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An Innocence Mission: Bible Belt Justice And The West Memphis Three

By Eric Rife

Don't make the mistake of thinking rock music isn't dangerous. In certain theocratic countries, listening to American pop music can earn you a public flogging. And if you're a teenager in a small rural town in Arkansas, listening to heavy metal just might land you on Death Row.

In 1993, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley were sentenced to life in prison, for the brutal murder of three eight-year-old boys in what police described as a Satanic ritual. Damien Echols, also convicted in the crime, could be put to death by lethal injection as early as next year.

But many people say the case is a modern witchhunt in which a small town police department bungled a major investigation and hanged the crime on three kids whose only trespasses may have been wearing black t-shirts and having an ear for speed metal.

However, a group of musicians determined to reverse the defendants' misfortune has come to the aid of the West Memphis Three. "Free The West Memphis Three: A Benefit for Truth & Justice" is a loud petition featuring the signatures of such luminaries as Tom Waits, Joe Strummer, Steve Earle, Eddie Vedder, Rocket From The Crypt and a reunited Killing Joke.

The idea of record company owner Danny Bland and Supersuckers' bassist Eddie Spaghetti (née Eddie Daly), the album was inspired by the award-winning documentary "Paradise Lost," which raised serious questions about the guilt of the three suspects.

"I was talking to Eddie Vedder about it," Daly said in a recent interview. "He was telling me how they were still in jail and nothing had changed. So me and Danny ... found out there was another movie in the works and there was a support group.

"We were surprised, because we're just this little band, the Supersuckers, what could we possibly do? We have a lot of friends in music and we started to get motivated to make a benefit record. But those things are notoriously sketchy - usually a couple of good tracks and a bunch of crap."

Fortunately for the project, musicians who'd heard about the case began coming out of the woodworks.

"I started out with the usual suspects that I work with - The Supersuckers, L7 and Steve Earle," manager Danny Bland said. "Initially, I thought I'd just put together some ragtag group of punk rockers and make a record but it turned out to be so much more."

Finding kindred spirits wasn't difficult. Punk legends like former Clash frontman Joe Strummer and John Doe (of the seminal L.A. band, X) offered their services immediately. For Doe, it was readily apparent the three had been persecuted for their looks.

"I would hate to be a teenager now," Doe laughed. "The thing with the West Memphis Three is that ... it was a witch hunt. (The police) in West Memphis said 'We have to solve this,' and they picked some people who were obviously innocent but who fit into a certain scheme they constructed."

Doe, who contributed the sweeping track "Hwy 5" (co-written by long-time partner Exene Cervenka), says that although the three defendants' case is a travesty, for others it could have been worse.

"I would hope that if they were three black kids in Mississippi, there'd be the same outpouring of public support," Doe said. "They're three cute white kids who've suffered an incredible injustice. But I just hope the same support would be there in a different situation."

Bland concurs, noting that in some respects, the West Memphis Three were quite fortunate that their story was told in the first place.

"We can't be naïve and think this is a singular event," Bland said. "They were just lucky to have (the documentary's directors) there to film what happened. We'll probably never hear about other people that this sort of thing has happened to. The same thing could have happened to any African-American or Native American or anyone for that matter - when the (police) think that nobody cares."

Burk Sauls, a founding member of the Free The West Memphis Three Support Fund (http://www.wm3.org), notes that while being a punk or goth in certain parts of the country is perfectly acceptable, in others, it remains an open invitation for harassment.

"The thing with Damien is he was in a town that wasn't as receptive to that low-level rebellion," Sauls said. "If you wear a black trench coat, it's not okay. And if you walk around with a Metallica t-shirt with your hair teased up like Edward Scissorhands, it is not okay.

"In a lot of the towns in the South, you don't have those punk clubs or goth clubs. You've got your sports bars and those are your only choice. And if you walk into a sports bar with a Dead Kennedys t-shirt, someone is going to give you hell about it."

Indeed, one of the prosecution's star witness was Dr. Dale W. Griffis - an occult expert with a mail-order credential. Griffis testified during Echols' trial that "wearing black fingernails, having black painted hair and wearing black t-shirts" were all signs of youthful Satanic worship.

Earlier this year, Daly and Bland made a pilgrimage to Arkansas to visit Echols and Baldwin. The visit was surprisingly cordial and relaxed.

"It was really heavy duty, really strange talking to these guys and we were laughing and having a great time," Daly said. "Then you look around and you realize - in Damien's case - you're on Death Row and the guy next to Damien is probably a cold-blooded killer. Damien just doesn't belong there and you definitely get that impression when you're with him."

