Interview with Mara Leveritt

The case of the three teenagers convicted of the 1993 murders of three eight-year-old boys in an apparent Satanic sacrifice in the Arkansas city of West Memphis is as perplexing as it is tragic — Michael Moore, Christopher Byers and Stevie Branch were brutalized in one of the worst slayings in recent times, and Damien Echols (then 18), Jason Baldwin (16) and Jessie Misskelley Jr. (17) went to prison for it, with Echols receiving the death penalty for supposedly instigating the crime. Trouble is, the evidence used to convict Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley (now collectively known as The West Memphis Three) was entirely circumstantial, with nothing solid linking the boys to the murders. Nothing, that is, except a penchant for Stephen King novels and the music of Metallica.

Arkansas journalist Mara Leveritt has followed the case since it began. After compiling as much information as was possible, conducting countless interviews and examining and re-examining evidence, she discovered several alarming case discrepancies. Instead of pointing out these oversights in her book, Devil’s Knot: The True Story of the West Memphis Three, she simply tells the story like it is, from case beginnings to the campaign to see the boys freed. The reader can draw his own conclusions.

And those conclusions are astounding. Devil’s Knot is a frightening document of coerced confessions, corrupt police departments, rampant discrimination and a small town gripped with “Satanic Panic”.

With June 3 marking the tenth anniversary of the boys’ arrests, PopMatters spoke to Mara Leveritt about her book and what she hopes it will achieve for The West Memphis Three.

PopMatters: Were you looking forward to the release of the book, to the attention it would give the case?

Mara Leveritt: Not so much attention to me, but attention to the case, you bet.

PM: What was the process of putting the book together, from when you set out to do it to when it was finally completed?

ML: I decided to do it a couple of years before I was actually able to begin work on it, I had another book I was working on [and when] I finished that I thought I was ready to tackle what would be a more complex book. I went to the police department and looked over all the evidence and the files. I interviewed Ron Lax, the investigator who was hired for Damien Ecchols and he gave me complete access to his files, and I got the court transcripts from the two trials. So, I had all the police files, had the investigator’s files and the trial transcripts that ran a thousand pages each and gave me a word-by-word account of everything that happened in the courtroom. I also conducted interviews with everyone I thought was important, or tried to.

PM: How did you know what to pull out of such detailed files and the thousand pages of transcripts?

ML: I had to try to relate the gist of what happened to those trials without getting into some of the fine legal debates that were taking place over very little issues. I had to deal with all of those kinds of things without having the book rise to 8,000 pages. So I was using a lot of my judgment about what mattered.

PM: Living close by at the time [in Little Rock], were you into the case while it was happening or did you pick up on it later on?

ML: I was aware of the murders. When they happened they were horrifying, they were highly publicized, not only here but also across the nation. So, there was a lot of interest. I was reporting on criminal issues at the time so I was interested for that reason. I was very interested that a month after the murders they arrested the three kids and then the police came out later on suggesting that [the murders] were related to the occult, satanic activity. I was interested because I knew that in my general reporting, there were rumors around the country satanic murders were taking place, but I had done enough research and have even written on the fact that the FBI conducted a survey of the country because so many police departments were going out looking for these kinds of cases. And, the FBI said that they were not able to verify a single death that was attributed to any kind of occult practices.

At the time though, there were quite a lot of rumors about ritual abuse that was sexual abuse mostly of children or even murder. The FBI was saying this was a national risk, and I had had an interest in it for that reason. So, when they said these were ritual abuse murders I was especially interested and I waited to see when the trials were held. I expected that we would get the evidence that proved that contention. Yet everything that I read about the trial and the murders suggested that no proof of [Satanism] was entered and, in fact, I didn’t see any actual proof presented of the defendants’ actual involvement in the murders.

PM: Did it get to the point where it was frustrating to see these boys being so damned in the courtroom and the media when there was no evidence supporting the contention that they were guilty?

ML: I expected that the evidence would come out; that we’d read it in the papers and all would be revealed. That did not happen, and it was mystifying to me. The juries had obviously been persuaded but I couldn’t tell what had persuaded them and nothing that I read gave a clue as to what had been the persuasive evidence — especially persuasive enough to send somebody to jail. Soon after that, after the second trial, the police report and the police investigation files were opened to the public. I went to the police department and went through the files and that was the first time that I read Jessie Misskelley’s confession, a transcript of the two parts of the confession. And, I came back a little lost and I wrote my first column that had to do with this case in 1994.

