To Do with Reality: An Interview with Burk Sauls and Brett Savory
'Despite the fact that no evidence of a satanic ritual was found in Robin Hood Hills or in the way the children were killed, the police promoted their stories of devil worshippers. The local media obliged...' Free the West Memphis Three founder, Burk Sauls, and editor of the new collection, The Last Pentacle of the Sun: Writings in Support of the West Memphis Three, Brett Savory, discuss fear and fiction in the case of Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, convicted as teenagers of triple murder in one of the country's most controversial criminal trials.
Despite the fact that no evidence of a satanic ritual was found in Robin Hood Hills or in the way the children were killed, the police promoted their stories of devil worshippers. The local media obliged. Once this fantasy was the basis of a criminal investigation, it was no longer necessary for the West Memphis police to bother with things like forensic science, crime-scene reconstruction, or any of the techniques used by responsible investigators. They no longer had to think about criminal behavior or physical evidence. They had chosen their path, and it had nothing to do with reality.
-- Burk Sauls, "California to West in Ten Years"
If Burk Sauls sounds pissed off, it's because he is. Ten years after learning about the murder of three young boys at Robin Hood Hills via Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky's HBO film Paradise Lost, Sauls has experienced too much frustration at the actions of the West Memphis, Arkansas, police and their botched investigation. So much so that he wasn't all that committed to contributing to M. W. (Mike) Anderson and Brett Savory's new collection, The Last Pentacle of the Sun: Writings in Support of the West Memphis Three. It wasn't that he doubted Anderson and Savory; it's just that as cofounder of the Free the West Memphis Three and a longtime activist on behalf of Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley, who he believes were wrongly convicted of murder, he simply didn't need the potential grief.
"I got an e-mail from Brett Savory asking me if I would be interested in contributing something to their book," Sauls told PopMatters. "I remember thinking -- as I always do when I hear about ideas like this -- that it probably would never actually happen. I kept putting off writing something, partly because it's hard to come up with something like that, and partly because I honestly didn't think it would ever get printed. It's always very difficult when someone asks me to write something about the case or to speak about it. It's almost impossible to summarize this case without going off on hundreds of tangents and pointing out all the various ways that the police and the trial failed."
Steering away from the usual case rundown (something he's written and rewritten many times for the WM3.org Web site), Sauls's "California to West Memphis in Ten Years" instead explores the history of his involvement in the case, attempting to answer the one question he's been asked more times than "What happened?", that is, "Why do you care?" Unlike so many West Memphis Three supporters (including many of the book's contributors), his investment has nothing to do with his childhood or a personal penchant for wearing black and listening to death metal. For Sauls, it was simply learning of an injustice and working to right it. He writes about his continued struggle to see the convicted men freed as if it's something anybody would do.
In fact, Sauls's organizational efforts and his assistance with fundraisers like the Cruel and Unusual art show hosted by Winona Ryder last year in Los Angeles, helped inspire the Last Pentacle project, which includes writing by top horror authors Bentley Little, Peter Straub and Poppy Z. Brite, with illustrations by Clive Barker. "So many filmmakers, visual artists, and rock stars had all come together to combat this injustice," Savory told PopMatters "Yet no fiction writers. I felt it was a hole that should be filled, since dark fiction played a certain part in the West Memphis Three's conviction." Selecting informed contributors -- something that initially concerned the editor -- turned out to be a relatively simple process. "Mike and I each drew up a sort of dream list of writers we would like to ask, then determined ways of contacting them." He said he and Anderson were astonished to get such favorable responses from almost every writer contacted, especially since they weren't even sure if the authors were aware of the case. "More well-known writers knew about the case than I had thought," he said. "I figured Mike and I were going to have a long slog ahead of us trying to convince these people to go and read up on the case, but most of them already knew about it."
As someone who has spent so much time fighting for the cause, Sauls was an obvious choice to contribute. Because of his years of work directly with the convicted men, his piece is one of the book's most confrontational. "California to West Memphis in Ten Years" is honest to the point of distressing, but Sauls's bluntness ("Three children were killed and left in ditch. They were stripped and tied with their own shoelaces. Someone did it.") is not about shocking the reader so much as openly and plainly presenting facts:
The local police were so convinced that the murders were just too horrible to have been committed by anything less than a supernatural force in the form of a satanic cult under order from Satan himself. They enlisted the help of self-proclaimed experts in the occult who inflated these tales until they convinced themselves and many in the community that devil worship was the only possible motive for the murders. Due to inexperience and overzealousness, the West Memphis police destroyed what might have been valuable physical evidence. They were left to struggle with the shambles of their own investigative bungling, and were forced to resort to wild stories of satanic cults and human sacrifices.
