Featured True Crime Author
In Search for Justice
An Interview with Mara Leveritt
by Robert L. Hall
I can truly say that of all the interviews I have conducted, the one with Mara Leveritt, award-winning Arkansas investigative reporter and contributing editor for the Arkansas Times, was the most spell-binding. It was not only because she is an award-winning reporter with years of journalistic experience and savvy, but for the subject of her latest book, Devil’s Knot: The True Story of the West Memphis Three.
For her nonfiction book discusses the infamous triple child murder case which began in the shrouded forested area only a few yards off the much-traveled I-40 Interstate near West Memphis, Arkansas. On the evening of May 5, 1993, three eight-year-old boys disappeared. Their bodies were found the next day, submerged beneath a stream on the small four-acre tract of land nicknamed Robin Hood Woods by local residents. The case impacted the whole community of West Memphis and nearby Marion, Arkansas, where three adolescents: Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, Jr., and Jason Baldwin, were eventually tried for the crime.
Even more disturbing than the unspeakable horrors about the manner in which the murders were committed, was the rumored theory that the three teenage murder suspects who eventually were rounded up and charged in the case were members of a satanic cult.
In the end, the three were found guilty.
But, the public at large heard little of the trial, outside the meandering articles of the nearby big-town Commercial Appeal out of Memphis, Tennessee, which tried desperately to present news of the events. But, even this media source had trouble getting records from the ongoing investigation and trial, and was forced to go to court and sue just to gain access to them, so tightly controlled were reports of the investigation.
I was among the public that wanted to know more about what had transpired. Since that time, I always wanted to know how the investigation and resulting trial were conducted, what evidence was submitted and how it was handled. How was the guilt of the accused established? And who most likely killed the three small boys (if it wasn’t the teenagers who were charged)? Would anyone ever really know?
So, when the time came to interview Mara Leveritt, (about whom I’d heard through the writers’ grapevine and who was going to appear at a book signing in Memphis), I was eager to talk to her. We sat at a small table and discussed the case candidly.
She graciously signed a copy of her book for me at the end of the interview and I returned home, opened it and read the inscription that she had written upon the flyleaf:
To this day, I wonder if that is possible.
Why the title, Devil’s Knot?
As you know, this case centered on allegations that the murders of the three eight-year-old boys were somehow satanic in nature. After the arrests, the police let out word that there was a “cult” connection to the murders. So the name Satan ran through the trial—along with the idea that these murders were linked to Satanism. One reason I chose the title was that Satan or the devil played such a unique role in this case. We just don’t have something like this happen in this country very much.
Another reason is that the boys were all tied with knots. Knots were one of the few clues that the police had when they got to the (murder) scene. So, those were two of the major themes that played all the way through. We had the shoelace knots that the boys were tied with, plus the allegation of satanic activity as the backdrop for the trial. But, then as I began writing, I also began to see that there was something devilish going on in the procedures themselves. So, in my mind, the idea of the knots expanded to also include the way that I think the defendants themselves ended up being bound by the procedures that they were subject to.
I tell you, Mara, it’s a tough subject. What induced you to take it on in the first place?
I’m a mom. My kids were in college by the time these murders occurred in 1993, but when they were teenagers we were living on a farm here in Arkansas. There was a creek on the farm, and I knew that my son, in particular, who liked to go down to the creek and play with his friends, could not come back from the creek without bringing some evidence of it back with him in the form of mud or tracks or messy clothes. It was just the combination of kids and mud and water; it just couldn’t be done.
So, when these murders occurred, I waited, like everyone else, very anxiously, to see how the police would deal with it. Who would they find was the killer or killers? And, when they announced a month after the murders that three teenagers had committed the crime, I figured that there must have been abundant evidence linking them to the site. But then when the trials occurred, no physical evidence was presented that linked the accused to the site. I found that amazing.
