'Devil's Knot': Based on True Story of 'Satanic Murders' Jun 11, 2014 19:36:10 GMT -5
Post by Graveyardbride on Jun 11, 2014 19:36:10 GMT -5
True story of 'Satanic murders' that inspired Colin Firth's deeply disturbing new film Devil's Knot
It was a trial that shocked America. Three 8-year-old boys plucked from the street and brutally murdered . Three teenage boys accused of killing them in a Satanic ritual.
With claims of devil-worshiping orgies fueled by the drinking of blood, it was the stuff of horror stories. But the evidence against the teens was a concoction of fantasy, lies and false confession. And it led to the – innocent youths being branded Satanic killers for little more than liking heavy metal band – Metallica and borrowing a book on witchcraft.
Despite a total absence of proof and shady star witness, all three were convicted of the monstrous murders in a bizarre case with echoes of the Salem Witch Trials.
This travesty of a trial took place in 1994 – and it was almost 20 years before justice was done.
The story is told in the new movie Devil’s Knot, released in the UK this week. It stars two Oscar winners: British actor Colin Firth, as the investigator who exposes the truth, and Reese Witherspoon, as a victim’s mother.
Firth found the case deeply disturbing. “Here’s a community that loses three children and they want to account for that by sacrificing three more. When people are so frightened by a crime of some kind, people start to distort evidence. In this case there was this Satanic panic going around.”
The film is based on the book by the same name by crime author Mara Leveritt. She tells how on the night of May 5, 1993, terror struck the poor Arkansas Bible-belt town of West Memphis, when three 8-year-old boys – Christopher Byers, Michael Moore and Stevie Branch – vanished within hours of each other. Next day their little bodies, naked, savagely beaten and trussed up with shoelaces, were pulled from a water-filled ditch in nearby woods. Christopher had also been castrated.
Byers was last seen at 5.30 p.m. sweeping the yard at home. Four hours later, his friends Michael and Stevie were reported missing, too.
Next morning, a police search of the woods was about to be called off when a police officer spotted a child’s shoe floating in the ditch.
Leveritt says: “A pale form began to rise in the water. Slowly, before the horrified officers’ eyes, a child’s naked body, arched grotesquely backward, rose to the surface.” It was Michael Moore. Leveritt adds: “He had endured tremendous violence. Michael’s hands and feet were behind him – the left ankle was tied to the left wrist, the right ankle and right wrist were also tied. The boy’s nakedness suggested something sexual. The severity of the wounds to his head suggested rage.”
Farther downstream, police found Stevie Branch’s corpse. His body was also naked and bent backward like the first, thin arms and ankles tied together with shoelaces. His face bore savage marks. It was hard to tell, the wounds were so deep, but it looked like Stevie’s face may have been bitten.
Minutes later, the nude and sexually mutilated body of Christopher Byers was also located in the mud.
Local law enforcement officers were baffled. Chief Gary Gitchell said little publicly, but behind the scenes, the theory that the murders might have been the result of “gang or cult activity” was gaining ground.
Not long after Byers disappeared, police had a report of a black man with blood on his face entering the ladies’ toilet in a local restaurant. Staff members found blood over the walls, but police failed to investigate. Instead, says Leveritt: “Within hours of the discovery of the bodies, rumors attributing the killings to Satanism had begun to circulate. Two women had already reported sounds of devil-worshiping in the woods.”
Police assigned the case the “Satanic” number 0666.
As panic spread, informants claimed an 18-year-old named Damien Echols (above center) was a devil worshiper, but police could find no real evidence this was the case.
Then, weeks later, a witness came forward. Waitress Vicki Hutcheson, 32, herself the subject of a fraud investigation, revealed that her 8-year-old son Aaron had seen his friend Michael Moore get into a car with a black man. But the evidence didn’t tie in with the Satanic cult theory, so it was discounted. Instead, astonishingly, police used Hutcheson to get close to their prime suspect Damien and his friend Jason Baldwin (above left), 16. She began by befriending her neighbour Jessie Misskelley (above right), a 17-year-old with learning difficulties who knew the other teens.
At the time, Hutcheson said: “Jessie told me about a friend of his named Damien and that this friend drank blood.”
Soon she was reporting to police that she’d gone with Damien and Jessie to an esbat – a devil-worshiping orgy in a field – where she saw about 10 young people, with faces and arms painted black, taking off their clothes and “touching each other.” As the Satanic panic grew, other witnesses reported Damien told them he had raped the boys and killed them with a 10-inch knife.
Eventually police interrogated Jessie – said to possess the educational level of a 9-year-old. Eventually they extracted a confession which was swiftly recanted. Despite this, all three teenagers were charged with the child murders.
Police were so confident they had the killers that when asked, “On a scale of one to 10, how solid do you feel your case is?” Chief Gitchell smiled and answered “Eleven.”
In the absence of any real evidence, the teenagers were branded devil worshipers because Jason wore Metallica T-shirts and Damien had checked out a library book on witchcraft.
The case was a modern equivalent of the 1692 trials in Salem, Massachusetts, wherein 20 people – 12 women and six men – were executed as witches on the basis of testimony fueled by hysteria.
All three youths were convicted of the murders. Echols was sentenced to death by lethal injection, while Baldwin and Misskelley received life sentences without parole.
The attitude of Branch’s mother, Pam Hobbs, was typical. Asked if she really thought the teenagers worshiped the devil, she replied: “Satan? Yes, I do. Just look at the freaks. I mean, just look at them. They look like punks.”
As the trio’s attorneys tried to appeal their clients’ convictions, Vicki Hutcheson contacted a private investigator, Ron Lax – played by Colin Firth in the movie – in an attempt to claim the reward money. Lax soon realized much of Hutchinson’s testimony was a lie.
In one interview Hutchinson said: “I said what the police wanted me to say. And that was that I went to the esbat meeting. It was all their stories. I want to say that I’m sorry. I just want to tell Jessie and Jason and Damien that I’m sorry.”
In the years following the convictions, clamour for an inquiry into the case reached fever pitch.
Christopher Byer’s stepfather John Mark Byers emerged as a possible suspect and was found to own a 9-inch knife with traces of the child’s blood on it. Finally, the Arkansas Supreme Court ordered a review of the case and in 2011, an agreement was reached: Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley pled “no contest” to the murders while still publicly maintaining their innocence. They were then sentenced to time served, 18 years, and set free.
The campaign to clear their names continues to this day.
Source: Doug Wright, The Mirror, June 8, 2014.