True Crime Analysis, Breakthroughs, Insights & Discussions Hosted by Bestselling Author Nick van der Leek

Category: West Memphis Three

Malcolm Gladwell reckons we have a hard time recognizing the truth – about Amanda Knox

Many of Malcolm Gladwell’s techniques are highly applicable to true crime. Thin-slicing is one. An example of just how brilliantly effective thin-slicing can be is in the hugely complex quagmire of serious relationships and marriage. How the heck does one thin-slice that? And yet, we can.


When couples show one particular trait the relationship is predictably doomed. That trait is Contempt.

This is a fascinating insight into perhaps the most complex of all human and social dynamics – romantic relationships. How often have we all been stung, misled, betrayed and lied to? How often have others felt that way way – and often misunderstood – those traits in us? When couples first engage, whether on Tinder or at the altar, what everyone wants to know including them is: is this fucker going to last?

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking

Contempt provides the litmus test. If there’s any contempt in the beginning, a relationship is not likely to see a very good, very happy or very long run. Contempt cuts through the crap of what the Terminator once referred to as “the dynamics of human pair bonding”.

Is a marriage going to end in divorce? If there’s contempt in the beginning, middle or end, it surely will.

Now, we can apply the same Gladwellian techniques almost across the board with true crime. These are just a few examples of thin-slicing tricks that work more often than not in true crime:

  1. The absence of evidence is also evidence. I’ve heard prosecutors in court phrasing it slightly differently – the absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence. What this means is where there is no evidence, where we would expect to see it [regardless of whether there is a crime or not] this in itself is evidence of something. A good example is deleted cell phone data, or a crime scene that has recently been vacuumed, or laundry done in the middle of a murder etc.
  2. Not all liars are murderers, but all murderers are liars. Just as contempt is a quick route to check whether a relationship will stand the test of time or not, if a suspect – or potential suspect – proves to be even a little economical with the truth especially during an interrogation, this tends to be a red flag. There are exceptions, Nichol Kessinger being a current example. But in true crime it’s usually not hard to find out whether someone is telling the truth or not. Invariably it’s not a little white lie here or there, it’s a case of living a lie.
  3. Social death of the perpetrator as a precursor to murder. This is more difficult to recognize, and thus tougher to thin-slice, because it’s symbolic, and this is really the area we miss when trying to figure out other people. What matters to us matters to others in different proportions. pinocchio-ears
  4. The Temptation of PleasureLand. Whether it’s Oscar Pistorius or Amanda Knox, OJ or Chris Watts, what crimes invariably involve is a PleasureLand calling from a distance. The crime is intended to make sure access is not denied to an imagined PleasureLand. PleasureLand both tempts the perpetrator, and numbs their sense of reality.

Once one gets the hang of Gladwellian thin-slicing, it feels like everything can be thin-sliced.

There’s a lot of thin-slicing going on in true crime, especially in the media coverage. It’s inevitable that talk show hosts will try to reduce high-profile crimes that have been bumper-to-bumper for weeks, months, sometimes years, to a golden nugget. Do they get it right?

True crime is a complex psychology, and tends to have very complex gears and machinery driving antisocial behavior. The identifies of people are complex, the dynamics between them even more so. And since so much of this machinery is deliberately hidden, while some of it is freely disclosed, this challenges and tests our ability to discern truth from reality. Most of us can’t, and no one can without doing their due diligence, spending time getting to know the people involved.

Just as identity isn’t the same as character, truth isn’t the same as reality.  While identity is constant, character can be refashioned, rebooted, reimagined. Truth isn’t interchangeable with this or that reality. Reality is whatever we believe, or say it is. Truth, the TRUE in True Crime Rocket Science isn’t a matter of beliefs, it’s scientific.

In true crime, typically when an expert says it that’s the new reality. When an influential person prognosticates that becomes true crime gospel. But that’s not truth. That’s thin-sliced reality. Thin-sliced truth is harder and far more difficult to do properly, especially in true crime. It takes a mind practiced in criminal psychology, and saturated with knowledge of the case, to come close to getting it right.

We see it when Dr. Phil thin-slices Chris Watts’ Sermon on the Porch, and assesses him as guilty because he’s a narcissist. And then the true crime forums are flooded with people repeating that word.

Dr. Phil Covers Chris Watts – and uses the “N” Word

When an ex-FBI profiler on Dr. Phil calls Watts a psychopath, the true crime world shudders with new revelation. That’s why this crime was committed!

