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

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9780743417600: Devil's Knot: The True Story of the West Memphis Three

*SOON TO BE A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE STARRING REESE WITHERSPOON AND COLIN FIRTH *

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.

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About the Author:

Mara Leveritt has won several awards for investigative journalism, including Arkansas's Booker Worthen Prize for her book The Boys on the Tracks. A contributing editor to the Arkansas Times, she lives in Little Rock.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One

The Murders

At 7:41 P.M. on May 5, 1993, a full moon rose behind the Memphis skyline. Its light glinted across the Mississippi River and fell onto the midsized Arkansas town aspiringly named West Memphis. Sometime between the rising of that moon and its setting the next morning, something diabolical would happen in West Memphis. Three eight-year-old boys would vanish, plucked off the streets of their neighborhood by an unseen, murderous hand. Under the glare of the next day's sun, police would discover three young bodies. They would be pulled -- naked, pale, bound, and beaten -- from a watery ditch in a patch of woods alongside two of America's busiest highways. But the investigation would unfold in shadow. Why had one of the boys been castrated? How to account for the absence of blood? Why did the banks of the stream look swept clean? The police would stumble for weeks without clues -- until the moon itself became one.

John Mark Byers, an unemployed jeweler, was the first parent to report a child missing. At 8 P.M., with the full moon on the rise, Byers telephoned the West Memphis police. Ten minutes later, a patrol officer responded. She drove her cruiser down East Barton Street, in a working-class neighborhood. At the corner where Barton intersected Fourteenth Street, the officer stopped in front of the Byerses' three-bedroom house. Byers, an imposing man, six feet five inches tall, weighing more than two hundred pounds, with long hair tied back in a ponytail, met her at the door. Behind him stood his wife, Melissa, five feet six, somewhat heavyset, with long hair and hollow eyes. Mark Byers did most of the talking. The officer listened and took notes. "The last time the victim was seen, he was cleaning the yard at 5:30 P.M." That would have been an hour and twenty minutes before sunset. The Byerses described Christopher as four feet four inches tall, weighing fifty pounds, with hair and eyes that were both light brown. He was eight years old.

The officer left the Byerses' house, and within minutes was dispatched to another call, at a chicken restaurant about a mile away. She pulled up at the Bojangles drive-through at 8:42 P.M. Through the window, the manager reported that a bleeding black man had entered the restaurant about a half hour before and gone into the women's rest room. The manager told the officer that the man, who had blood on his face and who had seemed "mentally disoriented," had wandered away from the premises just a few minutes before she arrived. When employees entered the rest room after he left, they found blood smeared on the walls. The officer took the report but investigated the incident no further. At 9:01, without ever having entered the restaurant, she drove away to a criminal mischief complaint about someone throwing eggs at a house.

At 9:24 P.M., the same officer responded to another call, again from Barton Street -- this one from the house directly across from the Byerses'. Here a woman, Dana Moore, reported that her eight-year-old son, Michael, was also missing. Taking out her pad again, the officer wrote, "Complainant stated she observed the victim (her son) riding bicycles with his friends Stevie Branch and Christopher Byers. When she lost sight of the boys, she sent her daughter to find them. The boys could not be found." Moore said the boys had been riding on North Fourteenth Street, going toward Goodwin. That had been almost three and a half hours earlier, at about 6 P.M. By now, it had been dark for more than two hours. "Michael is described as four feet tall, sixty pounds, with brown hair and blue eyes," the officer wrote. "He was last seen wearing blue pants, blue Boy Scouts of America shirt, orange and blue Boy Scout hat and tennis shoes."

By now a second officer had been dispatched to a catfish restaurant several blocks away. There another mother, Pamela Hobbs, was reporting that her eight-year-old son, Stevie Edward Branch, was missing as well. Hobbs lived at Sixteenth Street and McAuley Drive, a few blocks away from the Byerses and the Moores. She reported that her son, Stevie, had left home after school and that no one had seen him since. The officer who took Hobbs's report did not note who was supposed to have been watching Stevie while his mother was at work, or who had notified Hobbs that her son was missing. Stevie was described as four feet two inches tall, sixty pounds, with blond hair and blue eyes. The police report noted, "He was last seen wearing blue jeans and white T-shirt. He was riding a twenty-inch Renegade bicycle."

