[Look for your weekly fix from the one and only Henry Rollins right here on West Coast Sound every Thursday, and come back tomorrow for the awesomely annotated playlist for his Saturday KCRW broadcast.]
For those of you who have been following the West Memphis Three case for so many years, you perhaps saw the news from a couple of weeks ago that sent you reeling: Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley and Jason Baldwin were set free after serving more than 18 years in prison.
If you are not familiar with this agonizing — yet simultaneously fascinating — case, I encourage you to learn about it. It is the perfect tragedy. In 1993, three 8-year-old boys were found dead in a secluded area of West Memphis, Ark. With no physical evidence and a very suspect confession, three teenage boys were found guilty of the murders in a trial that was the stuff of bad television.
The teenagers became known as the West Memphis Three. They are now free. With a new trial about to start — featuring new evidence to be introduced by the defense, earlier witnesses recanting testimony and new witnesses with new information set to testify — suddenly the prosecution seemed uninterested in doing battle again. Interestingly, Echols, who was on death row after having been found guilty of murdering three people, now was seen fit to leave his cage and go free. Someone blinked. It wasn't Echols.
I bring all of this up because this case seemed to be embraced by a lot of bands, musicians and young people all over the world. In the West Memphis Three, a lot of people saw themselves. Heavy-metal albums found in their rooms, antisocial behavior — the very stuff of youth — were used in court. In lieu of any physical evidence placing them at the crime scene, this “evidence” supposedly showed that these three were definitely the ones who did it.
In a real court of law, this would have been laughed out of the courtroom.
I found out about the case more than a decade ago. I read about it online and it seemed to me that justice had not been served. After seeing a documentary on the case, Paradise Lost, with Metallica providing the soundtrack, I decided I was angry enough to get involved.
My bandmates and I did a small benefit show and donated all the money to the WM3 Defense Fund. Nice, but a gesture at best. I decided to do a benefit album. With the help of my bandmates, road manager Mike Curtis, Heidi May, Cherokee Studios and many others, we set to work. Soon my phone was ringing off the hook; there were even death threats.
I thought it best to call in some of the great forces of the universe. We reached out and were amazed to find how many people in the music world were either fully up to speed on the case or, upon hearing the details, immediately ready to contribute. It was incredible. Keith Morris, Chuck Dukowski, Kira Roessler, Chuck D, Lemmy, Ween, Iggy, Mike Patton, Queens of the Stone Age, Ice T, Hank III and Tom Araya, to name but a few, stepped up and knocked it out of the park. Soon we had an album done called Rise Above: 24 Black Flag Songs to Benefit the West Memphis Three.
We put the record out. We booked a tour and went around the world with these songs. Keith Morris and I split the vocals on the American leg and then I took it from there, all the way to Tokyo. All the money went to the WM3's defense, with a lot of it going toward the DNA testing of the crime-scene evidence, which Arkansas wouldn't pay for.
This was two summers of my life and a lot of money. But it was nothing compared to the grief of the families who had lost their children, both to murder and incarceration. And it was nothing compared to the unimaginable anguish of Damien, Jessie and Jason, who sat in cages as their lives slipped by.
As the years went on, I stayed with the case, did benefit shows and tried to keep the conversation going.
A few weeks ago, someone well placed on the case sent me an email with a phone number and the words “Call me.” I did. The person said that the boys were going to be let out in about two weeks and to keep it to myself. I did. That wasn't easy.
Several days ago, I was in Scotland. I looked at my office email and noticed there was a very large number of letters and many of them had “WM3” in the title bar. I reckoned it had happened. As I left my hotel room for sound check, the news had broken. They were free. I walked the streets of Edinburgh in a state of shock. I don't know how I got through the show that night.
To all the people who sent in $20 bills they could not afford to part with, to the lawyers who worked for free, to all the bands all over the world who did benefit shows, to all the people who wore the T-shirts, signed the meditations, wrote letters and never let this thing go quiet, I am awed by you. Your dedication, your belief and your incredible persistence helped mount a defense that obviously was too much for the state of Arkansas to handle. Because of you, three men are free. You did that.
Justice, however, is still left wanting. We'll get there.
Until next week.