PM: You thought it was coerced?

ML: It was so clear to me that he was not getting things right. He was so wrong on so many things, I could see the police were leading him in their questions and there was so many hours of police questioning that was not transcribed. All of that was very disturbing to me. I also was intrigued because I knew that with a confession like this, they very often take [the confessor] to the crime scene and videotape them making the confession, pointing here and pointing there. To add that level of documentation to their case is double persuasive to the jury when they go into court. It was interesting that they did not do that; they did not take Jessie to the crime scene.

I was very interested in that years later when I started to write the book and I went to the local newspaper and went through the newspaper clippings of the time, and in the period of time between when the murders took place and the three defendants were arrested, the police had received several calls that they ended up dismissing as pranks. But, people called in and said they knew about the case and the police had taken them to the site, to the woods, and asked them where all this happened. The police knew exactly where the bodies were found, and if they had gotten somebody to go there and say, “Well, this is where I stuffed the bodies down in the water,” or whatever…the fact that they did take some people early on and did not take Jessie is very disturbing. They did not have confidence in what would happen [if they took Jessie to the crime scene].

PM: Did you have the feeling even in 1994 that Jessie, Jason and Damien had nothing to do with the crime?

ML: No, not at all. Right up to the researching of this book, all I became increasingly sure of was that they did not receive fair trials and I felt very sure that sound evidence was not presented against any of them, that Jessie’s confession was not sound evidence at all. That’s all they had against him and they had nothing on the other two.

I knew that the trials were not fair and no substantial evidence had been presented, but that did not mean that they automatically didn’t commit the crime. But, by the time I’d gone through all of the details of the book, I felt very confident that these three had nothing to do with the crimes.

PM: I got to the stage when reading the book that even though I knew the outcome, I was still hoping for something else. I would get to the end of a particular section and read the verdict and receive such a shock because I was still hoping it would be different. There were paragraphs I had to read out loud to somebody else to make sure I had read them correctly, such as in camera hearings, and the background of John Mark Byers. Had you ever come across a case filled with such absurdities and contradictions?

ML: No, I’d never come across anything remotely like this, and I’ve covered some pretty bad and convoluted and distorted legal proceedings but nothing that approaches this. It’s actually pretty easy to write something straightforward where A meets B meets C and there’s logic to it and it makes a kind of a sense. But, it’s hard to write something that makes so little sense as this and to do it so that a reader can follow. It’s almost like describing a magic trick, where you cannot just say, “And then the girl disappeared on stage.” You’re trying to describe step by step by step something that seems to be impossible. That was why I had to go into so much detail to show every little step of how something as preposterous as this could be pulled off.

PM: Were your responses ever emotional? Did you ever find yourself depressed at what you reading?

ML: I tend not to get depressed about the subjects I write about. Or elated either, on the other end. But, what I did find myself being over and over again was amazed. I would write something and I would think — almost as you were saying you had to read it out loud — “Did I write that? Is that really what happened?” And, then go back and look at the transcript and the police report again and check it word for word that that’s what they said. I wrote the book in thirds and at the end of a third I would go back and edit and polish it. When I’d go back to parts again, I would almost be as amazed reading it — the discrepancies — as if I had never read them before and was coming across them for the first time because there were so many of them. You couldn’t kept them all in your head and you tend to forget, “Oh, there was that too.”

PM: In the third part of the book, Revelations, so much is revealed that would have been handy to know at the time of the trials, such as the investigation being conducted on the West Memphis police department, the prior conviction of John Mark Byers. Can you comment on those things?

ML: There are a lot of things that might have made a difference, certainly if the defense attorney had known about Byers’ prior conviction. There’s no excuse for that information not to have been in the police files. What really concerns me about that is even though the conviction is from Marian and not by the West Memphis police — these are two cities separated by just a couple of miles in the same country — Byers was well known in both places. Fogelman knew about the conviction because he filed the charges against Byers on that first assault on his wife, and it was Judge Burnett who removed it from his record. So, this fellow was well known to all of these people and not a word was in the file and the defense attorneys didn’t know anything about it. And that was critical.