Word of the disappearances spread quickly through the subdivision. As groups of parents began searching, other residents reported that they had seen some boys -- three, or maybe four -- riding bikes near the dead end of McAuley Drive shortly before sunset. McAuley was a major street in the neighborhood. The house on McAuley where Stevie Branch lived was a few blocks south of the corner on Barton where the other two missing boys lived across the street from each other. From Stevie's house, McAuley wound west for a few blocks, ending at the edge of a four-acre patch of woods, a short distance northwest of the other boys' homes. The woods separated the subdivision from two interstate highways and their service roads on the north. The small sylvan space provided the neighborhood with a welcome buffer from the traffic on their northern edge. For a few diesel-fumed miles, east-west Interstate 40, spanning the United States between North Carolina and California, converges in West Memphis, Arkansas, with north-south I-55, connecting New Orleans to Chicago. For truckers and other travelers, the stretch is a major midcontinental rest stop; where the highways hum through West Memphis, the city has formed a corridor of fueling stations, motels, and restaurants. It was easy for anyone passing through not to notice the small patch of woods bordering that short section of highway. What was more noticeable was the big blue-and-yellow sign for the Blue Beacon Truck Wash that stood several yards from the edge of the woods, alongside the service road.

Just as truckers knew the Blue Beacon, kids in the neighborhood to the south were familiar with the woods. The small plot of trees represented park, playground, and wilderness for children and teenagers living in the subdivision's modest three-bedroom houses and in the still more modest apartment building nearby. That the woods existed at all was an acknowledgment, not of the need for parks or of places for children to play, but of the need for flood control. Years earlier the city had dredged a channel, unromantically known as the Ten Mile Bayou Diversion Ditch, to dispose of rainwater that ordinarily would have flowed into the Mississippi River but that was prevented from draining by the great levees that held back the river. While the levees kept the Mississippi at bay, rainwater trapped on the city side of the levee had posed a different flood problem for years. The Ten Mile Bayou Diversion Ditch was dredged to direct rainwater around the city to a point far to the south, where a break in the Mississippi levee finally allowed it to drain. Part of that ditch ran through this stand of trees. In places, the ditch was forty feet wide and could fill three or four feet deep. Tributaries, such as the one that drained the land directly behind the Blue Beacon, formed deep gullies in the alluvial soil. Together, the combination of trees, ravines, water, and vines made the area a hilly wonderland for kids with few unpaved places to play.

They called the woods Robin Hood. Adults tended to make the name sound more proper, calling it Robin Hood Hills, but it was always just Robin Hood for the kids. Under its green canopy they etched out bike trails, built dirt ramps, established forts, and tied up ropes for swinging over the man-made "river." They fished, scouted, camped, hunted, had wars, and let their imaginations run. But at night, when the woods turned dark, most kids stayed away. The place didn't seem so friendly then, and the things that parents could imagine translated into stern commands.

Besides the risks from water and Robin Hood's closeness to the highways, parents worried about transients who might be lurking there. Many parents warned their children to stay out of the woods entirely. But the ban was impossible to enforce. Robin Hood was too alluring. And so it was inevitable, on that Wednesday night in May, as word flew from house to house that three eight-year-olds were missing, that parents would rush to the dead end of McAuley, where a path led into the woods. It was about a half mile from the homes of Christopher Byers and Michael Moore and only a few blocks farther from that of Stevie Branch.

The delta was already beginning to warm up for the summer. At 9 P.M., even on May 5, the temperature was seventy-three degrees. An inch of rain a few days before had already brought out the mosquitoes. The insects were a nuisance everywhere, but they were especially thick in places that were moist and overgrown -- shady places like the woods. The officer who'd taken the missing-person reports on Christopher Byers and Michael Moore later reported that she'd ventured into the woods near the Mayfair Apartments to help look for the boys, but the mosquitoes had driven her out. The officer who'd taken the report on Stevie Branch also said later that he'd entered the woods and searched with a flashlight for half an hour. But those two efforts were the only police action that night. No organized search by police would begin until the morning.

As officers assembled at the West Memphis Police Department for their usual briefing on Thursday morning, May 6, 1993, Chief Inspector Gary W. Gitchell, head of the department's detective division, announced that three boys were missing and that he would be directing the search. A search-and-rescue team from the Crittenden County Sheriff's Office would be assisting. When a few hours had passed without sign of the boys, the police department across the river in Memphis, Tennessee, dispatched a helicopter to assist. By midmorning, dozens of men a...

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