Rock and a Hard Place

Music can free your soul, but can it spring the West Memphis Three?

It's not hard to see why musicians would take interest in the case: If indeed one is to believe the films, they were not on trial for murder, but for listening to heavy metal in a country-music town. They were the town pariahs, pale-faced and long-haired outcasts clad in black. Their crime, in the end, was not fitting in. As Spaghetti says, "It just sorta resonated as something we identified with--their alienation, how they're freaks in their neighborhood." While working on the disc, Spaghetti and Bland went to Arkansas to visit the boys in prison; Spaghetti says his visit with Echols was like hanging out with "a friend."

The musicians' contributions do come with a cost: When celebrities embrace the convicted, they risk their credibility, if not their careers. Norman Mailer successfully got Jack Henry Abbott released from prison after the publication of Abbott's 1981 book In the Belly of the Beast: Letters From Prison. Shortly after he was freed, Abbott killed a waiter and ended up back in prison, claiming it was all just "an accident." Mailer looked like a fool--worse, a sucker.

But he spawned something of a trend, what the newspaper The Scotsman referred to last year as "celebrity justice," what happens when actors and musicians and authors attach their fame to the infamous. Just last year, Glenn Close helped free Precious Bedell, who was convicted in 1980 of killing her 2-year-old daughter. After prodding from Close, a New York judge negated the 20-year-old conviction on a technicality. Celebrities from Toni Morrison to Woody Harrelson to Noam Chomsky have protested the so-called "legal lynching" of black journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal, sentenced to death in 1982 for the murder of a white Philadelphia police officer. (Perhaps it wouldn't be a bad idea for the West Memphis Three to trade up: Nashville Pussy, Killing Joke, and Rocket from the Crypt for one, oh, Martin Sheen.)

Killing joke: Damien Echols is scheduled to die for the murders of three young boys, despite a lack of evidence connecting him to the crimes.
Killing joke: Damien Echols is scheduled to die for the murders of three young boys, despite a lack of evidence connecting him to the crimes.

As John Doe says, the West Memphis Three make for perfect symbols of celebrity justice: They're white, good-looking, and, hey, their public found out about their story through the movies. "I would hope it would be the same thing if it were three black guys who weren't as cute, because those three kids are awfully cute," says Doe, who performs one song on Free the West Memphis Three and contributed another (Vedder and the Supersuckers cover an X's "Poor Girl"). "It's a travesty of justice, but that's what the media tend toward, unfortunately. Cute gets the coverage." But Doe, like all those involved in the disc, insists the same thing: Echols, Misskelley, and Baldwin are innocent. No doubt about it.

Shockingly, Sinofsky and Berlinger went to West Memphis in 1993 convinced the boys were guilty. They never expected that seven years later, they would become their greatest advocates. Though the two filmmakers are working on new projects--Berlinger directed the forthcoming Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, and Sinofsky is making a documentary about Sun Records--they frequently find themselves reminded of the West Memphis Three. Not a week passes that they aren't interviewed about the films or asked to donate a videotape to a law school. They went to Arkansas in search of a story. They came back with a cause.

"You talk about the lines you're not supposed to cross as documentary filmmakers, and Joe and I thought those lines were ridiculous," Sinofsky says. "If you drew them in the sand, you wanted the ocean to erase them, so you didn't feel that responsibility. I get close to the subjects I make films about, whether it's [Sun Records founder] Sam Phillips or Damien Echols. I have a personal relationship with them. I have been able to separate my personal feelings from what's presented in the film. Anytime I get a chance to scream from the mountain that justice was not served--and we owe it as a community to make sure justice is served--I will do it."

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