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The West Memphis Three

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Interview: Mara Leveritt

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Interview: Mara Leveritt

Author: Peg Aloi [a WitchVox Sponsor]
Posted: November 16th. 2002
Times Viewed: 17,233

Arkansas journalist Mara Leveritt covered the case of the West Memphis child murders from the beginning. At first shocked and horrified by these crimes (Leveritt is a parent herself), she gradually began to be amazed at the turn of events as the investigation and trial unfolded. Her articles covering the case in the early days were among the very few that questioned the practices of the police or the legal soundness of what took place. Years of research and writing have led Mara to produce an eye-opening new book Devil's Knot: The True Story of the West Memphis Three. Written in an accessible style, but thoroughly supported with extensive footnotes, this book is a must-read for anyone interested in the West Memphis Three.

I was fortunate to interview Mara and talk with her about her book and the case.

TWV: At what point did you realize there was a book in all this?
ML: When the court affirmed the convictions in 1996 I figured the case had reached the point of total absurdity and I decided to write about it. I did not begin the book until 2000, but I have been writing about aspects of the case ever since the trials.

TWV: Did you talk with the three young men in prison?
I did do some interviews with the inmates. Damien's attorney asked him not to speak with the press but I did correspond and speak with Jason Baldwin. I think he is the most overlooked of the three defendants and a very bright young man, actually. I met with Jessie, too. I have met with all three of them. Damien's lawyers, because of the intensity of his appeals, asked that none of the interview be used in the book, which is understandable because his life is on the line.

TWV: What kind of experience was it researching and writing this book?
It was the most difficult writing project I've undertaken because I was writing about something that had so little logic to it. In most articles I've encountered as a reporter, there is a chronology that makes a certain amount of sense, and a rational process to follow. I found it much harder to write about things that were obscure and hidden. It was hard because there was so much about the legal process in this case that seemed not to follow normal procedures or even common logic.

TWV: Could you give some examples of what's unusual in this particular case?
Right off the bat, when someone is arrested, the arrest warrants and affidavits filed to support the warrant are made public, so the public knows why that person has been arrested. This is something that goes back centuries in our common law. In this case, the affidavits that were filed were sealed, and that was unusual. The judge allowed the arrests to be conducted in the middle of the night. That is another very ancient element of common law: police do not sweep into houses in the middle of the night; we do not use those kinds of tactics except in the most extreme circumstances. They seized Damien and Jason in the middle of the night, when they were at home watching TV.

TWV: Do you believe their Fourth Amendment rights were violated?
Yes, I do. The police, we later learned, justified their going in at night by saying they thought these kids were a risk of flight, and members of a secret cult, and evidence was at risk of being destroyed, but none of those things were borne out. There was no evidence. This was thirty days after the murders anyway, and these guys had hung around and were not going anywhere. When one of the judges put a seal on that affidavit, reporters were not able to find out the reasons behind the arrests. It heightened the drama, and this set the stage for a lot of sensational leaks. Reporters ended up dealing with leaks that came from someone in authority -- either the police or the prosecutors -- that alluded to satanism. The case had this sub rosa kind of atmosphere right from the start, in that it was not conducted properly, out in the open, as it should have been. The midnight search and arrests and slapping a seal on the affidavits set the stage for leaks that then could be exploited by rumor -- and that was the cloudy atmosphere that surrounded the entire case. The defense attorneys felt this made it impossible to for the defendants to have an uncontaminated, untainted jury. That is one example, but it's one of the most grievous.

TWV: Do you feel a personal connection this case? Has it been hard to remain objective as a journalist?
I do feel personally affronted by many aspects of this case, but that does not cloud my role as a writer. I find it pretty easy to separate my indignation over what happened here from the very simple job of looking at records and seeing exactly what took place. Sometimes I see it as similar to being a surgeon: you really want this person to live, but the job at hand is to connect the arteries, etc. and you have a very technical job and that cannot have much emotion connected to it. I included all the information I found, without regard for which side it favored. For instance, there were certainly some elements that are not attractive for some of the defendants and their families. Damien in particular had some very serious psycho-social or psychiatric problems; some of the things he wrote in his journals and showed to therapists are not pretty to see in print and did not help his case, but it was important to include them in the book.

TWV: In researching this book, reading through the piles of documents associated with this case, did you find anything shocking or unexpected?
Yes... there was one element of the trial transcript of Damien and Jason's trial. This whole thing ran to some 3,000 pages. Deep in the guts of that transcript was a session that took place in Judge Burnett's chambers away from the hearing of the jury, that involved a witness that the defense wanted to question. And what I found there was that, on two occasions, the witness asked for a lawyer, yet Judge Burnett continued to question him. Even police officers are taught that when a subject asks for a lawyer, they're supposed to stop the questioning immediately, and not continue until the subject has legal counsel. In this case, Judge Burnett apparently realized, a little too late, what he had done. His solution was to place a gag order on everyone who was present in the room, so that word of that incident never was reported. That episode was also interesting because comments Judge Burnett made contained allusions to drug dealing and to John Mark Byers. It is a little bit murky, and what was happening was a bit oblique, but it certainly was one of the most interesting pieces of information.

