Outside the state, ask anyone over the age of 40to free-associate on the word "Arkansas," and chances are probably good you'll get some variation on "Bill Clinton," "hillbilly" and "Central High School." Ask anyone under 35 these days, however, and there is a good chance you'll also get "The West Memphis Three." As the subject of numerous benefits, several books, two documentaries, an 850 page website (WM3.org) and now a feature film, the WM3 have since become a cause celeb, T-shirt-worthy martyrs of justice denied. All that attention was in the future on June 23, 1994, however, when the Arkansas Times published Mara Leveritt's interview with supposed ring-leader Damien Echols.
It had all started two years before, on May 6, 1992, when three eight year old boys were found murdered in a waterlogged ditch just off I-40 in West Memphis. Soon, three teenage losers, Jessie Misskelly, Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin -prone to listening to Metallica and wearing black - were arrested in the case. Jessie Misskelly, with an IQ under 72, soon confessed after 12 hours of police interrogation (only the last 45 minutes of which were taped). The trials that followed were the worst kind of kangaroo court, with Crittenden County prosecutors getting out the sheets and fright paint to make over the defendants from bored Goths to the disciples of Satan. With no physical evidence linking the three to the crime and no motive - and, in the case of Echols and Baldwin, no confession - prosecutors used the testimony of a mail-order Satanism expert and police detectives who had been trying to run local weirdo Echols out of town for years to convince a jury that the crime had been the culmination of a satanic ritual. At two separate trials, all three were convicted. Baldwin and Misskelly were sentenced to life without parole, Echols to death.
Two years after Echols went to a cell on death row, Leveritt paid him a visit. "I went into the interview with serious concerns about the case," Leveritt said. "News reports of the trials had not made clear what evidence convinced the juries that these three young men were guilty. Immediately after the trials, I went to the WMPD (West Memphis Police Department) to review the police file. There, I still saw nothing that linked the three to the murders. Yet I had not attended the trials nor read the trial transcripts, so there was still a lot about the case I didn't know."
Two years and the gravity of his situation had mellowed and tempered Echols. Locked up for 23 hours a day, allowed to shower three times a week, Echols read a lot, and was a practicing Wiccan - though guards often censored books he ordered on the subject. Echols spoke candidly to Leveritt about his troubled childhood, his depression, and the day he was arrested.
"They wanted a monster," Echols said. "It was such a horrible crime, they couldn't imagine who could do a thing like that. They looked at us and they thought, 'The cold, heartless little creeps - they could have done it.' They wanted a monster, and they don't want to hear now that an innocent person has been sentenced to death."
Though several celebrities have since become friends with Echols, Leveritt said that for her, the case has always been about finding the truth. "That meeting, while interesting, did not color my opinion of the case," she said. "For me, this was never about personalities. It was --and it remains-- a matter of evidence."
While the interview with Echols was Leveritt's first piece on the WM3 case, but it wouldn't be her last. After several follow-ups in the Times, she eventually wrote the definitive text on the case: "Devil's Knot," which was published in 2002. By then, filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky had released their 1996 documentary about the WM3 "Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills" and the 2000 sequel "Paradise Lost: Revelations." On HBO. With those two documentaries, the West Memphis Three became international icons, and a black eye for the Arkansas legal system. Despite a wave of public outcry, the three remain incarcerated. Almost defying logic, all three have been denied new trials in the case. Echols is now housed with the rest of Arkansas's Death Row prisoners at Varner Supermax, held in virtual solitary confinement. Now a Buddhist, married to former New York architect who now lives in Little Rock, Echols says his faith keeps him sane, even as he inches toward a date with the executioner.
As for Leveritt, she seems like she's in it for the haul. She says that meeting Echols in 1994 was the first step on what would become for her a long journey. In August of this year, she worked on yet another story on the WM3 case for the Arkansas Times, this one about a key prosecution witness who now says she fabricated her testimony under pressure from prosecutors.
While Leveritt knows that stories like this one will only deepen the rest of America's disgust with Arkansas law, the truth is her guide.
"Because of this case, a lot of people are thinking more critically about the conduct of our police and courts," she said. "Whether that's a good thing or not, I'll leave to you to decide "