PM: Is it normal for prior convictions to get expunged like that?

ML: Usually the only people who have felony records expunged are those who were very young at the time. Byers was not young when he committed that assault and he did not have a good record afterwards. He was involved in drugs, he was not paying his child support payments, he was not living up to the terms of his parole and still they did that, so the involvement of the police and the courts with him prior to the murders is very intriguing.

PM: It obviously has something to do with his position in West Memphis as a police drug informant?

ML: It’s one of the very difficult things about this country. We have the War On Drugs — or so-called war on drugs — and one of the consequences is that we have a lot of police informants. It is impossible to get information from the police about drug informants. We are hearing about cases from all over the country that these informants are protected by the police and so there’s a relationship between the police and courts and drug informants, which leads to a bigger and bigger problem.

PM: Is this kind of thing happening all over the country? How can you retain faith in the justice system knowing this kind of thing goes on?

ML: It would be safe to say that elements of this book would be happening all over the country all of the time. Police are coercing confessions, juveniles are being badly treated in the hands of the police, there are circumstantial cases brought where there is not enough evidence presented and what is intriguing about [the trials of the West Memphis Three] is that almost of these things came into play in one trial, in one case. This is like a nuclear meltdown of the problems that are seen in much more vivid detail in other cases. This is one of the reasons I wanted to write about this case, the very fact that you could have so many problems with a case.

PM: Can these people honestly think they did the right thing?

ML: Judge Fogelman said he certainly does believe that, and he was the only one willing to talk about it so I give him points for that, but he maintains that he believes these three are guilty and the evidence presented shows that and that the case was well conducted. As far as what was going on in everybody’s mind, I tried not to speculate on that because I wanted to let the facts speak for themselves and they’re strong enough to do that.

PM: In your interviews with the Three, are they positive they will be released?

ML: Jason Baldwin is absolutely positive that he’s going to get out and he intends to lead a normal life and talk about justice issues and be very active in this case. Damien’s emotional make up seems to be that of someone who keeps a distance from the ups and downs. It’s very hard to get your hopes up and have them dashed. Jessie is hopeful, but he’s resigned.

They’ve got a lot of good things in their lives: Jason has a great love in his life, Jessie’s got a lot of people standing by him, and Damien’s married. They’re studying, they’re reading a lot, and are keeping as active as they can.

PM: Is there still hope that something will change?

ML: Quite a bit of hope, yes. They are represented by very good, coordinated attorneys with a lot of experience in murder cases. There is a petition to the court to reexamine the DNA evidence [and if] dramatic evidence were to emergence from the retesting — which may or may not happen, we don’t know the condition of the DNA, whether it’s deteriorated, if there’s enough of this, so it may be futile — but, if there’s enough evidence pointing to someone else clearly being involved, the court could certainly order a new trial. And, also with some of the other appeals before court now, there are requests for retrials based on specific issues from the case.

PM: Did you achieve everything you wanted to in the writing of the book?

ML: My only disappointment was that I didn’t interview the jurors, but by the time I was getting to the third part of the book and it would have been time to do that, I could see how long the book was getting, how much was left to go with regards to the appeals and John Mark Byers. I felt for time and space reasons, I could not talk to the jurors.

PM: What was the most surprising detail you came across in this case?

ML: One part in Damien’s and Jason’s trial where Judge Burnett had everyone leave the courtroom and was interviewing Christopher Morgan from California, Christopher Morgan who had himself confessed to the murder, Christopher Morgan who was also involved in drugs. Christopher Morgan had requested a lawyer twice and Burnett denied his requests, which is astonishing and illegal. He then put a gag order on everyone in the room at the time. Until I was reading the trial transcripts I had never heard of that. That little piece of that trial which has never come to light before, is in a lot of ways, the most disturbing. Even in Burnett’s little speech in court at that time he mentions John Mark Byers. It was a very disoriented kind of speech he made there. But, I think knowing about [Christopher Morgan and Burnett’s speech], we get closer to the answers.

Note: The case of The West Memphis Three is soon to become a major motion picture produced by writer Curt Johnson. Gus Van Sant is rumored to be directing.