By the time of the incident at UALR, I’d come to know a lot about the 1993 murders of the three little boys in West Memphis.
I’d opened musty evidence boxes and held the sheets their bodies had been wrapped in nearly eight years before.
I’d pored over transcripts of the subsequent trials, in which juries found three local teenagers – alleged by the state to have been satanists – guilty of killing the children.
I’d chronicled for this paper some of the Internet and celebrity attention the case attracted after a 1996 documentary raised questions about the conduct of the trials.
And now I was writing a book that would examine the case in depth. I planned to call it Devil’s Knot, because of the references to satanism – and because the case itself was strangely tangled, complicated by highly unusual legal twists and turns.
Many of the story’s most confounding elements traced to the four weeks after the murders, while police were conducting their investigation. I had questions for the police and prosecutors, and especially for Dr. Frank Peretti, the state forensic pathologist who had examined the children’s bodies.
Thus, I was delighted to learn, in January of last year, that Peretti was going to speak on the campus of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
Better yet, signs announcing his appearance said the associate medical examiner would be speaking specifically about his involvement in the West Memphis murder investigation.
On the advertised date, I found my way to the room where Peretti was to appear. I paid a small admission fee to the campus’s Criminal Justice Club, which was sponsoring the event, took a seat and opened my laptop.
The computer had barely come to life when I was approached by the club’s faculty sponsor. She asked who I was and why I was in the room. Startled, I replied that I was a reporter and I was interested in Dr. Peretti’s subject.
The professor asked me to leave.
I was stunned. I pointed out that this was a publicly advertised speech, to be delivered by a state employee, on a state university campus. But she was adamant. She told me that Dr. Peretti had stipulated before agreeing to talk that he would not address the group if any reporters or law students were present.
Dumbfounded, I explained that the case in question was a matter of public record, that all three of the defendants had been convicted, and their convictions had been affirmed nearly five years earlier by the Arkansas Supreme Court.
More to the point, I argued, it was outrageous for Dr. Peretti or for anyone at the school to attempt to discriminate among attendees at a public event. She insisted that, even though the event was advertised and an admission fee was being charged, it was really a classroom lecture that not just anyone could attend.
In the end, after I’d taken my protest to the chancellor’s office, it was Peretti who settled the matter. He announced that he would indeed speak to the group – but not about the West Memphis case.
I did not stay to listen. But some members of the audience who did – members who were not, incidentally, students – told me later that the talk had been disappointing.
They’d hoped to hear Dr. Peretti discuss one of Arkansas’s most infamous crimes; a horrible triple-murder that had resulted in a sentence of death for one of the accused and to life in prison for the others. Some, like me, were familiar with the case and had come hoping to hear the doctor answer some longstanding questions. Given the chance, I would have liked to ask the doctor…
Why had it taken so long to get his autopsy reports to police?
The bodies of the boys – Christopher Byers, Michael Moore and Stevie Branch – were found submerged in a creek on May 6, 1993. The boys were naked and each was bound hand-to-foot with shoelaces. Christopher had been crudely castrated. The bodies were wrapped in sheets, loaded into a hearse, and driven to Little Rock, where they were placed in the chilly morgue at the Arkansas Crime Laboratory.
The next morning, as detectives in West Memphis began their search for the killer or killers, Dr. Peretti performed the autopsies. But, while time is of the essence for officers investigating any murder, weeks passed before West Memphis detectives received Peretti’s report.
For Chief Inspector Gary Gitchell, the delay was maddening. By May 26, 20 days after the bodies were found, the detective heading the investigation was growing frantic.
He typed a letter to crime lab officials expressing his exasperation. The letter listed several fundamental questions, the answers to which, Gitchell said, were “vital” to his investigation.
Nearly three weeks had passed since the murders, and Gitchell was pleading with the crime lab to tell him when the boys had died and what had caused their deaths. He asked if he could get a diagram of the children’s wounds.
More specifically he asked, had “any tears or blood or punctures” been found in their clothes? Had a stick that was sent to the lab been used upon the children? Was there evidence that the boys had been sodomized?
What about Peretti’s report of finding urine in the boys’ stomachs ?
Gitchell’s letter went on to mention what had supposedly been one of the department’s most closely guarded secrets. Gitchell noted that Peretti had “mentioned finding urine” in the stomachs of two of the boys, and that he had asked that the police send “water samples” to the lab.
Gitchell had sent the lab a Mason jar filled with water taken from the creek, but weeks had passed since that request, and the department had heard nothing more.
“What has been determined in regards to the urine?” a frustrated Gitchell demanded. “Can the urine, if that is what it is, be used to eliminate any suspects – or develop any?”
Gitchell clearly was grasping at straws. “Can you tell us which kid was killed first?,” he begged. And, “Were the kids dragged?”