When an ex-FBI profiler, the legendary John Douglas [AKA Mindhunter] says he thinks Amanda Knox is innocent, that’s enough – apparently – for Gladwell.

Wrongfully Accused

Douglas was paid handsomely for his expert opinion in the West Memphis 3 case,  basically applying the same thin-slicing to Damien Echols as Amanda Knox. It goes like this: “Just because you behave in a weird way after a vicious murder [in Echols’ case the triple murder of three eight-year-old boys], doesn’t mean you were involved in a crime.”

Douglas was also called by John Ramsey’s defense lawyers within two weeks of JonBenet’s murder. Douglas famously bragged that after two hours of talking to John Ramsey [who appeared “appropriately sad and depressed”], Douglas told Ramsey’s lawyer Bryan Morgan – of Haddon, Morgan and Foreman –  “I believe him.”

A Grand Jury two years later did not, and the results of that hearing were kept secret for the next 13 years.  And then? The public thin-sliced the then District Attorney’s statement that “there’s not enough evidence to have a trial” to mean that’s what the Grand Jury thought. It wasn’t.

Thin-slicing can be used just as easily to manipulate. In Amanda Knox’s case, if you were trying to influence public opinion [after her original conviction], where would be the obvious place to start? Start by undermining the Italian justice system. That’s what they did and it worked.

But let’s look a little closer at the way Gladwell thin-slices the Knox saga, and why Knox got her way in the end.

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From the New York Times:

In “Talking to Strangers” he asks why we are “so bad” at understanding people we haven’t met before. We often can’t tell when a stranger is lying to us (“Puzzle Number One”), and meeting a stranger face-to-face doesn’t necessarily help our understanding of who they are (“Puzzle Number Two”). 

Amanda Knox has always been an enigma. One might say the same of Damien Echols, Oscar Pistorius, Casey Anthony and Chris Watts. These men and women aren’t the average. Look closer, and at the time they were accused of murder, they were both on the fringes of society and trying to break into PleasureLand.


In true crime, thin-slicing can be a double-edged sword. Just as weird behavior can be used to say someone isn’t necessarily guilty of something, weird behavior can be used to say someone is. When Douglas met John Ramsey and Ramsey appeared appropriately sad, there was nothing weird about that. When Knox was photographed outside the villa where Meredith lay dead, having been brutally attacked and bled to death [she drowned in her own blood], Knox was kissing her boyfriend. This strange behavior persisted at the police station, where everyone else was grief-stricken and shocked, while Knox continued to flirt and giggle with her Italian lover. And Knox seemed to play the goofy excuse in court, as a ploy to explain her strange behavior at the scene.

When Knox appeared in Italy most recently, she’d learned to portray a different look:


Obviously, Gladwell and Douglas are too busy giving lecture tours on expert lie-spotting to spend any time on one particular case, or they would see the not so subtle way they, and many are being manipulated.

Knox was recently caught out trying to solicit funds for a wedding that had already taken place.

Whether we want to call that a lie or just sneakiness, it’s one of many instances, going all the way back to Knox framing her boss Patrick Lumumba when the walls moved it. It seemed like she knew a little too much then when she fingered a black man, her boss, when the suspect turned out to be a black dude who’d hung out with Knox and her pals at home.

The  critical aspect Gladwell, Douglas and the Thin-Slicing crow have missed, is the most obvious. If someone is weird, just in their daily behavior. If they’re loud and attention-seeking, this and that, what are they like to live with? And how does that translate to Knox’s roommate getting murdered over a long holiday weekend when everyone in the villa had decamped to their families, except the expat American student and her expat British neighbor, right next door [who was trying to study].

The New York Times does it’s often version of thin-slicing. Firstly it thin-slices Gladwell’s book, then thin-slices his book’s version of the Knox case. It all comes down to 1) the overwhelming evidence that someone else was guilty and 2) Knox didn’t grieve when her friend died.

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Overwhelming evidence pointing to another culprit.

If we apply the logic of the Knox case to the West Memphis 3 case [officially unsolved], then we could also say only one of the West Memphis 3 committed the murders, why should all three take the fall? It’s nonsense. In the Knox case there were originally three convictions: Ivorian Rudy Guede, who had smoked and sold marijuana on previous occasions with the girls in the house. Knox’s boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito who it was said had been caught viewing bestiality porn and used cocaine, and Amanda Knox.

