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

By in Criminal Law on March 10, 2013

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The West Memphis Three. Accused, convicted…and set free. Do you know their story?

In 2011, one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in American legal history was set right when Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley were released after eighteen years in prison. Award-winning journalist Mara Leveritt’s The Devil’s Knot remains the most comprehensive, insightful reporting ever done on the investigation, trials, and convictions of three teenage boys who became known as the West Memphis Three. 

For weeks in 1993, after the murders of three eight-year-old boys, police in West Memphis, Arkansas seemed stymied. Then suddenly, detectives charged three teenagers—alleged members of a satanic cult—with the killings. Despite the witch-hunt atmosphere of the trials, and a case which included stunning investigative blunders, a confession riddled with errors, and an absence of physical evidence linking any of the accused to the crime, the teenagers were convicted. Jurors sentenced Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley to life in prison and Damien Echols, the accused ringleader, to death. The guilty verdicts were popular in their home state—even upheld on appeal—and all three remained in prison until their unprecedented release in August 2011.

With close-up views of its key participants, this award-winning account unravels the many tangled knots of this endlessly shocking case, one which will shape the American legal landscape for years to come.

2 thoughts on “Devil’s Knot: The True Story of the West Memphis Three

  1. Brian Flemming
    134 of 149 people found the following review helpful
    5.0 out of 5 stars
    Excellent and much-needed, October 11, 2002
    Brian Flemming (Los Angeles, CA) –

    I’m fascinated by the West Memphis Three case, but the advocacy nature of so much of the available information (the documentaries, the website) has always left me with the feeling I’m not getting the whole story. The main figures in the West Memphis and Arkansas justice system have long said that the movies and website skirt the true facts, and if those facts were known people would understand that the guilty parties are in prison. Leveritt wisely took this assertion as the premise of her book–she decided to put it to the test. She has done a brilliant, dispassionate job of it. My understanding of this case had deepened tenfold by the time I finished reading the book (as well as its exhaustive end notes). Every opportunity is given to advocates of the boys’ guilt to bring to light those missing “true facts.” It is utterly horrifying to see how this process actually casts more doubt on the case that the prosecutors and police created. The horror is compounded by the obvious fact that Leveritt is not presenting a slanted version of the story. She goes above and beyond to find those crucial “true facts” that will establish guilt. But it seems they don’t exist.

    The documentaries, website materials and other information about this case (I’ve been semi-obsessed with it since 1996) have always left vague, nagging doubts in my mind. This book erased them.

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  2. Chris K. Wilson "Chris Kent"
    35 of 39 people found the following review helpful
    5.0 out of 5 stars
    A Tremendous Service To The World, January 13, 2003
    By A Customer

    Having followed this case since 1996 and read much of the publically available documentation on the site, I can say that Mara Leveritt’s book is meticulously researched – more so than most of the Pre-Mallett legal cases except perhaps Stidham’s – and the fact that it is by a respected Arkansas journalist ought to help put to rest the notion that only “outsiders who don’t understand” would support the WM3.
    Leveritt does a commendable job on two counts – showing Arkansans that not only “outsiders” believe that the WM3 cases were travesties of justice, and showing the “outsiders” that not all Arkansans are as biased, incompetent, self-serving, and self-deluded as the officials in Crittenden County involved with the WM3 case seem to be.

    It is preposterous that people continue to believe Misskelley’s confessions after reading their transcripts and circumstances. You don’t need to be an expert like Leo & Ofshe (whose papers can give much more detailed arguments as to why Misskelley’s confession is bogus) to realize that the confession is coerced, and the specifics given in it are produced by Det. Ridge and fed to Misskelley. If you can read Chapter 7 in this book and still believe that this confession is valid, you’ve either not paid attention to the transcripts (feel free to ignore anything that you may consider Leveritt’s “interpretations”) or you have such preconceptions about the defendants’ guilt (and/or the infallibility of Police and Prosecutors) that even scientific evidence would not convince you.

    You can’t get through this book without feeling that there are serious grounds for a retrial, and that there is more than a reasonable doubt as to the defendants’ guilt. Leveritt brings to light serious issues which were left out of the 2 HBO documentaries, regarding Judge Burnett’s handling of the case, stemming from documents and evidence which were revealed after the trial and even after the completion of both films. Even if the defendants are guilty (which I do not, based on all I’ve read, believe they are), they would still deserve a retrial based on the bias, irregular procedural decisions of Judge Burnett, and on evidence that later came up (which, among other things, cast serious doubts on the testimony of Carlson and Hutcheson, and introduce further scientific evidence based on the work of B. Turvey and Dr. T. David, despite the state’s further questionable attempts to claim they already discounted this evidence). New DNA testing and other reanalysis techniques, granted by a new Arkansas State Law, may also finally bring this case out of the realm of the circumstantial and into the

    Regarding John Mark Byers, it is appalling that that man is still walking the streets and not in prison. Even if he did not kill his son (which, from what I’ve read and seen in the documentary films, I believe he did), his myriad of other crimes should have landed him behind bars a long time ago. You can not read about Byers, or see him on film, and think he’s a safe person to walk the streets. Leveritt is not the first to propose Byers as the real killer, but she makes the notion more compelling through bringing up a slew of facts which were previously all put together into a coherent picture (as Fogelman himself has said of the case against the WM3, you need the full picture).

    I find it depressing but not suprising that the parents of Michael Moore and Stevie Branch can continue to defend Byers and the Crittenden County officials after supposedly seeing the two documentaries and reading the book. I can only assume it is too painful for them to actually view or read the material, and they continue to simply reiterate the beliefs they came to when people they thought they could trust claimed that the killers of their boys had been found and convicted. To say they should want to see real justice done for their boys is easy for WM3 supporters, but they probably think it already has. However, as Leveritt mentions, if a parent can bear to do the research into the truth, even they can be convinced that justice is left undone – Chris Byers’ biological father (R. Murray) has come out publically as saying that he believes that the WM3 are innocent.

    If you care about the truth rather than emotional ties to the notion that the defendants “seem evil” (as quoted from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette) and must therefore be guilty, you should read this book (which, according to its author, did not start out as an attempt to exonerate the defendants, but rather to find the truth that the state kept saying was evident if the “media” would just pay attention and stop listening to the WM3 supporters). It is not “Pro-WM3 Propaganda” from some “outsider who don’t know the facts” but a serious, and disturbing, look at the case by a distinguished professional reporter from Arkansas who came to her conclusions by analyzing the (publically available) facts of the case from transcripts of interview,…

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