Last Saturday, students at Rhodes College in Memphis — some of whom were not yet born in 1993 when three Cub Scouts were murdered in West Memphis — held a mock trial in that case titled “State of Arkansas vs. Terry Hobbs.” Hobbs is the stepfather of one of the victims.
Although the trial followed formal mock trial procedures and was overseen by a Memphis attorney who teaches at Rhodes, it differed from competitive events in that it was neither juried nor scored. Rather, this unofficial proceeding was organized by students who wanted to test evidence and arguments that have arisen since the original trials but never presented before an Arkansas court.
By law, Hobbs is presumed innocent. He has never been charged with the murders, much less convicted of them. And by law, the teenagers convicted in 1994 — Jessie Misskelley, Jason Baldwin and Damien Echols — remain guilty. But doubt, about both their involvement in the murders and the legitimacy of their trials, has burgeoned over the past two decades. Ultimately, an accumulation of doubt led to a bizarre deal on Aug. 19, 2011, in which the men pleaded guilty while maintaining their innocence in order to be freed and state officials accepted that plea.
Lingering questions about the case, including a 2007 DNA analysis that reported Hobbs as the source of a hair found inside a knot used in the crime, prompted the imagined trial at Rhodes. That classroom reinterpretation in Tennessee of a case deemed settled by Arkansas officials was video-recorded and may soon be placed online.
This weekend, a much bigger film about the case will have its U.S. theatrical premiere in Little Rock. “Devil’s Knot,” a film based on my book by the same title, will open at the Central Arkansas Library System’s Ron Robinson Theater two days before the 21st anniversary of the still-troubling murders.
Producer Elizabeth Fowler said she hopes “Devil’s Knot” will refocus attention on whether justice has been achieved for the 8-year-old victims: Stevie Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore. Here, to accompany the premiere, the Arkansas Times presents two articles relating to the theme of doubt that runs through the film and the case.
The first is an interview with British actor Colin Firth, who portrays Ron Lax, a prominent Memphis private investigator who understood the importance of doubt. Soon after the murders, Lax became the first to question the strength of the state’s case against the three accused teenagers — and to volunteer his investigative expertise in their defense. Firth voices his own views on doubt — regarding both the case and his role in “Devil’s Knot.”
The second is an excerpt from my new book, “Dark Spell: Surviving the Sentence,” written with Jason Baldwin, the youngest of the three men who, though free, remain convicted of the murders. This section presents Jason’s account of entering the Arkansas Department of Correction at the age of 16, where, as a result of his sensational trial, he was viewed as a satanic sexual predator and child-killer. Without special protections — which he refused — officials doubted he’d survive.