The Pro-Knox site has been explicit in trying to debunk the drug narrative as a myth.

The Cocaine Dealer Relationship Myth

Of course just as behaving in a weird way may be a sign that you’re just a weirdo, it may also be a sign of habitual drug use, with all the associated Pinocchio behavior and stringing others along, thrown in. Once again, if you’re two students sharing space in a far flung villa in Italy, and you’re not both equally caught up in Pinocchio goes to PleasureLand, why wouldn’t conflict ensure?

Knox was guilty because she didn’t act like the prototypically grieving friend

It wasn’t just that Knox didn’t act right at the crime scene, or at the police station. It wasn’t that someone else had to smash down Meredith’s bedroom door, even though Knox was at home. It wasn’t the half a dozen confessions Knox gave, each one contradicting the other. It wasn’t her boyfriend withdrawing his alibi.

It was after Meredith was dead, she expected life to continue as usual. She expected to stay in her room, and continue to go to classes. All of Meredith’s British friends left Perugia immediately after the murder. They suspended their studies and went home. They attended Meredith’s funeral. They gave their statements and almost all had alibis.

Knox wanted to stay in Italy. She told her parents as much. She told them she didn’t want to go home. Her friend had just been murdered in the room next door, and the murderer [at that stage] was still out there, and she wanted to continue with her life? That only makes sense if you thin-slice it one way.

Thin-slicing has its limits, but apparently, so do ex-FBI profiling legends.


Who do you despise the most in True Crime? Damien Echols is my pick [WARNING: GRAPHIC IMAGES]


Who do you despise the most in True Crime? Damien Echols is my pick [WARNING: GRAPHIC IMAGES]

There’s a conspiracy theory out there that Damien Echols as a teenager was so deeply involved in the occult, the murder of the three eight-year-old boys in West Memphis was an expression of that – in other words it was a ritualistic killing. It was the shedding of their blood to magically bestow power on himself. This power would turn him into a god of some sort, and give him greater power of the world, and of men.

Of course, this theory is completely nuts. There was zero occult activity in the woods and abandoned bridges of West Memphis, wasn’t there?

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You can laugh at that theory all you like. Today Damien Echols believes in the same MAGICKal transcendence stuff; so much so he’s just written a book about it.

It’s quite ironic – the satanic occult stuff is all a myth and had nothing to do with the murders. Cut to 2018, it’s still absolutely epicentral to who this guy thinks he is.

If Echols did murder and torture those boys, he must believe the voodoo has worked he beat his death row conviction after all, and has emerged since then as a celebrity – way beyond the mold of true crime TV shows like murder made me famous. Echols has spawned a cottage industry of art works, bestsellers and MAGICK-themed workshops around his MAGICKal persona.

He has big media publications at his beck and call when it’s time for another PR blitz.

What’s weird about Echols is he presents this tough, cool, tattooed rock star type persona on camera, and yet whenever he talks it’s about his victimhood and how much he’s suffered and been hard done by [especially while on death row].

He can’t stop talking about how he pissed blood, forgot how to walk, had to learn how to use a fork again and almost went blind. That’s why Echols is often sporting those zany blue glasses, in the vein of movie stars like Robert Downey Junior and Johnny Depp and rock stars like Bono and John Lennon.

Who knew being accused of murder made you this cool?

It seems Echols is the only death row inmate to become such a pathetic specimen simply by virtue of being behind bars for an extended period.

Really? He had to learn how to use a fork? How hard or traumatizing is that?

He talks about triumphing over something, but he can’t quite extricate the murder that made him famous from his MAGICKal self. He never quite let’s it go although in every interview it’s all about putting the past behind him once and for all and going to live on happily ever after. Until the next book, or show or art exhibition.


Well, maybe he’s just a sensitive soul? An artist type. And how many artists commit murder?


But sensitive souls tend to have the capacity to think sensitively about other souls too. Does Echols have the capacity to think about others, and not just how these can be used to benefit him from through blood or money?

In an interview with Vice, he’s asked precisely this question.

Did you ever have time to feel pain or sympathy for all the other numerous victims involved in this horrible ordeal?

During it, the only thing you can focus on is trying to survive. It takes everything you have to put one foot in front of the other and make it through one day at a time. When you’re being beaten and starved and in misery and being abused every day, having to look out and make sure nobody is going to murder you the next minute, you don’t have a lot of time to sit around philosophizing and thinking about things in the outside world. When you’re in there it’s almost like a daydream or a fairy tale, something that may exist somewhere, that someone told you once that existed. You don’t have anything other than the cold, brutal reality that you’re spending every ounce of energy you have to get through.

