FAQs for Mara Leveritt
Q: How/when did you get involved?
I was a newspaper reporter in 1993 and heard about the murders almost as soon as the bodies were found. I wrote my first piece about the murders a week after the arrests. After the trials in 1994, when I could not understand what evidence had persuaded the two juries to find the teenagers guilty, I began reporting on what I’d found in the police files. From there, every step I took seemed to deepen they mystery of why these three teenagers had been charged and what legal procedures had allowed their convictions.
Q: Did you meet the men in prison?
Yes. Three months after Damien and Jason were convicted, I published an interview with Damien titled “Witch on Death Row.” I visited Damien several times during his 17 years in prison. I met with Jessie a few times and got to know Jason pretty well.
Q: Do you think the circumstances of this case are unique to Arkansas?
Not at all. While we rely on the professionalism and integrity of those in our criminal justice system, the sad fact is that bad police work, prosecutor misconduct, and politicized judges are problems throughout the United States.
Q: What do you expect from all the attention focused on this case?
There have been four documentaries, two books, and a feature film—and I’m about to release my second book on the case. The HBO documentaries, especially the first, exposed thousands of people to the kinds of abuses that can occur at trials, but which never show up on fictionalized television shows. Those documentaries were extraordinary because all but a very few of the country’s most sensational trials ever get recorded. One thing I hope comes from this case is that the public will realize the need for every defendant to have the same opportunity that the West Memphis Three got, with regard to having their trials video-recorded. Trials are supposed to be open, but so far, most courts refuse to allow cameras to record them. I hope my books take people who have become interested in the documentaries more deeply into the investigative and legal maneuvers that resulted in the sentences to death and life in prison—and into what some of those prison experiences were like.
Q: Who do you think killed the children?
I don’t speculate, and we cannot know because state officials have never conducted an adequate investigation.
Q: So almost 18 years after the convictions, state officials grant the West Memphis Three a plea bargain by which they are freed from prison if they plead guilty. How does that work?
In my view, the so-called Alford Plea was nothing but expediency all around. Three innocent men, who’d been in prison for half their lives, falsely pleaded guilty in order to be freed. I see that part as coercive, like accepting a deal with a gun pointed to Damien’s head. At the same time, the state got to save face and avoid launching a proper investigation of the murders by disingenuously insisting that, as the convicted men had finally pleaded guilty, they were indeed the killers—case closed. One has to wonder why, if the state is so satisfied these men murdered three children, it set them free. I’m glad the men are out of prison, yet I’m dismayed that, in order for that to happen, justice was yet again so perverted.
Q: Have any state officials been sanctioned for their handling of the case?
To the contrary. Both prosecutors went on to become judges and the judge became a state senator. The state supreme court is supposed to oversee the conduct of attorneys and judges, but prosecutors are immune if their actions result in harm, such as wrongful convictions and incarceration, and the high court seldom imposes sanctions on attorneys, much less on elected officials, and even less on judges. The federal government and all states need to establish systems for holding prosecutors and judges accountable. The Alford Plea that freed the West Memphis Three from prison also stipulated that they could not sue the state for damages, so the state insulated from all consequences.
Q: Why did you continue writing about the case so long?
It was so bad from the start, and then it kept sprouting stories. For example, in 1996, two years after the convictions, Melissa Byers, the mother of one of the murdered children, died under circumstances that have not been explained to this day. That same year, HBO released the documentary “Paradise Lost,” with footage from the trials that many viewers considered outrageous. Yet, almost simultaneously, the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled that it found not a single error in the way those trials were conducted. Over time, the growing international support for three convicted child-killers in Arkansas itself became a story, as did the eventual discovery of juror misconduct and DNA from one of the victim’s stepfathers inside one of the knots at the crime scene. Twenty years later, I am still writing about this case because it isn’t over yet.
Q: What has the West Memphis case meant to you personally?
I have devoted a good chunk of my professional life to it, and I’m glad to have had my books published and read and a fine film based on one of them. I’ve had the great satisfaction of seeing men who should never have been sent to prison finally freed. On the other hand, I’ve gotten to know two of the victims’ parents, and I understand the sense of betrayal they feel for having trusted the courts, which they no longer do. I also understand why they believe an honest investigation is still possible and their frustration with the state’s refusal to authorize one. The best part, however, has been getting to know how many people truly care about the ideal of justice and have been willing to oppose evident, terrible abuses of it. As a result of this case, I have gotten to know men and women around the world with good minds, stout hearts and great spirits. That has been a joy.