Christopher Byers died from loss of blood, according to the state crime lab. All three bodies were found submerged in a creek. All the boys’ clothes were pinned down with sticks. Whoever did this was wallowing in the water with the mud and the blood and the bodies. This was not a remote, drive-by shooting. It was very up-close, very hands-on and very messy. None of the three kids (who were charged) drove cars. So, we had this situation where, apparently, all of them had managed to get to their homes on foot, covered in mud and bloody water, and some of their homes were of as much as four miles from the crime scene. Then all of them were able to clean up so thoroughly and destroy the evidence so completely that not a single item—not a shoe, not a bloody fingerprint, not a single human hair—could be found that linked them to the creek or the bodies.
Now, the prosecutor made a big show and stressed at the trial that fibers were found in connection with the teenagers that were what they termed “microscopically similar” to fibers found in connection with the victims. That was the sum total of the physical evidence that was presented against the teenagers at their trials. The jury apparently found it persuasive. But what we know is that to say that fibers are “microscopically similar” can be a vast and fairly meaningless statement.
I was speaking at a book signing at Barnes and Noble in Little Rock a couple of weeks ago where a group of crime scene investigators from Little Rock Police Department were in attendance. One of them pointed out that if you have a wool sweater and I have a wool sweater, strands from your sweater and mine will be ‘microscopically similar’ because both of them are wool, but that’s often as close as the comparison gets. Even hair…your hair and my hair…is microscopically similar.
At the trials, the prosecution placed great emphasis on the fibers, because that was all the physical evidence they had. That’s when I became interested. Here we supposedly had three amateur killers who were so clever that they could commit a ghastly triple-murder and escape (on foot, no less), and clean up, and not leave a trace of evidence to be found. It staggered my imagination. So, that’s the long answer to your question. (Mara laughs)
Then when I considered the lack of physical evidence in light of the emphasis that was placed on Satan and “the occult” at the trials, I thought, “We’ve got an interesting situation here.”
What else got you motivated to write about this, Mara? You have been an investigative reporter for some time. Why this field and why these types of cases?
I started with the Arkansas Democrat, then the Arkansas Gazette, which merged into the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, as you may know. My major affiliation has been with the Arkansas Times, where I am a contributing editor. They call me an investigative reporter.
My grandfather in Chicago, where I was born, was a member of that city’s police force. My uncle was also a police officer. He was killed in the line of duty there, in Chicago. I grew up thinking that police work was heroic and I was proud of having police officers in my family. As I grew older, I became interested in law and the way that our laws are applied, as well as in the whole spectrum of how we handle so-called “justice” issues in our society. It was kind of a natural course for me to go into this type of writing.
You wrote your book from the court transcripts of the case, is that correct?
Yes, in part. I also went to the West Memphis Police Department and went through their records and all the physical material that they had collected and held in storage. Twice I did that; spent a couple of days down there just handling the physical evidence and going through the file notes and investigative reports. Then, I met Ron Lax, a Memphis private investigator who was enlisted to help with the defense, and he made his files on the case available to me.
Was he hired by all three, or what?
Each of the accused had a separate team of attorneys. Lax worked primarily with the Damien Echols case, because, from the start, Damien was seen as the ringleader. So Lax signed on to assist in Damien’s defense. And I must say that the difference between his records and those of the West Memphis police was remarkable. The police records were a mess—to call them disorderly would be putting it mildly. Some of the evidence was stored in grocery sacks, with the names of the grocery stores printed on them. It was not the kind of care and preservation that I would have expected for very important evidence—evidence in a capital murder case, some of which is, even now, being sought for retesting of DNA.
Anyway, the records were not in very good order. Lax's records, on the other hand, were superbly organized—he’s a self-confessed anal-retentive type—and that was a big help. His files included the records that the prosecution had handed over to the defense, so I got a lot of duplication from the police files and his records. Then, of course, I conducted many interviews and read through the trial transcripts. Those were my main sources.
What principals did you interview?
Well, I think I talked to the defendants, Lax at length, lawyers for all three of the guys. Brent Davis, the prosecutor, has always declined to talk about this case because appeals are still pending. But, Judge John Fogleman gave me a very nice interview and I appreciated his willingness to talk. But, David Burnett (the trial judge) has made his anger at me clear.
He doesn’t want to be second-guessed?
I’m not sure of his reasons. One thing I’ve tried not to do is to speculate about people’s motives.
