This week marks two remarkable anniversaries. It links two horrific murder cases that have been the focus of my books. For me, it also links the remarkable people who appear in those books, having suffered at the hands of a state that could not—or would not—adequately deal with the crimes.
On Sunday, I will celebrate, along with supporters around the world, the release from prison one year ago of Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, the men known as the West Memphis Three. Despite the stench of official cynicism that arose from the deal that freed them, those of us who have viewed their case as cynical from the start cannot help but be overjoyed that these men, now in their thirties, finally enjoy the freedoms that were taken away from them when they were arrested in 1993.
At the same time, we shudder that the person who actually killed three eight-year-old boys that year has never been brought to justice. Michael Moore, Stevie Branch and Christopher Byers deserve better than a state that says, implausibly, “We had your killers, but then, last year, for reasons that are hard to explain, we decided to let them go.”
Those three murders are still unsolved, despite the official claims, and so are the murders of the two Arkansas teenagers now known as “the boys on the tracks.” On Thursday, many of us who remember the official bungling—and worse—in their case will observe the 25th anniversary of the dark August night when someone placed their already-dead bodies to be run over by a train.
It will be a grim remembrance, made bearable only by another memory: that of the courage with which Linda Ives, Kevin’s mom, fought to cut through the official deceit that settled like a fog on the murders from the moment the bodies were found. She exposed one betrayal after another, yet the secret of what really happened on the night Kevin and Don were killed has endured. That secret has prevailed despite the attention aroused by a rash of related killings, an extended state police investigation, a peek by the FBI, suspicion of official involvement, and even the conviction on drug charges of the case’s prosecuting attorney. Information, for Linda Ives, never led to answers.
Anniversaries refer to the past. But for me, the cases I wrote about in “Devil’s Knot” and, earlier, “The Boys on the Tracks,” speak to the present, as from five untimely graves. They linger like ghosts, whispering disturbing questions that will not go away.
For example: In 1987, an Arkansas medical examiner announced that Kevin and Don had died accidentally; they’d laid themselves down on the tracks after smoking too much marijuana. Subsequent exhumations and autopsies revealed stab wounds and a crushed skull not previously reported.
Similarly, in 1993, a man covered in blood was reported in West Memphis, near where the bodies of the three murdered children were found. The man had attempted to clean up in a fast-food restaurant, and left bloody paper towels behind. But after police charged Baldwin, Misskelley and Echols with the crime, police claimed that they had “lost” the bloody evidence from the restaurant. Prosecutors then managed to convict the teens without any physical evidence, by claiming that they had murdered the boys as part of an “occult ritual.”
To me, both of these stories are scarier than fiction. In both, what began with murder turned worse, into a saga of inept and sometimes and cunning abuse of power. This week’s oddly conjoined anniversaries celebrate the survival of Ives, Baldwin, Misskelley and Echols. But they also honor the too-young dead by keeping alive the demand for truth.