For Sauls, the album comes at a crucial time from a group of people who couldn't be better suited to the task.

"The thing about the benefit album that I think is interesting is these rock and roll type people got together to do this CD and you can tell they relate to this case," Saul said. "And they see a little bit of themselves in Damien. Because to be a pop star, to get up there on stage, you have to be a bit of a rebellious, unusual, extroverted, outcast weirdo."

While the situation may appear dim, no one on either side of the bars is pessimistic. "The most I think we can do with this record is to put a spotlight on Arkansas," Bland said. "We may not be able to stop what (the authorities) intend to do, they picked on these people who were poor and a little off center, as it were. They just figured, 'Here we go, no one is going to bother to try to come down and save these guys.' But they're not going to sweep them under the rug."

For additional information about the West Memphis Three, visit: http://www.wm3.org

To donate money to Damien Echols' defense fund, please send checks made out to "Damien Echols Trust Account" to: Damien Echols Trust Account, PO Box 251136, Little Rock, AR 72225

Write to Damien Echols at: Damien Echols #SK931, 2501 State Farm Rd., Tucker, AR 72168

Write to Jessie Misskelley at: Jessie Misskelley, Jr. #103072, c/o Dan T. Stidham, 203 North Second Street, PO Box 856, Paragould, AR 72451

Write to Jason Baldwin at: Jason Baldwin #103335, P.O. Box 600, Grady, AR 71644-0600

Due to the volume of mail that they receive, you may not receive a response.

Case Summary

On May 6, 1993, the bodies of Christopher Byers, Michael Moore and Steve Branch were found in the Robin Hood Hills area of West Memphis, Arkansas. The three children had been brutally murdered and, in the case of Byers, sexually mutilated.

The West Memphis police had little experience with homicide cases and allowed the investigation to be compromised in serious ways - third parties walked through the crime scene, physical evidence was destroyed or contaminated (the lead investigator, Gary Gitchell, was smoking within the perimeter), and officers openly speculated about suspects. A probation officer at the scene suggested that Echols was the only person capable of committing such a crime. The lead investigator, Gary Gitchell, agreed and decided that the murders were ritual sacrifices.

After several weeks without any leads, a local woman who was arrested for writing bad checks offered to aid police by taping a conversation with Echols. When the conversation failed to produce any evidence of his involvement, the woman urged Misskelley, a teenager with an I.Q. of 72, to blame Echols.

Misskelley was questioned without his parents or a lawyer being present. The West Memphis police administered a polygraph test which Misskelley passed. The police told him that he had failed. After 12 hours of unrecorded questioning and denials, Misskelley finally agreed to give the police the story that they were looking for, thus implicating himself, Baldwin and Echols. Photographs of the interrogation room show a baseball bat leaning in a corner.

However, Misskelley didn't seem to know anything about the crime - including when the murders occurred. Dr. Richard Ofshe, a Pulitzer Prize-winning expert on false confessions and police coercion testified that Misskelley's confession was a "classic example" of coercion.

Since all of the prosecution's evidence was, at best, circumstantial, the prosecution submitted exhibits that included Stephen King novels, black t-shirts and lyrics to songs by Pink Floyd and Blue Oyster Cult.

The evidence that had existed had been destroyed, contaminated or lost. For example, on the night that the children were murdered, the manager of Bojangles, a nearby restaurant, called police to report a muddy, bleeding man in the women's restroom. No officer investigated at that time. Following the discovery of the bodies, the police returned to the restaurant without changing their clothes, thus contaminating any evidence gathered from the restroom. To compound matters, officer Bryn Ridge testified that he subsequently lost the blood scrapings taken from the restaurant.

In photographs of the crime scene, one of the victims is holding a scrap of what appears to be cloth. Frank Peretti mentioned a "fabric-like" material in his autopsy report but apparently that too was lost.

The bodies were never examined by a board-certified Medical Examiner. They were buried without a qualified forensic pathologist performing an autopsy. Five years after the murders occurred, a board-certified Medical Examiner, forensic pathologist and forensic odontologist examined the autopsy photos and found human bite marks left by an adult. Dental impressions taken from Echols, Misskelley and Echols concluded that they could not have left these marks.

The West Memphis Three Web site maintains an extensive archive of transcripts, documents and evidence about the case. You can visit the site at: http://www.wm3.org

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Last modified on Wednesday, March 26, 2008