I know that you make the case for there being no forensic evidence against the West Memphis Three, Mara. However, it took a month for the police to focus on these teens. Don’t you think they might have disposed of it in that time? And, also, these three were into some things that were troubling…what do you think about all that?
Well, it’s true that Damien Echols was a troubled kid. He had been in a psychiatric hospital in Little Rock twice, and he was exhibiting some very self-destructive, bizarre behaviors and that certainly attracted some attention to him. Now, the psychiatrists who treated him did not see anything murderous in his behavior or believe that he was a threat to anyone, except maybe himself. He had been, at times, suicidal. Jessie Misskelley was slow—close to being mentally retarded. He’d been in special-education classes throughout his time in school. He was also a fighter—a punching-out-mailboxes kind of kid. But there’d been nothing in his behavior to suggest murderous rages. Jason Baldwin was no problem at all. He was a high school student who planned to study art in college. When I interviewed his teachers, they spoke highly of him, but they said that during the trials they’d been told not to say anything about this case. And so, that testimony about Jason never got into the courtroom.
But…but…Damien was a troubled kid. Jessie Misskelley was troubled in his way too. I don’t think Jason Baldwin showed any signs of being troubled whatsoever. Their families were poor, their families were also dysfunctional in a variety of ways. But, I think the question has to be asked: does that make those kids murderers?
That’s the kind of question our justice system is supposed to ask: Okay, yes, you can have kids that come from screwed-up families; you can have kids who, because of various factors, are troubled; but are we going to make the leap from “a troubled kid” to “a murderer” without evidence? That’s a serious question, because we have a lot of troubled kids in our society and they are not all murderers. And we have got to hold ourselves accountable, and not let ourselves make these leaps, unless they are supported by evidence.
I don’t think we should do what Judge Fogleman (the former prosecutor) did when he presented this case to the jury. He introduced as evidence the facts that Damien wore black and listened to heavy-metal music, and that he read books by Stephen King, Anne Rice and Dean Koontz—all mainstream, best-selling authors. I believe that these activities are protected by the First Amendment, but when I asked Fogleman why he’d stressed the type of clothes that Damien wore and the types of books he read, he said he’d done it to show Damien’s state of mind. He said he wanted to show that Damien possessed the “state of mind” of someone who could have committed this type of crime.
Showing a state of mind as groundwork for the case?
But there was nothing m-o-r-e! There was no physical evidence linking the accused to the crime. And there was no motive. The police never established that the defendants had ever known these kids or had any contact with the victims at all. So, that’s where the idea of “the occult” comes in, the theory that the killings were part of some sort of satanic ritual. Problem was, there was no sign of a ritual anywhere around where the bodies were found.
You have presented a good defense for these three. And, I know you don’t know who the murderer or murderers were, otherwise you would be writing a book entitled, “Who Really Killed the Boys in Robin Hood Woods.” However, if they didn’t do it, what’s your best case as to who you think might have murdered the three boys—a profile?
I’d say that, while I think that there was no evidence that would have reasonably led most police departments in this country to focus on these three teenagers, there was substantial evidence to have led them to consider at least two other suspects in this case.
The first was the so-called ‘Bojangle’s Man.’
The boys disappeared at dusk or thereabouts. Shortly after they vanished, a bloodied man shows up at the neighborhood Bojangle’s Restaurant near the woods where the bodies were found the next day. It was the closest public establishment to where the bodies were discovered.
When this blood-splattered guy came in, the manager of the Bojangles called the West Memphis Police Department. At that point, the police already had a report that the boys were missing, but their bodies had not been discovered. The manager of the restaurant called the police and said, “We have a bloody man who has just walked into our ladies’ restroom, he seems to be disoriented and he is cleaning himself up.”
A police officer pulled up at the drive-through window at the restaurant. She asked, “Is he still in there?” They said, “No, he just left,” and pointed out the direction he went. Then the patrol officer drove off. She never entered the restaurant, never looked at the blood, never looked at anything.