So no, he doesn’t feel sympathy for the three dead children he was accused of murdering in this saga. Yet he can take the time to write books, several in fact, glorifying in his MAGICKal self.

Irrespective of whether you believe Echols is guilty or innocent, what’s beyond doubt is how much of a poser he is.

damien-echols-salem-1_Adam_s_Creation_Sistine_Chapel_ceiling__by_Michelangelo_JBU33cut.0Damien Echols, of West Memphis Three murders infamy, emulating Aleister Crowley.deathrow2

Given his standalone starpower, it’s easy to forget that Echols had two co-accused implicated in the three murders, and that one of them repeatedly confessed to the crimes of all three.

Echols was by far the most significant character of the trio. In King of Freaks, my book on Echols, I made the case that if it was a ritualistic killing, then the three killers and three victims made sense. If the boys were lured to their deaths, then potentially each of the three boys was matched to a murderer based on looks and the qualities the murderer wanted from his victim.

It must have touched a nerve, otherwise Echols wouldn’t have bothered with King of Freaks. In five years of true crime writing, he’s the only murder accused who’s left a review on a story about him and his alleged crimes.

On October 30th, the ironically named Big Think published a puff piece on Echols. Here’s an extract:

I see the good points of true crime and I see the bad points of true crime. For me personally I tend to stay away from it. I honestly have not even seen the Paradise Lost documentaries.


Do you believe the 3-part documentary that basically set the so-called exoneration ball rolling was too much trouble for the man at the center of it to watch? Do you believe that a preening peacock who’s so particular about his tats and his facts, didn’t bother to soak up the reflection of the camera’s hero worship?


I tried to watch them, I made it through 15 to 20 minutes of the first one, and I could understand why it had such a big impact on people because when I was watching it, it felt like being in the courtroom. It was like experiencing it again. And, for me, that was the last thing in the world that I wanted. That was—it ate up 20 years of my life, so the last thing I wanted to do was go back there. At the same time I’m grateful that so many other people did watch it and were affected by it and came to our aid, because it saved my life. But that doesn’t mean I want to watch it.


And then it’s back to the whinging and self-pity.

The hardest parts of being in prison, the worst parts to deal with were just the sheer brutality of it. You know, there were times when I was beaten so bad that I started to piss blood. They’re not going to spend a lot of time and money and energy taking care of someone they plan on killing. So it’s not like you’re going to see a real doctor or a real dentist. At one point I’d been hit in the face so many times by prison guards that it had caused a lot of nerve damage in my teeth, so I was in horrendous pain. Your choices are: live in pain, or let them pull your teeth out. I didn’t want them to pull my teeth out, so I had to find techniques that would allow me to cope with the physical pain. That was probably the biggest thing that kept pushing me forward to learn more and more and more about magick, because I had to find ways just to survive.

This though, is real pain, and real brutality, the true victims of WM3:

Magick, spelled with a K at the end, M – A – G – I – C – K, the reason it has a K is to differentiate it from sleight of hand, you know, sawing assistants in half, pulling rabbits out of a hat, things like that. The entire point of high magick it is a path that leads to the same things that Eastern traditions refer to as “enlightenment,” which is the dissolution of the self. The form that I practice derived, for the most part, from the late 1800s in London. You had a group of people, they called themselves the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn—some really intelligent people, the beloved poet W.B. Yeats was a member. 

What Echols is selling now is no different to what he was saying during his murder trial and throughout his time on death row.

Echols, based on his twitter following, is at least three times more popular than Amanda Knox, another “innocent victim” accused of the brutal murder [using a knife to saw deep gouges in the throat] of her housemate Meredith Kercher.

In fact he’s so alluring, a woman fell in love with Echols while he was on death row, quit her job to move closer to the prison and ultimately marriage Echols – while he was on death row.


Since his release from death row, Echols has been courted by celebrities, from Johnny Depp to Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson, because he’s such a swell hard-done-by guy. Jackson even invited Echols and his wife to visit him at his home in New Zealand.

Officially, since the acquittal of Echols and the WM3, the murders of Steve “Stevie” Branch, Christopher Byers, and Michael Moore—from West Memphis, Arkansas—remains unsolved.