He wrote, “Anything you can think to give us would be greatly appreciated. We need information from the crime lab desperately… without [it] our hands are tied…”
With the murders unsolved after nearly a month and public pressure for an arrest mounting, Gitchell complained that, because of the crime lab’s delay, “We feel as though we are walking blind-folded through this case.”
Where did the murders take place?
Gitchell’s frustration, however, was about to come to a sudden end.
Nine days after he wrote his desperate letter to crime lab officials, and still without a response, he and his detectives abruptly made three nighttime arrests. The next morning, June 5, 1993 – a month to the day after the children disappeared – Gitchell announced that 18-year-old Damien Echols, 17-year-old Jessie Misskelley Jr., and 16-year-old Jason Baldwin were being charged with their murders.
Before long the public learned that the arrests were based in large part on statements Jessie had made to police the day before. Detectives had interrogated the former special-education student for nearly eight hours with neither a lawyer nor parent present.
At first, Jessie had denied any knowledge of the killings. Eventually, however, he’d told police that he’d seen Echols and Baldwin kill the boys.
Later still, he’d added that, at one point, he’d even assisted the two teenagers by catching and holding one of the victims who had tried to escape.
Misskelley’s statement was riddled with inaccuracies – descriptions of what transpired that police knew did not fit the crime – and he retracted his statements the following day. But the case proceeded to trial. And there, attorneys for both the prosecution and the defense raised more questions about Peretti’s work.
The urine Peretti had verbally reported would remain a mystery. When police finally received the doctor’s written report, it contained no mention whatsoever of that finding – neither why urine had been suspected in the first place, nor how that suspicion had been dismissed.
Neither was there any report on the water police had been asked to send. In light of Peretti’s finding that two of the boys had drowned, the omission may have been significant.
Prosecutors contended that the children had been killed where their bodies were discovered. Defense attorneys theorized that the murders had occurred somewhere else.
Science might have settled the question if the creek water had been analyzed and compared with fluid found in the victims’ lungs. But Peretti’s report never mentioned what had happened to the water the police had sent.
Were the boys sodomized?
From the start, police had suspected that the crime had a sexual component.
The boys’ nakedness, the way they were tied, and especially the castration, all seemed to suggest it. That’s why Gitchell’s letter to the crime lab had stressed detectives’ need for evidence as to whether the boys had been raped.
Gitchell had not received an answer by the time he and his officers questioned Jessie Misskelley, but in light of the circumstances, the detectives assumed the boys had been sodomized. Jessie was questioned by police, then a statement was tape-recorded. He was questioned again, without the tape-recorder, then another recorded statement was taken. In those recorded statements, Jessie included fuzzy references to seeing the attackers “screwing” the victims.
The defendants were tried in 1994. Jessie’s trial was first. But to the prosecutors’ chagrin, when Peretti was called to testify, he stated that he’d found no evidence that any of the eight-year-olds had been sodomized. The associate medical examiner added that he’d observed “no injury” to any of their anuses.
When one of the defense lawyers asked if Peretti would expect to find such injuries on children who reportedly had been raped, Peretti answered: “If it were forcible, I would expect to find injuries.” But he added, “I couldn’t find any physical evidence of that.”
Why had Peretti withheld information from West Memphis authorities?
The investigation into the murders might have taken a different course if Gitchell and his detectives had known of Peretti’s findings before they made their arrests. During Peretti’s trial testimony he explained, at least in part, why the police had been laboring in the dark.
Normally, as soon as an autopsy is complete, the medical examiner issues what is called a Cause of Death report. This is an interim report that’s intended to provide police with the medical examiner’s broad conclusions, while the more formal, complete report is being prepared.
The primary purpose of the COD report is to help investigators understand the deaths they are dealing with. As Peretti explained on the witness stand: “This sheet automatically goes to the prosecutor of the county of death, the coroner, and the investigative agencies handling the death investigation.”
The prosecutor asked, “Did you kind of change that procedure a little bit in this case, in order to insure that the information obtained in your autopsy report wasn’t disseminated to the general public?”
Peretti answered that normally, he listed the cause of death and the factors that had contributed to it. But in this case, he said, because the murders had generated “rumors” and “intense media coverage,” he had listed only the causes of death on the report. Those were that two of the boys had died from “multiple injuries and drowning” and one – the child who’d been so horribly castrated – had died simply from “multiple injuries.”
Astonishingly, Peretti informed the court that he had deliberately avoided telling investigators anything specific about the nature of the boys’ fatal wounds. He testified, “I did not say anything about any of the injuries. I didn’t tell the prosecutor. I didn’t tell the police. And I didn’t tell the coroner. I just kept it to myself.”
Peretti was not asked, and he did not explain, why he had chosen to withhold from police information that would normally have been released.
Had the castration been frenzied or methodical?
One of the detectives who recovered the bodies testified that he’d seen “hundreds” of stab wounds surrounding the site of Christopher’s castration. That suggested to prosecutors that the act had been a sloppy wild one, performed in a savage frenzy.
