Rock and a Hard Place

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

Oct 4, 2000 at 4:00 am
John Wesley Hall believes justice is a myth taught in classrooms, a fable found in law books, as imaginary as the unicorn and the mermaid. The Arkansas attorney mentions case after case in which he represented an innocent who wound up imprisoned or, worse, executed; in the course of a 30-minute interview, he mentions half a dozen instances in which the truth wasn't enough to set free the blameless. A judge once told him as much. "I lost faith in the system a long time ago," Hall says with a rueful laugh.

For proof, Hall offers his most high-profile client: 21-year-old Jason Baldwin, who, on April 19, 1994, was sentenced to life plus 40 years for the murders of three second-graders found butchered one year earlier in the woods of West Memphis, Arkansas. The boys were stabbed, bitten, bludgeoned, and tied ankles-to-wrists with their shoelaces; one, 8-year-old Christopher Byers, was castrated. Baldwin and two other teens--Damien Echols, now 24, and Jessie Misskelley, now 23--were convicted and imprisoned (Echols is awaiting execution) despite the lack of any physical evidence linking them to the crimes.

Prosecutors had in their possession only one incriminating item, Misskelley's confession, and it's a questionable, tainted piece of evidence. Without a lawyer present, Misskelley, who possesses an IQ of 72, was interrogated by West Memphis police for 12 hours before giving his confession, in which he misidentified crucial facts of the case. He recanted his words almost immediately, claiming he would have done anything to be left alone.

In the end, Baldwin, Echols, and Misskelley--known as the West Memphis Three and the subjects of two acclaimed made-for-HBO documentaries, 1996's Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills and this year's Revelations: Paradise Lost 2--were convicted not because of tangible evidence, but because they wore black concert T-shirts, listened to Metallica and Pantera, and had long hair. They were labeled "Satanists" by police who used the word to create panic in a small, God-fearing town hell-bent on revenge. They had poor legal counsel: One attorney was paid a mere $19 an hour to represent one of the defendants, and the three boys' lawyers spent no more than $1,000 to test forensic evidence. By the time Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley walked into court, they were doomed. A trial was a moot point.

"I woke up at 3 a.m. last night, and I was agonizing about this," says Hall, who took Baldwin's case during the appeals process. "I was awake for three hours, and one thing I thought about this case was even if these guys had a million dollars apiece to spend, yeah, they might be able to show a reasonable doubt, but once the cops focus on you, they're going to do their damnedest to get you." Hall is awaiting the results of Damien Echols' appeal from the Arkansas Supreme Court; a date for oral arguments has not yet been set. If Echols receives a new trial, so too will Misskelley and Baldwin. If he does not, then the next and final appeal will be to the U.S. Supreme Court.

After the 1996 airing of Paradise Lost, Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley became the poster boys for Southern injustice, quite literally: A "Free the West Memphis Three" T-shirt, bearing mug shots of the three boys, has become a fashion staple among crusading celebrities, from South Park co-creator Trey Parker to Metallica bassist Jason Newsted to the Supersuckers' Eddie Spaghetti. The boys have spawned something of a criminal-justice cottage industry. Their cause has been taken up by an organization called The West Memphis Three, which runs a Web site ( containing all manner of news updates, trial transcripts, crime-scene photographs, legal documents; it's funded by sales of the T-shirts, available for $23. And last year, Cary Holladay's short story "Merry-Go-Sorry," based on the murders and subsequent trials, took second prize in the O. Henry Awards for best short fiction.

Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley have become multimedia stars. Next week, the boys make their inevitable leap to yet another medium. On October 10, KOCH Records, in conjunction with Seattle-based Aces & Eights Recordings, will release Free the West Memphis Three: A Benefit for Truth & Justice, a CD featuring tracks from Steve Earle, Tom Waits, Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder with the Supersuckers, the Clash's Joe Strummer, X's John Doe, Nashville Pussy, a reunited Killing Joke, the Breeders' Kelley Deal, and others--all of whom donated their songs. All money made from sales of the disc will go to the boys upon their release from prison so they can "get the hell out of Arkansas," as one of the disc's executive producers, Aces & Eights co-owner Danny Bland, likes to say.

"It goes to them to get their lives together when they get out of jail," says Bland, who put the disc together with partner Scott Parker and the Supersuckers' Eddie Spaghetti. "We really believe this is going to happen. This will help them get a place to live and get back some of their lives they had taken away from them."

The idea for the disc, like all others connected to the West Memphis Three, came after Spaghetti saw Paradise Lost, directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky (they also made the second film). The Supersuckers had recorded some songs with Vedder and were looking for some way to get them released. The two Eddies had seen the first movie independently of each other and began talking about putting together a disc that would raise money and awareness of the boys' plight. Bland contacted the organizers of the Free the West Memphis Three Web site, and received their blessing, and within months, he lined up the roster of musicians, most of whom had also seen Paradise Lost and become convinced of the boys' innocence.

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.)

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."