Interview: A Moment with ‘West of Memphis’ Subject John Mark Byers

By  · Published on February 11th, 2012

I interview a lot of people – it’s part and parcel to the job of entertainment journalism. It’s not generally my favorite thing, as I’m almost always more interested in writing about my film experience and discussing said experience with the screenwriters, whom I rarely find myself in a room with. More often than not I’m visiting an actor who has spent the better part of the day repeating themselves and building up a frothy disdain for the questions I’m trying to avoid, but eventually going to have to ask. There has been very little, if any, gravity to my interview experience. They’re mostly non-events.

…until last week.

I had no expectation that I would be sitting across from the step-father of a brutally murdered child when I arrived in Santa Barbara on the twenty sixth. To be honest I could think of few things I’d want less, and yet I was the one that requested his time on a whim as I watched Mark Byers shuffle painfully through the lobby of the Hotel Santa Barbara. The festival’s publicist caught him as he stepped onto State Street, and five minutes later we were together – and my video camera was pointed at him.

Mark Byers is fifty two, and six foot five inches tall – he towered over me as we walked together into the hotel’s hospitality room, but he seemed somewhat frail. He has a nagging back injury, and looks perpetually tired. Mark Byers hasn’t lived an easy life; he has a string of past criminal charges ranging from theft, drug abuse, and threats of violence.

When Mark’s step-son Christopher was murdered on a summer evening in 1993 along with Stevie Branch and Michael Moore in West Memphis, Arkansas, it stood to reason that he was immediately looked upon as a suspect. Anyone familiar with the case of the West Memphis Three, and the subsequent Paradise Lost documentaries via HBO knows that Mark was somewhat theatrical. Many of his reactions and interviews were fodder for a hungry media that needed a character to follow, and even if unknowingly, Byers fed the press. Now, just like then – Mark Byers has maintained his innocence. He never pursued a lawyer’s defense, and remained an open book for any evidenciary pursuits in the state of Arkansas.

Mark Byers, for all of his criminal past and somewhat odd behavior, has been repeatedly vindicated. Additionally, he has been one of the strongest supporters of Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley – the three men that spent eighteen years in prison for the murders of the three boys, and the focus of Peter Jackson and director Amy Berg’s documentary, West of Memphis. Much of his support is derived from the strong, exonerating DNA evidence that not only helped remove the West Memphis Three from the short list of suspects in the murder, but additionally scratched him from said list.

What the DNA and new physical evidence have suggested, is a rather damning connection to the murders of Christopher, Michael, and Stevie to the latter’s step-father, Terry Hobbs.

I’m a writer – while I like to follow logical conclusions with as much supporting evidence as I can in taking a position, I’m not going to pretend I know enough about the science behind the findings in this case to make definitive statements. If this were another story, I might even share what my personal leanings are in greater detail. This isn’t really an opinion piece, however – it’s a long, drawn out intro to a video interview that was difficult for me to participate in. I will say that I felt genuine pain in Mark Byers, and he had my sympathy. In the video I think it’s likely obvious that full impartiality wasn’t the place I was going – but to be fair, I had no idea where that was until I began speaking.

Below, Mark Byers talks to me about condemnation, forgiveness, pursuit of justice – and a very final, overwhelmingly cruel truth.