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One of the more amusing bits of self-promotion on the site is the popular black T-shirt featuring mug shots of Baldwin, Echols and Misskelley and the slogan “Free the West Memphis Three” in white. Sauls designed the shirts, which sell for $25, and they’ve achieved a sort of cult-icon status. Dawson’s Creekcharacters have worn them, as have socially conscious celebs such as Eddie Vedder, Corey Taylor of Slipknot, Henry Rollins, South Parkco-creator Trey Parker, Metallica’s Jason Newsted, and Eddie Spaghetti of the Supersuckers. After every sighting, a photo and a news item with the exclamation “John Doe Wears the Shirt!” goes up.
And yet the support group’s influence is far more profound: The Web site also raises money for the prisoners’ commissary accounts, which allows them to buy such exotic items as bread, peanut butter, vitamins and toothpaste. They provide a direct link to their Amazon wish lists, usually the safest way to send the WM3 books. The attorneys for the three men keep the support group at arm’s length for legal reasons, but the Web site has long opened with a letter from Lorri Davis, Damien Echols’ wife, asking for donations to the WM3’s legal-defense fund, an entirely separate entity, from which many of the lawyers, investigators and others laboring on the case are paid.
“What they’re doing has been instrumental in keeping this case in the public eye,” says Misskelley’s longtime lawyer Dan Stidham, the roly-poly Atticus Finch of the Paradise Lostfilms. “Unfortunately, in a lot of these cases where a miscarriage of justice has occurred, there’s no Web site, no HBO documentary. They have the tendency to get swept under the rug, especially here in the South, where the death penalty tends to be more prevalent.”
Indeed, there might never have been a Paradise Lost 2, or at least not one in its present form, had it not been for the support group. Much of Paradise Lost 2deals with the efforts of the Web-site folks to affect the case. They more or less play the part of narrators, traveling to Arkansas to witness the appeals process, interacting with unusual characters like John Mark Byers, and asking the questions that we the audience would ask if we could. Their amateur sleuthing got noted profiler Brent Turvey involved, which led to the discovery of bite marks on one of the victims. Dental impressions were taken of all three of the convicted men, and none of those impressions matched the bite marks.
Unfortunately, Judge David Burnett, the judge in both trials, who, through a quirk in Arkansas law, is allowed to rule on his own trial as a part of the appeals process, did not agree that this new evidence was significant.
“Burnett decided he was an odontologist and said they weren’t bite marks, though he’d just been told they were,” says a contemptuous Sauls. “The court ordered dental impressions taken from the guys in prison when they apparently figured it was worth doing. But when the results came back and they didn’t match, he says, ‘Oh, they aren’t bite marks.’”
Another Southerner, who hails from Tallahassee, Florida, Sauls is the smart-ass of the group. His loft in the Brewery complex downtown is part fun house, part freak show, part workspace filled with items he’s made for his other gig: freelance movie-prop maestro. When I visit him for the article, he’s hard at work pumping out fake Nazi gold bars for the film adaptation of the Hell Boycomic book series. On his bookcase is a little portrait he painted of the West Memphis Police Department’s Chief Inspector, Gary Gitchell, the person primarily responsible for arresting the WM3, his hands dripping blood and gore.
“My connection to it is that it’s just familiar to me,” Sauls remarks in what’s left of his Deep South drawl. “I grew up in the Bible Belt, and I remember everyone talking about devil worshippers. I remember hearing the argument that if you don’t go to church, that means you must worship Satan, because if you don’t worship Jesus, then it follows automatically that you must therefore worship Satan. And if you worship Satan, what’s stopping you from killing people?”
As an erstwhile son of the South, I can remember the kind of moronic, Bible-thumping totalitarianism he’s describing. Most denizens of Los Angeles have no idea. You never know what’s going to come out of Sauls’ mouth next. In glasses, his head shaved like a homeboy’s, he has this oddball sang-froid that makes him difficult to read. But he admits that his “second job” affects him.
“It’s tough sometimes, especially visiting the guys in prison, which is depressing,” he says. “And it’s sad to think about the kids who’ve been murdered. There are one or two people out there who’ve accused us of supporting child-killers. But part of the reason we got so heavily involved in this thing is because on our first trip out there to Arkansas, we met Dan Stidham. He put a bunch of the autopsy photos in front of us. I guess he was testing us, you know. Since we were from California, he probably thought we were ‘Save the Whales’ kind of people. He laid these horrible pictures out, and it was shocking. Not something you see every day. But we really looked at them, and really began to realize how terrible and complicated this crime really was.”