So that man was never found, was never identified. Some time after the bodies were discovered, the manager of the Bojangle’s Restaurant called the West Memphis police again and said, “Hey! Remember, we had this bloody guy in here, and the bodies were found right over there—aren’t you interested in coming back and maybe taking a look? We still have the glasses that this guy dropped in the commode, and some of the blood is still on the wall.”
At that point, prompted by a second call from the restaurant manager, a couple of detectives went to the restaurant. They took chippings of blood, they collected some paper towels the guy had cleaned up with, and they took and the sunglasses. Now, this all would seem to be pretty relevant material. But when the defense lawyers asked about it at the trials, a West Memphis police detective testified that they had lost that evidence. He said that it had been misplaced, that they didn’t know where it was. It had never tested. It had never even been sent to the crime lab. It was just a h-u-g-e void in the story, and that man was never seen again.
What about the identification of the man in the restaurant?
I go into this in the book. The employees of the restaurant say that he was a black man—they describe the clothing that he was wearing. He had kind of an arm brace on. They gave a pretty good description of the guy. No one like him was ever found…or, at least, the police said that they couldn’t find him.
After reading your book, I bet you’re going to say your second suspect is Byers.
John Mark Byers. And, I would really like to focus on a couple of aspects of his story. First, we know that Christopher Byers seemed to be the target of the attack, because he was the only victim who was castrated. The medical examiner said there were hundreds of stab wounds around his groin. So, it was a very savage attack and he was singled out for that particular part of it. Again, in ordinary police work it is known that, terrible as it is, when children are murdered the first suspects police have to consider are family members, because child abuse is so common, and it can sometimes accelerate to murder. So you have to first eliminate the family as suspects. It is very hard on a family. But, it’s a necessary part of the routine.
We now know that Christopher’s stepfather, John Mark Byers, had a criminal record before the murders. This is one of the most disturbing parts of the story to me. Byers was convicted of felony terroristic threatening, for taking an electric cattle prod to his former wife and threatening to kill her. According to police reports, he did this in front of his two children from that marriage. He was convicted of a felony for that—felony terroristic threatening—and the reason he was convicted was that is ex-wife had been so afraid of him, that she had begun turning on a tape-recorder every time he came to her house. On this particular morning, after neighbors heard her screaming, a police officer came and found Byers, still belligerent, with the electric cattle prod. They documented the incident, and she was able to supply a tape-recording of the attack. She took that recording to the local city attorney, who happened to be John Fogleman, at the time. Byers was convicted and ordered to meet certain demands, in order to stay free on probation. He did not comply with the court’s order, but remained free nonetheless.
Then, a year before these murders occurred, his felony record was expunged, for reasons we don’t know. Usually, records are expunged if the felon was a first-time offender and was young at the time of the crime. But Byers was not young at this point, and he was involved in other illegal activity—specifically, illegal drugs. We know that. He became drug informant. You don’t just walk in and say, “I want to become a drug informant.” Usually, you become an informant because you have been caught and now you’re rolling over, agreeing to cooperate with police in exchange for leniency. Yet, despite the fact that Byers had been involved in drugs; and despite the fact that he had not met the terms of his probation for the felony conviction; still, they expunged that record. And the judge who ordered that record expunged was Judge David Burnett, the same judge who officiated at the trials of the West Memphis Three.
But do you think that any mention of this appears in the West Memphis Police Department’s investigative file on the murders—the fact that the stepfather of the one castrated victim had been convicted a few years earlier of threatening to kill his ex-wife? Not a word about it was there, even though all of this happened in the same community.
When the police questioned Mr. Byers, they went about it very delicately. And the fact that he had drug problems in his life and had a history of rageful attacks on family members was never raised. By contrast, as far as we know, drugs were not an issue in the lives of any of the defendants or their families. There was apparently some minor experimentation, but it was negligible, nothing that the prosecution even bothered to bring up.
On the other hand, Byers was involved in drugs and other illegal activities too. At the time of the murders, he was being investigated by the Arkansas State Police for the theft of some $25,000-worth of property—a crime he admitted to, when presented with the evidence against him. But Brent Davis, the chief prosecutor for the district, opted not to prosecute him for that, and no mention of the theft investigation appeared in the murder investigation file.
