This is a story about evil. Murderous evil. Evil perceived. Evil portrayed in art. This murderous evil erupted one night seven years ago. The next day, on May 5, 1993, police searching along a creek bed in a wooded area of West Memphis found the lifeless, naked bodies of three eight-year-old boys. All were tied. Two had drowned. One had been sexually mutilated and died from that injury.
It was evil without a doubt.
A month later, police charged three local teenagers -- Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley -- with the crime. At the teens' trial, prosecutors argued that they had killed the younger boys as part of a satanic ritual, that the children had been sacrificed in a virtual worship of evil.
In his closing argument to the jury, Prosecutor John Fogelman mentioned that Echols, the accused ringleader, listened to heavy metal music. There was nothing wrong with that, " in and of itself," Fogelman said, but he referred to the fact as an indication of the state of Echols' soul.
The jury agreed that it was dark, indeed, and even though Fogelman would later acknowledge that, "there was a remarkable lack of evidence against anyone in the case," Echols was sentenced to death, and Baldwin and Misskelley were sentenced to life in prison.
Many, if not most of the people who heard of the verdicts, believed that the matter was settled; that a terrible evil had been, if not adequately, at least legally, addressed. But soon after the defendants were taken to prison, this story of evil took another turn. HBO released an award-winning documentary on the case, with video shot at the trials and a soundtrack contributed by Metallica. Suddenly, the perceptions of evil that had led to the convictions were being examined by a national audience.
Three Californians -- a screenwriter, a photographer, and a graphics artist -- were disturbed enough by the film that they formed a website to support the convicted teens, whom they dubbed the West Memphis Three. Interest in the case expanded, and last month, five years after HBO's original release of the film "Paradise Lost," the network aired a sequel. That show, "Paradise Lost: Revelations," expanded awareness of the case still further. And this summer, the attention on Arkansas will increase again when the documentary is released to theaters and a group of primarily West Coast, independent musicians release a benefit CD to help "free the West Memphis Three."
Tom Waits, Steve Earle, Jello Biafra, Kelley Deal, Zeke, Mark Lanegan, and the groups Rocket from the Crypt, Joe Strummer and the Long Beach Dub All-Stars, Murder City Devils, Nashville Pussy, The John Doe Thing, and Killing Joke have all contributed cuts to a CD that was the brainchild of rock musician Eddie Spaghetti of Seattle and his group, The Supersuckers. While many Arkansans may recognize only a few of the names on that list , all of the musicians tour widely and play to international audiences.
Joe Strummer, for instance, was formerly with the Clash. Jello Biafra, formerly of The Dead Kennedys, now devotes himself to what he calls "spoken word" performances, in which he sometimes refers to the West Memphis case. John Doe, widely regarded as the father of music's grunge movement, has added acting to his musical career. Like many of the artists brought together on the CD, Doe first learned of the West Memphis convictions through the first HBO documentary.
The more Doe learned about the case by visiting the website -- www.wm3.org -- the more appalled he became by the portrayal of the defendants as likely killers because of their tastes in music. "There wasn't anything in that court case that led me to believe they were guilty," Doe says. When he was invited to participate in the CD, he did not hesitate.
"The world is unfair, damn it," he says, "and we're here to try to keep it a little more fair in any small way we can. If there's anything you can do to stop that sort of injustice, you've got to be there. You've got to contribute." He describes his group's song on the CD, "Highway Number 5" as "a rock number, with some pretty melodies too."
All the musicians involved have come to regard the convictions of Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley as a tragedy that has compounded the evil of the crime itself. Eddie Spaghetti, who was Eddie Daly when he was growing up in Tucson, Arizona, and who is still Eddie Daly off-stage, describes himself at 32 as "an old heavy-metal casualty." In high school, Daly was smart but different. As long as he kept his grades up, his parents let him be in a band that played in bars at night. He did his homework between sets, came home late, and got up early to go to school.
That early nonconformity partly explains why he related to the first HBO documentary.
He recalls that after seeing it, he assumed that convictions so "outrageous" certainly had been re-examined and that "surely, something had been done." He put it out of his mind.