TWV: Your name is linked with Henry Rollins a lot these days; what do you think of his efforts to help the West Memphis Three?
I'm extremely grateful to Henry, and I'm so pleased and inspired by everybody, especially artists who are speaking out about this. I'm glad that these artists have recognized that First Amendment issues have played such a role in this criminal case. These film makers and musicians and actors are concerned with people's right to explore different religious beliefs. They're concerned with the right to listen to music without fearing that someone will bring charges against you. They're concerned with the right to read books or write in your journal. When people are involved in the arts they care about these First Amendment rights: certainly Henry Rollins as an actor, writer and musician, does. He is very much living under the protection of the First Amendment. I was especially pleased when he got involved. He is one of several artists supporting the case, as you know, just as when Metallica allowed their music to be used in the HBO films, and when Eddie Spaghetti and his friends did the first benefit album, and Trey Parker and others have spoken out about this case. I hope that, as awareness spreads, we will get more writers who will begin to realize that books were used against these defendents too. A book Damien bought at a library used-book sale was presented to the jury as some sort of evidence of his guilt. You need to be able to pick up a book and not expect that it is going to be used against you in a murder trial where the prosecution lacks any real evidence. This issue is critically important.

There is another aspect of this that has not received much attention. Because Damien had a troubled adolescence and had run away from home, he was ordered to have a psychiatric evaluation, and eventually, he was ordered to attend counseling sessions at his local mental health office. He complied with those orders. He spoke to his therapist under conditions of confidentiality, and in fact asked several times about that confidentiality. But at his trial, those records were introduced. Unfortunately it was a witness for Damien's own side who made the mistake of referring to the records, which opened them up for the prosecution. But to have records of sessions with a therapist that you believed were confidential exposed in this way is another issue that warrants attention.

TWV: Why did people need to see those quotes from those sessions?
I put them in the book because they became an element of the trial; they may have been part of the reason he was arrested. It was interesting to me to learn about it, and I thought, can anybody's records be used this way? What I found was, if you or I want to go see a psychiatrist or psychologist and we pay for it ourselves, it's private. Many, if not most, private therapists destroy their records precisely so they can say "I don't have them," should they ever be questioned. This is so they will not be placed in that compromising position of betraying that client confidentiality. But if you work for a state-funded agency, as happened here, those people are not allowed to destroy their records and the records get passed on and they are kept forever in the county metal health office. In this case, Damien's family did not have the money for private care and he was also required to go to these sessions. This is one of the areas where the issue of money was so important.

TWV: Do you think money is also a big issue in the appeals process, now that so many lawyers, even high-profile lawyers like Mallett and Scheck, are working pro bono on this case?
These defendants could not pursue appeals at all if several dedicated attorneys had not contributed hundreds of hours of their time. Few people in this country could ever afford this kind of help at any stage of the process. But it's clear to me that the trial is always where the critical action happens, and if the defense counsel isn't good enough there, it's an uphill battle from that point forward, no matter how many issues are raised on appeal. It's unfortunate that in this country, some people, like O.J. Simpson, are able to go to trial with personal, paid-for attorneys, while the poor take the luck of the draw. Without funds for investigation or to call in expert witnesses, the defense can be terribly handicapped in terms of how they present their case. And, once the trial is over, it's hard to win an appeal. That's true no matter who you are.

TWV: What do you think is going to happen with the appeals process?
The Arkansas Supreme Court is faced with some pretty interesting questions right now. The attorneys have presented three or four pretty big issues that the court is being asked to decide. It will either continue and maintain that everything was perfectly in order in this case, which seems to me to be a stretch of the first magnitude (laughter)... or, it will have to go back on itself and say, "Well, on second thought, maybe there were a few problems here." Of course, the courts don't like to do that when it comes to their own rulings. The general opinion seems to be that the Arkansas Supreme Court will not change its pattern in this case. Then again, there is a feeling that the questions are so big that it might. So I think this could go either way.

TWV: Does it seem to you there has been an attempt to demonize Judge Burnett in all this, since he rejected the first round of appeals?
To the contrary, there has been little criticism of Judge Burnett, at least on an official level. In fact, since the appeals process has begun, Judge Burnett has been appointed chairman of the Arkansas Supreme Court Committee on Criminal Procedure. Even now, Judge Burnett is still involved in this case. For instance, a DNA hearing that's been requested by Jessie's and Damien's lawyers will be held in Judge Burnett's court next spring. The defense has fought for years just to get that hearing. The prosecutor resisted, which again, is a point that deserves examination. Here we have a case that has resulted in a death penalty sentence and the life imprisonment of two young men. At the same time, we have statutes passed by the state legislature saying that where there are questions that could be settled by reexamination of DNA, the inmates have a right to that retesting. Yet, we have a prosecutor who has opposed the reexamination of DNA in this case. Now further testing may or may not reveal anything: the DNA in question may have deteriorated. But the thing is, all three defendants are willing to have it examined, and who is not willing? The prosecutors! If the issue here really was justice for all, we would make sure that there is justice before we go and kill someone.