Something else that disturbs me about the police treatment of John Mark Byers is that they completely overlooked what to me is a glaring discrepancy between his account of his whereabouts on the night the boys disappeared and the account given by his other stepson, Ryan. After the boys were reported missing, the families and people from the neighborhood began to search for them. Byers said that at one point, close to midnight, he and Ryan got in the car and drove over to a truck wash near the woods where the boys were last seen. He said Ryan honked the horn of the car, while he walked towards the woods and yelled, calling out the boys’ names. But Ryan’s account of that night was quite different. He said that after he and some friends had searched in the woods, he’d given up and gone home, and that his parents had sent him to bed, at was sometime around eleven o’clock. He didn’t say a word about going to the truck wash at midnight, and honking the horn, while his stepfather walked around and yelled. But the police never pursued that discrepancy. It went entirely unaddressed.
Why? Why would he assume they were at that location?
You tell me. (she says ominously.)
(Then, she raises her tone a bit.)
Well, a lot of kids in that area played in there. And the last time the boys were seen, they were riding on two bikes, on a street near those woods. There was a logical reason to focus on those woods. It was like a park in that neighborhood.
Then, we have the issue about John Mark Byers giving a knife to the HBO film crew. Do you know this part of the story?
I don’t think so.
HBO had made arrangements to videotape the trials. Shortly before they were to begin, Byers handed a folding knife to a member of the film crew. He reportedly just said, “I want to give this to you as a present.” When the crew member got back to New York, he opened it up, and in the fold he saw a thread and what appeared to be dried blood. The film crew packed up the knife and sent it to the West Memphis Police and they sent it to the state crime lab. It was blood in the fold of the knife, and it was identified as human blood. Moreover, though the test was limited, it showed that the blood on the knife matched that of Christopher Byers.
The police questioned John Mark Byers, though only at the defense attorneys’ insistence. They asked him, “Have you ever used this knife?” He said, no, he’d never used it. “Never used it? Oh, we’ve got a problem with that,” they said. And even here, they’re proceeding very gingerly. “We’ve got a problem with that,” they said. “It’s got blood on it.”
Oh. Now Byers remembers. He filleted a deer with it.
“We’ve got a problem with that, Mark,” they say. “The blood is human blood.”
“I have no idea. I just don’t know,” he says.
And then one of the officers suggests to him: “You think you might have laid your knife down on the table by your chair and one of your kids might have picked it up to play with it?”
That’s the tenor of their questioning of him.
Mara, with all the give-and-take in the conversations and situations, did you report all your stories straight, or try to incorporate some human elements into it?
I subscribe to the school that says there’s no such thing as objective reporting, because every one of us sees things from where we stand. If you are standing three feet away from where I am and looking at a fire, you are seeing some things slightly different than I am.
Our viewpoints are at least three feet different.
Therefore, what is the objective viewpoint of a story?
I think, however, that you can strive to be fair and accurate. And that is what I strive to do.
I also think it’s incumbent upon me as a writer not to ignore the fact that these are the stories of human beings. Everyone’s human here: the judge, the police officers, the families of the victims, the defendants and their families, the citizens of West Memphis and Marion—this region, the reporters who worked on it. All are human. And as such, it is a human story. I try to tell it as straight-forwardly and truthfully as I can, always bearing in mind that it is, like all stories, essentially human.
You say some things that some would find very negative about the local people in the case, or unpopular about the officials not being professional in their duties. People want to feel that they can trust their officials, because it gives them a sense of wellbeing.
Of course, people want to trust their officials. I include myself in that group too, as a citizen of Arkansas. I want to have that same assurance.
Someone is going to ask you this question—whether it is me or someone else. Do you really think that the West Memphis Three are innocent of those murders?
(Mara, looking straight into my eyes, unflinchingly proclaims)
I do. I think two things: I think that it is very clear that they did not get fair trials--that it was a sloppy investigation and the trials were not well conducted. And, beyond that, just based on my own examination of this case, I think there is no way these three young men were the killers. That’s just my opinion. But I will say that, in the four months my book has been out, none of the information contained in it has been challenged.
© 2003, Robert L. Hall, All Rights Reserved