Peretti’s report on Christopher’s autopsy was a scant nine pages. He’d dealt with the castration in a nine-line paragraph. He’d simply described the stab wounds as “multiple” and had given a range of measurements. Nothing about the report suggested that the mutilation had been conducted with care.
But to the prosecutors’ dismay, when defense lawyers questioned Peretti on the stand, quite a different picture emerged. When one of the lawyers asked if it would have taken “some skill and precision” to perform the castration
Peretti had examined, the doctor replied, “I would think so.”
Upon further questioning Peretti added his belief that the dismemberment probably had taken the assailant “longer than five or ten minutes” to perform.
When a defense attorney asked Peretti if he himself could have performed such a castration, “with the skill and the precision and knowledge” he possessed, while “in the dark,” “in the water,” and “with mosquitoes all around” him, the doctor had replied, “It would be difficult.”
What time were the three boys killed?
The delay and imprecision of Peretti’s autopsy reports had complicated the prosecutors’ job at trial. But, in a dramatic turn of events, his testimony also confounded the defense.
During Jessie’s trial, Peretti testified that he had not been able to establish a reliable time of death because of the condition of the bodies, which had lain for some time submerged in a creek. That uncertainty had allowed prosecutors to argue that the murders had taken place early on the evening of May 5 – a time that coincided with one of the times Jessie Misskelley had offered in his many and varying accounts of the crime.
The jury convicted Jessie, almost entirely on the basis of his self-incriminating statements.
But Peretti’s testimony took a shocking turn when Damien and Jason were placed on trial together. This time, after Peretti was placed under oath, he stunned the courtroom by contradicting his own testimony at Jessie Misskelley’s trial. This time Peretti stated that he had, in fact, been able to estimate the time of the boys’ deaths.
When asked what that estimate was, Peretti gave a time range that was hours beyond even the latest time mentioned by Jessie in any of his statements.
Moreover, Peretti added, he’d discussed the time factor with two other state medical examiners, and that they had concurred in his opinion.
The prosecutors were furious. Later, one of them fumed, “If you rely on Dr. Peretti for a time-of-death opinion, it’s a mistake. Dr. Peretti is another book.”
Jessie’s lawyers were equally aghast. They asked the court to grant Jessie a new trial, in light of the fact that Peretti’s new testimony contradicted Jessie’s confession. They argued that, if Peretti had estimated a later time of death, Jessie’s jurors should have been able to hear that. But the court denied the petition.
Damien and Jason were convicted on circumstantial evidence. It consisted mostly of claims that the killings bore “signs of the occult;” that Damien, in particular, harbored an interest in “the occult;” and that fibers found with the bodies were “microscopically similar” – though not identical – to fibers found in the defendants’ homes.
In 1996, the Arkansas Supreme Court affirmed all three of the convictions.
But in the years that followed, questions bedeviled the case. The ones involving the medical examiner’s office represented just a slice of them.
I finished Devil’s Knot without the benefit of an interview with Dr. Peretti.
But as I prepared to write this article, focusing so closely on his role in the case, I made one more attempt to speak with him and ask for his responses.
Peretti’s boss, Dr. William Q. Sturner, Arkansas’s chief medical examiner, responded instead. He told me that Peretti had requested permission to speak about the case from Brent Davis, the prosecuting attorney for the Second Judicial District, where the trials were held eight years ago.
Sturner said that Davis had told Peretti he was not to discuss the case, since Damien Echols still had appeals pending.
I pointed out that cases are considered closed either when charges are dismissed or when a defendant is convicted. In these cases, the defendants were convicted more eight years ago, at which time the investigative records had, in fact, been released.
I questioned Davis’ authority for instructing Peretti not to discuss the case – especially since Judge John Fogleman, who’d prosecuted the case with Davis, had discussed the case with me at length. But when I attempted to discuss the matter with Davis, he did not return my call.
As often happened in Devil’s Knot, the attempt to unravel a single strand led to knottier questions to ponder.
I put this newest one to Dr. Sturner. Civil appeals were pending in this case more than a year ago, when Dr. Peretti had agreed to discuss it at UALR. Had Prosecutor Davis given Peretti permission to discuss the case at a public forum then?
Sturner said he did not know.
But three days later I received a certified letter from Dr. Peretti. Noting that my question about the talk at UALR had been relayed to him, he wrote:
“Please be advised that permission to give this talk was granted by Mr. Davis.”
Well, I thought, that’s one question answered. But now, in addition to the lingering questions about Dr. Peretti’s role in this complex case, we have some others to ponder:
Why was Prosecutor Brent Davis reportedly willing to let Peretti talk about the case to a group at UALR, but not to a reporter writing for the general public?
And, perhaps more to the point: Why, almost 10 years after the West Memphis triple-murder investigation, is Davis still trying to limit public discussion of the role that Dr. Peretti and the crime lab played in it?