Devilish questions 

Nine years later, a reporter is still searching for important answers about medical evidence in the notorious West Memphis murders.

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...


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