The West Memphis 3– Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley Jr.– were released from prison yesterday in Arkansas after serving 18 years in prison for the stabbing murders of three elementary-aged boys. Supporters Pearl Jam lead singer Eddie Vedder, Dixie Chick Natalie Maines, and actor Johnny Depp traveled to Jonesboro, AR along with filmmaker Joe Berlinger (Crude) who has shot two documentaries about the trial and is completing a third for the Toronto Film Fest, and a group of activists who had worked raising funds and awarenes for the convicted trio’s defense. Other supporters include members of the band X, Henry Rollins, Ozzy Osbourne, and writer/director John Roecker who emailed La Figa saying:
I was in tears all day yesterday-It reminded me of the the last election, was so happy that Obama got elected and sad that Prop 8 didn’t go though. A bittersweet victory. But I am just staying focused that those men are out and can live their lives the way it was meant to be. Free.
X’s Exene Cervenka who–with Chuck D, Ice-T, Iggy Pop, Lemmy from Motorhead, Ryan Adams and others–appeared on Rise Above, 24 Songs to Benefit the West Memphis 3, which featured vocalists from all genres covering Black Flag songs and backed by the Rollins Band, tweeted:
Finally some great news wm3 released!!!!So many people worked so hard to help them, thank you all.
while Henry Rollins (Black Flag, Rollins’ Band) emailed the LA Times:
I am happy for the guys but so much has been lost. Three boys were killed. In my opinion, the wrong people were incarcerated and the person or persons who did it are still out there, alive or dead, still not brought to justice.
At the time of WM3’s trial in 1993, the height of the Satanic Panic, the prosecution in the primarily fundamentalist Christian area argued that the trio–who listened to bands like Metallica and wore black–had hogtied, raped, mutilated and killed the children as part of a Satanic ritual. Misskelley–who is mentally disabled–had confessed to police, but the defense contended that he was coerced into making a false confession and, as a minor, had not been properly Mirandized. Misskelly eventually recanted the confession, and other witnesses admitted they lied to police. Damien Echols, who read books on the occult and was medicated for bipolar disorder was named the ringleader by the prosecution and sentenced to death, while the two other defendants received life in prison.
Supporters believe the trio was prosecuted on weak evidence because they looked different–an aspect of the case that resonates with many in the artistic community–and that there was juror misconduct.
On Friday the trio pleaded guilty under the little-used Alford plea, which allows them to also claim they are innocent. An Aford plea, sometimes agreed upon when both the defense and the prosecution have reasons to avoid a jury trial. Since the Arkansas Supreme Court recently determined that DNA evidence found at the scene conclusively excluded the prisoners, the three attorneys for WM3 had asked for a new hearing to consider new evidence, a request that was granted by the court.
DNA evidence testing was not available at the time of their first trials, but since then DNA testing of the evidence revealed that a hair found in the ligature knots belonged to one of the victim’s stepfather, Terry Hobbs, while a hair found on a tree stump
was consistent with the DNA of a friend of Hobbs, according to the documents.
Hobbs has denied seeing the three victims–Christopher Byers, Steve Branch and Hobbs’ stepson Michael Moore–on the day of their disappearance. A speech by Dixie Chick Natalie Maines on the steps of the Arkansas State Supreme Courthouse in which she mentioned Hobbs resulted in a civil suit.
Echols’ attorneys said they had found three eyewitnesses who said Hobbs was “the last adult seen with the victims” on the night they disappeared.
Hobbs declares he’s innocent.
John Mark Byers, whose stepson Christopher Byers was murdered and mutilated, told CNN that he believes the WM3 to be innocent:
They’re innocent. They did not kill my son.
But Steven Branch’s father, also named Steven Branch, spoke angrily to CNN affiliate WMC-TV before the hearing.:
I don’t know what kind of deal they worked up. Now you can get some movie stars and a little bit of money behind you, and you can walk free for killing somebody.
Johnny Depp told CBS News in a 2010 interview of the WM3:
People need to stand up and say, yeah, it’s time to find the killers. Let’s find justice.
The prosecutor said:
I have no reason to believe there was anyone else involved in the homicide of these three children but the three defendants who plead guilty today.
But he added that the state could file charges against others if new evidence emerges implicating someone else in the case.
Rise Above, directed by Modi and Kevin Kerslake; Kerslake is our guest on tomorrow’s FDL Movie Night.