LOS ANGELES — Overlooking a crowd of thousands in downtown Los Angeles, Winona Ryder didn't mince her words.
"We believe a terrible injustice happened 10 years ago," explained the doe-eyed celeb, a cordon of lights illuminating her in the darkness. "An injustice that involved six young lives. Three are dead. Three are holed up in prison for crimes that we and millions across America believe they did not commit."
The audience roared its approval, and the star of "Edward Scissorhands," "Girl, Interrupted" and "The Crucible" went on to condemn what she referred to as, "in my opinion, a modern-day witch-hunt."
The witch-hunt in question? The prosecution of the West Memphis Three, convicted a decade ago of triple murder of three young boys. Ryder was in-house last Saturday at the hip L.A. gallery sixspace to host "Cruel and Unusual: An Exhibition to Benefit the West Memphis Three." Organized by the L.A.-based West Memphis Three support group at www.WM3.org, the show included mostly WM3-themed art (Ryder posed before portraits of three men convicted of the slayings) donated by about 20 nationally known artists for the purpose of raising money for the WM3's legal defense fund.
An estimated 4,500 Angelenos turned out to see the art, and, of course the likes of Ms. Ryder. Ryder spoke for about 15 minutes to a parking lot filled with people outside the gallery, calling for new trials for Jason Baldwin, Damien Echols, and Jessie Misskelley, who were found guilty in 1993 of the homicides of three eight-year-old West Memphis boys: Stevie Branch, Michael Moore and Christopher Byers. Authorities characterized the killings as ritualistic and cult-inspired. Misskelley and Baldwin are currently serving life sentences. Damien Echols is on Death Row. All three men are appealing their convictions.
"All we ask is that a proper, real investigation be done to find out who killed these young children," Ryder said. She encouraged the crowd to donate money so that DNA testing could be done on physical evidence taken from the crime scene. She expressed hope that such testing - not available in 1993 - might exonerate Baldwin, Echols and Misskelley.
Attendees apparently heeded Ryders' call. According to gallery co-owner Caryn Coleman, more than $20,000 was raised through donations and sales of art and other merchandise, such as black T-shirts bearing the mug-shots of the prisoners and the rallying cry "Free the West Memphis Three," and P.O.W. (Prisoner of West Memphis) bracelets with the names of the convicts, their arrest date, and a blank space for what supporters hope will be their release date.
Coleman, along with her husband, Sean Bonner, donated their space for the exhibit, which will be up until Sept. 20, and can be viewed at www.sixspace.com.
Other celebrities present included "The Green Mile's" Doug Hutchison, and former Dead Kennedys lead singer Jello Biafra, who gave a spoken-word performance denouncing the death penalty. Ryder was accompanied by boyfriend and rocker Page Hamilton, of the band Helmet. And there were rumors - still unconfirmed - of an appearance by "Seabiscuit" star Tobey Maguire.
Two of the most admired individuals in attendance hailed not from Hollywood, but the Natural State: Lawyer Dan Stidham, who represented Jessie Misskelley before Judge David Burnett in 1993 and who still represents the 27-year-old; and Arkansas Times contributing editor Mara Leveritt, author of Devil's Knot: The True Story of the West Memphis Three. Both spoke after being introduced by Ryder.
Stidham thanked Angelenos for coming, telling them that the tide of public opinion was shifting in Arkansas to a belief that the WM3 case deserved another look. Leveritt was even more emphatic, stating that both the Arkansas governor and attorney general are constantly barraged with mail about the WM3. "The ice is cracking," said Leveritt. Recently, the rights to Leveritt's book have been acquired by the USA Network, which is producing a two-hour drama based on it.
The event was covered by national and international media, including the BBC, USA Today, People magazine, Rolling Stone, Celebrity Justice, and the Associated Press. A length story in the LA Weekly, Los Angeles' alt-news weekly, previewed the art show and featured new reporting about the case, such as quotes from one witness in the Misskelley trial who alleges her testimony was coerced by the West Memphis PD, and a juror in the Echols-Baldwin trial who expressed regret for sending Echols to death row. The article, by this reporter, can be read here: http://www.laweekly.com/ink/03/42/features-lemons.php.
In the piece, the federal Marshals Service in Memphis confirmed that John Mark Byers, stepfather of one of the slain children, had been in their custody in 1992, one year prior to the murders, after being arrested in by sheriffs deputies in Memphis on drug and weapons charges. Byers remains a source of speculation in part because of his seemingly odd behavior in the HBO documentaries Paradise Lost and Paradise Lost 2: Revelations. Leveritt's book states Byers was a drug informant for the Crittenden County Drug Task Force at the time of the murders, and documents a pattern of preferential treatment provided Byers by Arkansas officialdom.
Many at the art show expressed the belief that the truth of what happened 10 years ago would one day be revealed. Until then, they would agitate for justice on behalf of the WM3.
"I don't consider this a cause," said Ryder, who's still on probation for her November 2002 grand theft conviction. "You don't have to be an activist to be concerned about basic human rights. This is a very sad and tragic reality."
Stephen Lemons is a freelance journalist based in Los Angeles, Calif.