In recent years, the case of the West Memphis Three has become a cause celebre, with two popular documentaries, a website (wm3.org), big-time legal names rallying to the cause, and "Free the West Memphis Three" T-shirts worn by celebrities who weren't even celebrities when Jason Baldwin, Damien Echols and Jessie Misskelley disappeared into the state prison system.
Behind all the sloganeering, however, the story of the murders in West Memphis is a sad, terrible tale about a horrendous crime, and a horrendous upending of justice. Three 8-year-old boys, abducted, trussed like hogs, beaten, one of them castrated, all drowned in a ditch. Three young men convicted of the crime, one by his compromised and coerced confession, the other two solely on a case so inane, backward and superstitious as to be laughable if the outcome wasn't so damned sad. This is the dark landscape Arkansas Times contributing editor Mara Leveritt surveys in her new book, "Devil's Knot."
The story is almost a dark fairy tale: a trifold symmetry, a haunted and magical wood, a band of daring and determined men, schooled in arcane arts.: And any fairy tale worth its salt needs monsters.
To a mind already prone to believe in such things, it might be hard to imagine a better candidate for that role than the petulant, black-haired Damien Wayne Echols. Echols seemed to delight in shocking his small-town scene, dabbling in Wicca, wearing all-black, telling anyone who'd listen that he sucked blood and worshipped goddesses He collected around him a small band of hangers-on. Too, as related in "Devil's Knot," Echols loved doing his schtick for those in charge: bouncing his vampire routine off shrinks and whipping into a hallelujah frenzy the local juvenile probation officer, who saw a cult behind every rock and quite literally thought Echols a lieutenant of Satan come down to earth. When the three boys turned up dead, people came out of the woodwork to accuse Damien Echols
The problem with that is, everyone has known a Damien Echols; a sad, lonely boy who builds a myth about himself like a castle keep: I'm dangerous. I'm crazy. I'll kill you as soon as look at you. In the '50's, Damien Echols might have slicked his hair back, bought a pack of Lucky Strikes and a leather jacket. In the early '90's, with every preacher in a pulpit screaming about Satanism, Echols became the '90's equivalent: He worships the Devil. He's in a cult. He'll drink your blood.
But here's the newsflash, courtesy of author Mara Leveritt: Damien Echols was no devil worshipper. At best, he was a proto-Goth with a streak of James Dean in him. At worst, he was a small-town crank; a moody kid who would have probably grown into a law abiding, garden-variety asshole if the West Memphis police hadn't been so intent on making him into the anti-Christ that they booked him for dressing like a weirdo.
It's understandable why interviewers and celebrities alike have gravitated toward Echols in the past. He is easily the most photogenic of the three, the most intelligent, the most outspoken and has the most to lose, namely his life. Leveritt herself, however, resists the urge to focus on Echols. In doing so, she refutes the popular myth that has grown in recent years into The Tragic Tale of the West Memphis Three, complete with easily digestible characters: Misskelley the retarded victim, Baldwin the devoted friend, Echols the wounded poet. Leveritt is smart enough to understand what many of the beautiful people and do-gooders who have drifted to this cause don't: That the story of the West Memphis Three is not about the triumphs and setbacks of three prisoners, it is about the three young men who became those prisoners, and why they became them, and why it should never happen again. What she gives us instead is the truth of the three, what she knows we must have if we are to see them as the police and prosecutors and jury saw them, if we are to ever reach the realization that she did: That these were troubled kids, not wanton killers. This was not a railroad job in the classic sense, Leveritt says, it is a case of a community so horrified by a crime that they refused to believe a mere mortal could have done it.
To get there, she must de-wing them, pare them back down to the broken, angry, average, bored boys that they were. Jessie Misskelley: the scrappy fighter, who tried to please his captors into letting him go home and instead ended up in jail for life. Jason Baldwin: the fragile, devoted, clingy boy looking for a father, any father. And finally Damien Echols, Echols before he became a symbol, before he became Something Worth Fighting For: Echols the weirdo, Echols the wannabe, Echols the romantic with too much time on his hands, but no killer. Instead of the Beasts of West Memphis, or WM3.org's assortment of death row philosophers and poster children, we get scared, poor kids from dusty Delta trailerparks, kids who tried to fend off the world with their oddness but instead got tangled in a web of their own hype.
If there is a fault to this book, it is that Leveritt tries to cram too much information into her 300-odd pages. Sometimes it's like watching a cook trying to stuff an elephant into a stew pot. The reason for this informational overkill becomes clear soon enough. One of the motifs that runs throughout the book - repeated by police, reporters and prosecutors so often that it becomes a mantra - is: If only you knew what I know, if only you had seen what I saw, if only you had read what I read, if only you had been there, you would have convicted them, too.
But Leveritt's need to squeeze musty police reports and shoddily stored evidence of the last drop of information is her way of telling you:. The emperors of West Memphis, no matter how much they protest, really do have no clothes. Leveritt takes pains to walk you though this haunted house, room by room, inch by inch, shining her light into every dark and terrible corner, just to prove to you that the last, crucial piece of evidence that the public never got to see is, in fact, no more real than the trio of fiends summoned by the West Memphis police from a bogus confession and three scared boys.
In the process, "Devil's Knot" becomes the best horror novel you've ever read, one of those that leaves you wondering what new sick dread might be lying in wait on the next page, one of those that telegraphs the frustration and fear of its characters through the cover like a chunk of iron struck with a mallet. The monster Leveritt reveals in the end, however, is more terrifying than even the fork-tailed bogeymen conjured by West Memphis police and prosecutors to fit their crime. What Leveritt reveals to us is the most horrible fiend a rational person can imagine when matters of life and death are at stake: the Specter of Doubt.