A year and a half later, however, Daly was talking to Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam about an unrelated project, and the West Memphis case came up. "He and I spoke for hours about it," Daly remembers. Vedder was both informed and concerned about the case. Daly was surprised to learn that the murder convictions had been upheld by the Arkansas Supreme Court, that Echols still faced execution and that Baldwin and Misskelley, now in their 20s, were still serving life in prison. The conversation led Daly to act. "It got me to thinking that I could do something, even though my records are not selling in the millions."
He discussed the idea with Danny Bland, 36, the Supersuckers' manager, and with Scott Parker, 33, a record producer from Los Angeles. They all liked the idea of bringing like-minded artists together to raise money, partly to help pay for further investigation of the case.
"It's such a music-oriented thing," Bland says. "It seemed to us that the injustices stemmed from the music these kids were listening to, and the solution may come from that. We knew it would be a lot of work, that putting together a record like this would be very time-consuming, but we decided we needed to assume that responsibility."
Scott Parker, the producer, recalls that after seeing the first documentary, "I thought, 'What a colossal waste of taxpayer money, to spend all this on a witch hunt.' But then in the end, when the guilty verdicts came down, my girlfriend and I were just jaws-on-the-ground. We could not believe what we were seeing."
The three went to work on the album. As Bland explains it: "I personally have not committed an unselfish act in my life. Still this has been about our own protection and everybody else's too. Look at the life I take for granted. I haven't done anything wrong, but if the police came to my house and started confiscating my books and music to be used against me in a trial, they would have a field day."
"It wasn't as great a task as, say, saving the rain forest," Daly says, "but we hope it will be helpful. People see that we've put, 'Free the West Memphis Three' on our recent albums, and they ask us about it. In Europe, most people haven't heard about this case, but our fans have."
Bland adds that, "Also, on a business level, most of the Supersuckers' audience is in their 20s to mid-30s. You can't make a living selling music to kids and then turn their backs on them, and that's what I told these artists when I contacted them. I reminded them that these kids sitting in prison represent a lot of people. They support us. It's only right that we should give our support to them."
In January, Daly, Bland , Parker and Daly's wife, Jessika, flew to Arkansas to visit the inmates for whom they'd become advocates. They were not able to meet with Misskelley, but they did get to see Echols and Baldwin. Eddie Daly recalls, "The first thing Damien said to me was 'You don't look anything like I thought you would. You look like Andy Kauffman."
The comment (which Daly has heard more than once) led to a conversation about the comedian Andy Kauffman's put-on of wrestling when he mocked Jerry Lawler, the intensely popular Memphis wrestler.
Like much of wrestling, the verbal combat was staged, but many viewers, including members of Damien's family, were not aware of that.
"We talked," Bland says, "about how Andy Kauffman was hated by the people who lived around Memphis, and how he baited them. It was all just an act, but to Damien and he father at the time, it was all very real. Damien said that when his family heard that Lawler had put Kauffman in the hospital, his dad said, 'Good.'
"That was when Damien was seven. His whole family watched wrestling all the time. It was funny for us to hear that Andy Kauffman was so effective, coming into that area; that he had succeeded so broadly at getting these people angry at him. Andy Kauffman became a demon, the same way the media made Damien into a demon -- only Damien wasn't trying."
The musicians were surprised by how easy it was to laugh with both Echols and Baldwin. "I was struck by how smart and funny Jason is," Daly said. "In the first documentary, he was an awkward age --gawky and scared. And now he's educating himself. He's an algebra tutor at the prison. He looks like a college student. And he's got a lot of friends there who believe in his innocence."
After the trip Bland wrote a column about it for The Rocket, a newspaper for the Seattle music scene. Of the visit to Echols at Arkansas's Maximum Security Unit, Bland wrote:
"The clerks and the guards were as nice as could be. Even the personal search was pleasanter than, say, the one at the Canadian border. It wasn't until Damien entered the room that I realized how horrible this place was. He stood in the room behind the glass across from us with his back to the door as the guard removed his handcuffs. It was then I knew they had every intention of killing our new friend.
"We told him about the benefit CD we're putting together to raise awareness about their case and how bands like Rocket from the Crypt, as well as solo artist Tom Waits and Mark Lanegan were stepping up to the plate with their time and music. Damien admits he doesn't know much about these groups; after all, he's been in prison for seven years, and before that he lived in West Memphis.
