Devil’s Knot: Atom Egoyan on Fact-Based Story

“When I was sent the script for Devil’s Knot, I was immediately struck by the complexity of this true story. Twenty years ago, three young boys were found murdered in a forest. The crime scene was appalling and – most mysteriously – there was no hard evidence. Who could have committed these horrors?

With this unanswered question comes something much deeper. The film becomes an exploration of how we live with evil, how we deal with issues of revenge, how we cope with the moral injury of a community and – most hauntingly – how we deal with unimaginable loss. Devil’s Knot shows how legal systems in the town were deployed to simulate retribution, as two characters – a grieving mother and an idealistic private investigator – begin to sense that something is deeply wrong.

In following these two characters, the film doesn’t point to a culprit. The answer to the crime may never be found. Mistakes were made, ‘evidence’ was constructed and important threads were lost. What remains is the infinitely more complex question of how we deal with the unknown.”

Reese Witherspoon and Colin Firth star in this film based on the true story of the murder of three young boys in West Memphis, Ark. and the murder trial that shocked the nation.

On the evening of May 5, 1993, in the small town of West Memphis, Arkansas, three eight-year-old boys disappeared. The next afternoon, the naked bodies of Stevie Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore were found submerged in a nearby stream. The boys had been bound from ankle to wrist with their own shoelaces and severely beaten. Christopher had been castrated. The crime scene had yielded few clues, and despite Christopher’s castration, there was a remarkable absence of blood. The police were stymied, and citizens’ alarm mounted as weeks passed with no suspects. Finally, a month after the murders, detectives announced three arrests and a startling theory for the crime: the children had been killed by members of a satanic cult.

Detectives attributed their break in the case to a former special education student, seventeen-year-old Jessie Misskelley, Jr. After twelve hours of questioning, police announced that Jessie had implicated himself and accused two other teenagers, eighteen-year-old Damien Echols and sixteen-year-old Jason Baldwin. Damien and Jason both immediately denied Jessie’s account, and Jessie himself recanted it within hours, but by then all three had been charged with capital murder.

With no physical evidence connecting anyone to the crime, prosecutors contended that the murders bore signs of “the occult” and that the three accused teenagers – alleged members of a satanic cult – possessed a “state of mind” that pointed to them as the killers. As proof of the defendants’ mental states, they introduced items taken from their rooms – such as books by Anne Rice and album posters for the rock group Metallica. Despite stunning investigative blunders, a confession riddled with errors and an absence of physical evidence linking any of the accused to the crime, the jury found all three teenagers guilty. Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, Jr. were sentenced to life in prison. They sentenced Damien Echols, the accused ringleader, to death.

In 1994, the Arkansas Supreme Court affirmed the verdicts on appeal and state officials insisted that anyone who questioned the trials simply did not know “the facts.”

In response to the convictions being upheld and a growing movement of “supporters” who believed in Damien, Jason and Jessie’s innocence, Mara Leveritt, an award winning investigative reporter living in Arkansas, decided to examine “the facts” cited by Arkansas state officials resulting in her bestselling book, ‘Devil’s Knot: The True Story of the West Memphis Three’, which recounts the chilling witch-hunt nature of the investigation and trials and raises serious questions about the lack of evidence as well as other viable suspects in the case. The troubling case has also been the subject of several documentaries and drawn the public support of members of the arts communities including Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, Natalie Maines of The Dixie Chicks, filmmaker Peter Jackson, and Johnny Depp. Leveritt’s book is the basis for the feature film DEVIL’S KNOT.

In 2007, a new defense team presented never-before-heard forensic testimony that would completely negate assertions of the original prosecution.