Emotionally charged yet without ranting or finger-pointing, this approach sets the tone for much of the book. Sauls's distress is mirrored by many contributors, making for an overall gloomy tone. "Sadly, this case pulls up a lot of dark emotions in people," he said.
But the book's darkest pieces are often it's best, especially those concerned with the psychology of fear and exploring the introverted adolescent mind. Paul Tremblay's "All Sliding to One Side", for example, about a father's concern his young daughter will have to someday confront the world's evil, and Michael Marano's "The Changeling", in which a kind of personification of fear, anger, and frustration narrate the tale of a suicidal boy are among the collection's more moving fictional pieces.
The book's nonfiction pieces have a similar darkness to them. Each brings to light the pain wrought from so much concentration on such a difficult situation. Margaret Cho's "Letter", for example, is "a plea [and] a prayer" that "[God] is finished making an example of them, the West Memphis Three." Cho almost begs for the salvation of the convicted men. She describes her friend, Damien Echols, sitting on death row, as a "heavy metal Nelson Mandela", a man with whom she discusses opera and books and politics and wishes he could have the same kind of opportunities she's had:
"I wish hard, eyes shut and head and heart throbbing, at shooting stars, blowing out birthday candles, every opportunity I have that Damien and [his wife] Lorri will�go wherever they like, see everything, visit people who love them, yet have never met them, who have sent letters and cards from far, far away, with invitations to stay as long as they want, whenever they can, anytime, always, forever welcome.
Sauls is particularly moved by Cho's compassion, grateful to have her "on our side". "She's one of those writer/performers," he says, "who doesn't seem to have any piety or celebrity baggage. She writes honestly, she's a genuinely good person, and she's funny as hell. She's also famous and therefore has access to many more people's ears than any of us do, so when she talks or writes, people listen."
Mara Leveritt, Arkansas Times journalist and author of Devil's Knot: The True Story of the West Memphis Three, wishes the celebrity writers directly implicated in the case were so compassionate. In her piece, "An Open Letter to Stephen King, Anne Rice, and Dean Koontz", she all but admonishes the fame authors for not speaking out in support of Echols, who, she writes, "is set to be executed, in part, for reading your books."
In the nearly ten years since Judge [David] Burnett sentenced Echols to death, many artists have risen to challenge the abuses of self-expression that were allowed to bear on his trial. Scores of filmmakers, musicians, actors, visual artists, and writers have protested the prosecutor's exploitations of art, as have thousands of your readers. But what has been heard from the three great writers whose works actually figured in his trial?
Do the authors really have a duty to speak out? Have these authors ignored the case or have they simply neglected to mention it publicly? According to Sauls, this courageous willingness to pose challenging questions is typical of Leveritt. "She's been this case's most rational voice since it happened and a big inspiration to many of us who have been rallying around this situation for so long. Her piece is a stand out for me." (Incidentally, King did mention the case, albeit indirectly, and his part in it, in the 1999 BBC documentary, Stephen King: Shining in the Dark: "I don't think that any kid was ever driven to an act of violence by a Metallica record, or by a Marilyn Manson CD or by a Stephen King novel, but I do think these things can act as accelerants. There's a whole culture of violence in this country and I'd be the last person to deny that I'm a part of that, but I'm only a child of my culture.")
Though he admits a certain bias, Sauls's favorite piece in the collection is a group of photographs of Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley by Grove Pashley. "Even though I was standing right there when Grove shot those photos, I see so much in them that I don't normally see when I'm with Damien, Jason, and Jessie in person. I think the artistry in those photos comes from the way they really show the insides of those three guys." He says the photographs, the first taken of the young men as adults, shocked people when exhibited at the Cruel and Unusual benefit, in their vivid demonstration that the three teenagers in the Paradise Lost films were now fully grown adults. "The impact of those photos had an emotional effect on everyone who saw them."
Overall, Sauls says he's happy with the book. "I'm thrilled to have been proven completely wrong about it," he says. "The fact that this book exists is proof that people are still compelled to do things and contribute toward finding ways of exposing this case to more people. So many cases like this one don't get the exposure and are forgotten. Hopefully the work that the contributors have done will inspire people to pay more attention to their justice system, their death penalty, and their own prejudices and emotions and opinions concerning crime and punishment."
Savory agrees. "I've learned," he said, "that some police forces are willing to throw proper procedure and due process to the wind to relieve public pressure, finding convenient scapegoats on which to pin monstrous crimes." At the same time, Savory says his involvement with dedicated West Memphis Three supporters like Sauls have encouraged him to not to give up hope: "I've learned, too, that thousands upon thousands of people are willing to stand up and say something when such a case comes to light."