Columns » John Brummett

Sounding out for the WM3



Pearl Jam's front man, Eddie Vedder, sat on stage in front of 2,500 people at Robinson Auditorium in Little Rock on Saturday night. Equipped only with a guitar, a foot stomp and his rich and reasonably famous baritone, he filled the hall with seriously good music.

Vedder brought with him the newest "super group," calling itself Fistful of Mercy and comprising Ben Harper, Joseph Arthur and Dhani Harrison, son of the late Beatle, George. If you are older like me, you probably can best understand when I relate that the significance of their partnership has been likened to that of Crosby, Stills and Nash.

Oh, and there also was this: Johnny Depp, the best or second-best actor of his generation, kept walking on stage to read something or introduce someone or, at the end, play competent guitar himself.

You can't beat good music. It can inspire. It can thrill. It can transport.

But it can't beat a horrible jury.

I'm pretty sure Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley didn't kill those three little boys in West Memphis in 1993. I'm absolutely positive the prosecution didn't make the case against them.

Because of fear, the jury rushed to convict Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley and to give the death penalty to Echols, the leader and brains of the trio. The fear was of the horror of the act and of the creepy way the teen-aged Echols dressed and acted and professed to believe.

People want to destroy what scares them. They are scared of values they don't share and lifestyles they don't understand.

People also want a horrible crime to be solved. Acquittal would send everyone back to the starting line.

Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley aren't the only people sitting in jail on a flimsy case that jurors chose to believe because they wanted to believe it.

But they're the only ones who got an HBO polemical documentary produced in their favor. They're the only ones whose plight connected uncommonly with wealthy and generous celebrities.

Echols also is the only one to be visited by a woman from New York, a landscape architect named Lorrie Davis, who was inspired by the documentary and who so connected with the articulate, thoughtful and literary Echols that they are now married and she now lives in Little Rock.

She told me a few years ago when she cleared me to visit with Echols on Death Row that Depp, who was seen as weird himself as a teen-ager in Kentucky, was itching to lend his celebrity to an event to raise money and awareness. She thought Saturday was the right time.

On Sept. 30, the Arkansas Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on whether Echols is due a new trial.

Alas, a preconceiving jury issuing a convenient and unsupported ruling is not a reversible error. There must be new evidence or proof of procedural and prejudicial missteps by the professional officers of the law or the court.

Echols relies on new DNA evidence that says nothing physically connects him and the other two to the scene. He relies on public statements by the trial judge, David Burnett, that suggest bias. And he relies on reports that his jury foreman influenced the jury by touting in deliberations a trial-excluded and recanted confession by Misskelley, who is mentally impaired.

I suspect all three of these men will eventually get new trials and then get freed. But I'm not much expecting relief to come from the state Supreme Court.

The absence of genetic evidence does not actually prove or disprove anything. The Supreme Court so defends Burnett it appointed him a special judge to keep him on the case even after he declared as a candidate for the state Senate. Juries can't possibly disregard all the things they are instructed to disregard.

But the appeal could then be taken to federal court, where you can better make a fresh case that your rights got trampled.

If the $50 I paid for two tickets for Saturday night's show helps the cause, fine. But I was there for the music. I am sorry, though, that three probably innocent men have had to spend their adult lives in jail for me to get to hear it.

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