A very wise person I know, who watches these things day in and day out, says that a lot of times what we call "justice" looks more like a football game: once there has been a win, no one wants to review the films and give the win to the other team -- even if a crucial call was clearly wrong. Unfortunately, I think she's right. There is a game aspect to too much of the justice system. And there shouldn't be. If we convict the wrong people, we should not want to extend the crime by taking another innocent life.

TWV: Why do you think things happened the way they did in West Memphis with this crime?
I think that the police for some reason did not want to look at the most obvious suspects, one of them being John Mark Byers. It's well known that in police investigations of child murders, the first suspects are the family members. That is logical because they are closest to the victims, and young victims are not out during the day, they are in school, there is not a very wide circle of life for most eight-year-olds. So usually the families of murder victims are closely scrutinized, and in this case that did not happen. Even though Byers was put on the stand eventually, he was not really looked at closely in the early days of the investigation. The bodies were found on May 5, and he was not extensively questioned until May 19. The police had already questioned Damien several times by then. In fact, they questioned Damien extensively the day after the bodies were found. Yet we have almost two weeks before anyone does an interview with Byers, and it is not a probing interview at all. One of the things I found in researching this was that there were many contradictions in the stories of what happened that night between John Mark Byers and Melissa and Ryan. But the police did not ever seem to pick up on that. They were not looking closely. What I found was that we have members of the immediate family giving different accounts of what happened the night the children disappeared. An oversight this large indicates to me that there was not much interest on the part of police in looking closely in Mr. Byers' direction. This lack of attention, of course, is compounded by the fact that Mr. Byers already had a felony conviction for threatening to kill his first wife in the presence of their two children. It seems clear he'd received special treatment from both the courts and the police prior to the murders, and I think the special treatment he received during the investigation was due to the very unusual reluctance of the police to look at him as a suspect. All this comes into sharper focus in light of the fact that Christopher was the major target of the attacks. Dan Stidham (Jessie's lawyer) wisely points out that Mr. Byers has not been tried, and that he deserves to be considered innocent. But the fact is, he should also have been considered a prime suspect and yet he was not, and this raises many questions, not only about not only the police but about the judicial system, as well.

TWV: He was a drug informant for the local narcotics squad, wasn't he?
Yes, and he did go to prison after being arrested with drugs (years after the murder trials), but his sentence was not for the drugs. He was caught and convicted, but his sentence was actually for an earlier conviction in Cherokee Village for inciting a fight among minors with knives. They told him he had a suspended sentence, but if he got into any more trouble, he would be sent to prison. So, what happened? He got into more drug trouble, attempting to sell Xanax to an undercover police officer, and he was convicted of that, and he went to jail, but the sentence was not for the drugs, but for his previous crimes. To my knowledge, John Mark Byers has never spent a moment in jail for anything having to do with drugs. This all becomes especially interesting in light of the current investigation of narcotics officers in the West Memphis area, some of whom have recently been indicted by a federal grand jury.

TWV: What do you think really happened to Melissa Byers?
There's an article I have just written which will be in the Arkansas Times in a week or two, in which I talk to the medical examiner who performed the autopsy on her body. He said that she did die at the hospital. They found that she still had some heart activity when she was brought in. This M.E. knew about the police report, that a neighbor who had driven Mr. Byers to the hospital said that, on the trip, Mark had worried aloud that the police might think he had attempted to smother Melissa. But the pathologist said he could not find enough drugs in her system to conclude she'd been incapacitated so much as to be unable to fight off being smothered. Normally when a person has been starved for air, that person fights desperately. You'd find marks, skin under the fingernails, signs of a serious struggle, etc. But the pathologist did not find enough drugs to indicate that she had been unconscious, and neither did he find any signs of that kind of struggle. So after months of wondering about it he finally ruled the manner of her death inconclusive.

TWV: What has been hardest about doing this project?
As awful as this case is in so many ways, I wanted to write about it because I think elements of it show up in cases all around this country. This case is a rolling train wreck of disasters, of pile upon pile of these elements, and so it is a study of how many things can go wrong, if someone wants them to go wrong. And all of it has the stamp of approval of the police and the judicial system. In that sense it's been like doing research that extends far beyond this one case. We all are told and we all want to believe that we've got a system that is pretty tight, and that the checks and balances work, but when you have this many failures in one case, it's kind of like a nuclear meltdown. You have to look at it closely and you have to realize that elements of what has happened here occur in other cases -- that what happened here in Arkansas can happen in any state in the country.

Peg Aloi
Media Coordinator, The Witches' Voice
Email: [Staff Page Link]






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