Based upon the true crime novel, Devil’s Knot: The True Story of the West Memphis Three by Mara Leveritt, Devil’s Knot tells the compelling story of three teenagers accused of a brutal 1993 triple murder of 8-year-old boys in Arkansas. The film explores the lives of the deeply misunderstood outsiders, their families, and communities. The conviction of the West Memphis Three rocked the justice system, shocked the town, and outraged the nation, but are they really guilty?
Limited Release, Directed by Atom Egoyan, Starring: Reese Witherspoon and Colin Firth.
Damien Echols, 39, one of the West Memphis 3, has in a sense starred in 5 films. Along with Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr., they were convicted in 1994 of the murder of three young boys (Stevie Edward Branch, Christopher Byers, and Michael Moore) in West Memphis, Arkansas.
After years of struggle to prove their innocence, Echols, once on death row, and Baldwin and Misskelley, were freed in 2011, but they did not achieve vindication.
Echols had received a death sentence, Misskelley Jr. was sentenced to life in prison plus 40 years and Baldwin was sentenced to life in prison. During the trial, the prosecution asserted the teens were satanists.
However, in 2007, new unknown DNA evidence and a report issued by the state and defense were released, “Although most of the genetic material recovered…was attributable to the victims…some of it cannot be attributed to either the victims or the defendants.”
In 2010, the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled in favor of the West Memphis 3 regarding the new DNA evidence. The court determined that a lower court should examine the claims of juror misconduct and the exculpatory DNA evidence. To avoid further proceedings, the three men gave an Alford plea (meaning they maintain their innocence, but recognize the state could get a jury to convict them).
Under the deal, the previous convictions were vacated and a new trial ordered. Each of the men then entered an Alford or no contest plea to charges of 1st and 2nd degree murder (instead of capital murder). They were sentenced to time served, which was a little more than 18 years. They were also given a suspended sentence of 10 years and told if they commit a crime they will receive 21 years in prison. Prosecutors said they agreed to the plea deal because two of the victims’ families no longer believe in the defendants’ guilt among other reasons. As part of the deal, the three cannot receive any compensation from any government agencies. Arkansas Governor Mike Beebe has already said he will not pardon the West Memphis 3 absent solid evidence someone else committed the crime.
The father of Christopher Byers in 2000 publicly questioned the guilty verdicts. In 2007, the mother of Stevie Branch also publicly questioned the verdicts. Both would like the case to be reinvestigated. Byers’ adoptive father, also in 2007, announced he no longer believes the three men are guilty.
Their supporters believe they were the victims of hysteria, media sensationalism, and a runaway prosecution. The three teens were the subject of the 3-part Paradise Lost documentary (1996-2011) and West of Memphis (2012).
Now their lives and case will be depicted in a Hollywood dramatization, Devil’s Knot from director Atom Egoyan.
The creators of the films say the case is worth revisiting repeatedly, even after the cameras stop rolling. “There’s no conclusive ending,” said Elizabeth Fowler, a producer of “Devil’s Knot.” “There are still things going on that are worthy of documentation.” The movie is based upon Mara Leveritt’s nonfiction book of the same title about the case.
It all started when Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky first traveled to Arkansas in 1993 to make the original HBO documentary Paradise Lost to document what they thought was “kids killing kids” and “devil worshippers”. The theory the prosecution and media advanced in the public. Instead, they realized that the film was actually about “wrongful conviction” and how a “town fell for the prejudice the prosecutors were selling.”
The documentary won an Emmy and a Peabody Award. It did not free the defendants. The Paradise Lost movies did inspire a series of innocence advocacy websites including wm3.org. The two follow up documentaries in the series were “unabashed advocacy,” according to the makers. Then, Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh (“Lord of the Rings”) produced West of Memphis and Amy Berg (“Deliver Us From Evil”) directed it. They hoped to create more public awareness of the case.
“Our brief to Amy was very clear,” Mr. Jackson wrote in an email. “The film was to essentially be the evidentiary hearing the state had blocked.”
Berlinger believes that Paradise Lost saved Echols from execution and Peter Jackson saved the men from prison.
Damien Echols originally had concerns about Devil’s Knot, which he has not seen. He isn’t producing the film, Baldwin and Misskelley are, among others, but an early draft insinuated that he had participated in satanic rituals. The scene was supposed to illustrate the local panic and hysteria over satanism that surrounded and clouded the case, but it was removed in the final draft. Replaced seemingly by several robed figures dancing around a fire.
Scott Ellington, the prosecuting lawyer for Arkansas’ 2nd Judicial District, said that there are “no ongoing investigations” by governmental officials into the case. As far as they are concerned, the three men committed the crime though they may not be able to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt. However, Ellington said that any information shared with him that could be exculpatory is given to defense counsel, “I occasionally get people sharing various thoughts and hypotheses, but not necessarily facts.”
Recent efforts by Echols’ lawyers to obtain case files and other evidence has not been successful. There is at least one more West Memphis Three project to come. Echols said he is publishing a collection of correspondence between him and his wife, Lorri David, that they exchanged while he was in prison. It will be called Yours for Eternity.
Echols sees the positive and negative in the continued exposure of his case, “You have to keep talking about it,” he said in a recent interview, “but at the same time, I’ve reached a point where I’m so sick of this stuff. It’s eaten up 20 years of my life.”
“It’s the last thing we can possibly do that has anything to do with that time in our lives,” he said. “We’re doing this, and we’re done.”
Though the The New York Times insinuated in their review that the film would be better if it didn’t stick to the facts, the film does “stay within the facts” and “reinforces the notion that truth is stranger than fiction.” The film does well bringing across the “mass hysteria” and the teenagers being “railroaded by a prosecution that made a mockery of justice.” This film brings a different side to the decades old story, concentrating more on Pam Hobbs, the mother of one of the victims, played by Reese Witherspoon, and Ron Lax, a private investigator working pro bono to help the defense, played by Colin Firth. The documentaries focused more on the three defendants.