, "and rigorously literal." Well, maybe. But the impulse to link young people's music and clothes with dangerous, unnatural forces is not a regional, or even religious, phenomenon. As the predictable responses to Columbine, Wayne Lo, Eminem, and raves show, such confusion is on display everywhere, and not restricted to Christians.
Of course, that such foolish, simplistic connections between music and criminality are readily drawn everywhere provides zero comfort to Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley. But their plight has at least not gone unnoticed. In 1996 HBO broadcast the documentary Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Woods. Featuring music from Metallica and using trial footage, TV clips, and interviews, the film convinced many that the West Memphis Three were the victims of a modern day witch hunt. Roger Ebert declared, "Everybody in the town and in the courtroom and on the jury are all blinded by their fantasies about Satanic cults." The New York Times called the Emmy-winning film "true crime reporting at its most bitterly revealing." The sequel followed four years later, while benefit albums with musicians including Eddie Vedder, Henry Rollins, and Hank Williams III have also hit record store shelves. Three California residents, inspired by the film, started the Web site www.wm3.org. Visitors can download documents from the trials, find out the latest information, and purchase various products with the slogan "Free the West Memphis Three."
Yet as Edward Mallett, the attorney now handling Damien Echols' appeal, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last year, "I don't think judges are favorably affected by young people's groups and Web sites." Indeed, except for the efforts of their attorneys, there may be little more anybody can do for the West Memphis Three. Several appeals are pending, including motions to retest evidence and secure a new judge, and family members are accepting donations for a legal defense fund. Otherwise, the wheels of justice are grinding exceedingly slowly.
Leveritt is ultimately convinced that Salem did in fact repeat itself. Most readers will be as well. Devil's Knot is a powerful cautionary tale about the awesome and frequently careless power of law enforcement and the damage it can do when informed by ignorant moral panics and unchecked by rational individuals.