Devil’s Knot

Devil’s Knot: The True Story of the West Memphis Three

by Mara Leveritt

Atria Books

It’s difficult to maintain the correct sense of time when reading this account of the “West Memphis Three” — Jessie Misskelly Jr., Jason Baldwin and Damien Echols — because things such as this aren’t supposed to happen in this enlightened day and age. People aren’t sent to prison based largely on the fact that their physical appearance (black concert shirts) and musical tastes (Metallica) is different than some in the community. People are not branded as Satanists because they don’t go to your church, or if they maintain an interest in Wicca.

But this is exactly what occurred in West Memphis, Arkansas in the early ’90s. Three young boys — Stevie Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore — were found horribly murdered after being reported missing after school. They were found submerged in a drainage ditch, and from almost the moment they were pulled out of the water, the local police began a handling of the case that was marked by incompetence and inflexible thinking. Pressured by the community to find the killers, the police almost immediately focused on Echols and his friends as the suspects. Why? Because they were different. No physical evidence ever tied any of the three to the crime. In fact, the only evidence that tied anyone to the crimes concerned a knife owned by one of slain children’s father — a local loser with ties (as an informant) to the local police.

The police extracted a “confession” from Jessie Misskelly Jr., a young man whose IQ fell almost in the range of being considered mentally retarded, and despite the fact that the times he gave, as well as his description of the scene, didn’t match what the police knew to have occurred, he, along with Echols and Baldwin were arrested for the crime. Lacking funds for a lawyer, the young men were, not surprisingly, convicted of murder, despite the efforts of their court-appointed attorneys. Various appeals have continued to find the young men guilty, with Damien, considered the ringleader, remaining on Death Row.

Mara Leveritt, author of The Boys on the Tracks, is no stranger to the bizarre workings of the Arkansas judicial system, and she sets forth, without much feeling of bias, just how this case has unfolded, and raises a number of compelling questions, focusing on the lack of evidence in the crime, the refusal of the Arkansas police to treat John Mark Byers, stepfather to victim Christopher, as a suspect, and in general, shows compellingly how a town gripped by fear will latch onto the first sign of hope in troubled times. When the “WM3” were arrested, people came out of the woodwork proclaiming their confidence in the guilt of the three, because “they were weird.” And for a largely Christian, rural town teetering on the edge of insolvency, they were weird.

But “weird” shouldn’t get you arrested. “Weird” shouldn’t get you convicted. “Weird” shouldn’t get you killed. Someone certainly murdered three little boys in 1993. It might possibly (although highly unlikely) be that the three local outcasts known to the world as the “West Memphis Three” did it. But more likely, someone who knew the children killed them, and is walking around free today — tormented, to be sure, by their actions, but free nevertheless. The police and people of West Memphis don’t care, or don’t want to think about that possibility. If they won’t do it, someone needs to. Mara Leveritt did, and this book should be required reading for anyone interested in the case at all, and anyone who thinks such things can’t happen today. It can, and it did.

Free the West Memphis Three. Find the killer.

Free the West Memphis 3: • Simon & Schuster:

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