"Kelley Deal (of the Breeders) said that along with the song she's contributing she wants to send a picture of herself wearing a Black Sabbath shirt, black lipstick and fingernail polish for the artwork. When I told Damien this he smiled and said, 'Oh good, now she can have the cell next to mine.' "
After the visits to the prisons, Bland and Parker returned to the west coast, but Eddie and Jessika drove north, to Lakeview, Arkansas, where Eddie's parents now live. His father Ed Daly, is a fishing guide on the White and Norfork rivers, and his mother, Sammie Daly, works as a hairdresser in Mountain Home.
It's likely that none of the musicians involved in the forthcoming CD ever would have heard of Echols, Baldwin, or Misskelley if not for the work of filmmakers Joe Sinofsky and Bruce Berlinger, the producers of "Paradise Lost." Many who saw the first film, which aired on HBO and then was released to theaters, were deeply unsettled by what they saw, and a few took immediate action.
Burk Sauls, Grove Pashley, and Kathy Bakken of Los Angeles looked for more information about the case and, as they found it, they posted it on the website they created. The three have remained dedicated to the site, and in the years since it began, both the amount of information and the number of links on the site have grown extensively.
Today, for instance, visitors can find a detailed chronology of events in the case, compiled from police and other official documents. There are links to the Arkansas Supreme Court, where anyone who wants to can read the court's opinions affirming the convictions.
There is also a link to a site established in memory of the three eight-year-olds who were murdered: Michael Moore, Christopher Byers, and Steven Branch, and a link from there to a site maintained by someone who believes that Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley are indeed the children's killers.
This time, when HBO devoted several nights to airing the sequel to "Paradise Lost," along with a few re-showings of the original film, viewers who wanted to look further had a place to go. Since Sauls, Pashley, and Bakken were featured in the second film, talking about their site, the three expected a lot of response when it began to air. Even so, they were overwhelmed.
"On the night the show premiered, we each received thousands of e-mails," Sauls said. "I think the reason is that a lot of people are really moved by this story, and they want to connect with people who are involved -- because they already feel connected."
Bakken, who manages the site, says that before the sequel was shown, the site received between 100 and 200 hits per day. In the last two weeks of March,while the film was being shown, the site averaged more than 7,300 hits per day.
Pashley says the site's supply of Free the West Memphis Three T-shirts sold out immediately, and that close to 500 have now been shipped out. And a request for supporters of the inmates to mail in postcards from their states has elicited a huge response. The organizers hope to come to Arkansas later this year, bringing with them enough postcards to encircle the state's Supreme Court building.
While the show was airing, Gov. Mike Huckabee's electronic message board received and posted hundreds of messages urging him to intervene in the case.
On March 20, the WM3 site was named Yahoo's pick of the week. "Here's an intriguing site," the announcement said, "that details a controversial triple murder case in West Memphis, Arkansas. The site's creators contend that the men convicted of the gruesome crimes are the victims of an all-too-common hysteria known as 'Satanic Panic,' where the furor surrounding tragic events overcomes the judicial system's ability to keep things fair and square."
Now other sites are being organized calling for review of the West Memphis verdicts, and interest is expected to swell again this summer when the new "Paradise Lost" is released to theaters. The activity is gratifying both to the film's producers and to the creators of the original site. "It's like the tree is all branching out," Bakken says. But she warns that, amid the flurry, some of the information being posted may not be accurate. "There's a lot of misinformation," she says, "but we can't control that."
The Times was not able to contact Jessie Misskelley for his reaction to the recent developments, but Echols and Baldwin say that the activity means a lot to them. They see it as a kind, creative and encouraging antidote to events that have been marked by evil.
"It gives me hope that justice will be done," Baldwin said by telephone from the unit in Newport where he is imprisoned. "It gives me hope that the real killers will be found and the deaths of those three boys will be vindicated, and Damien and Jessie and I will have our names cleared, and this curse will be lifted from us."
He paused briefly, then added, "I do think of it as a curse. But it's slowly being turned into a miracle."