Supporters bring West Memphis Three case back to fore - WMC Action News 5 - Memphis, Tennessee

Supporters bring West Memphis Three case back to fore

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - An effort to free three men convicted as teenagers in the sexually charged slayings of three 8-year-old boys will move Wednesday from Internet forums and the mouths of rock stars to the front steps of the Arkansas state Capitol.

Supporters of Jason Baldwin, Damien Echols and Jessie Misskelley - known to sympathizers as the "West Memphis Three" - will rally in support of the men they fear prosecutors and a small-town police force railroaded for their interest in heavy metal music and the occult.

A new group formed for their defense will visit the Capitol with a long banner made of postcards supporting the three and letters addressed to Gov. Mike Beebe, who is scheduled to be at another event at the time.

Scheduled to appear is a new supporter, Natalie Maines, lead singer for the Dixie Chicks. CNN's "Larry King Live" will devote an hour to the case that night, including a death-row interview with Echols.

"They are sensitive and thoughtful and smart," said supporter Lisa Fancher, who runs a punk rock record label in Los Angeles. "You just can't believe they're stuck like that."

However, the state's highest court ruled juries convicted the three because of Misskelley's detailed confession - not a prosecutor's claim that the three killed Stevie Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore in 1993 for satanic purposes.

"Echols reports being told in the hospital that he would be another Charles Manson or Ted Bundy," an Arkansas Supreme Court opinion affirming his death sentence reads, citing a psychologist's notes. "When questioned on his feelings, he states, 'I know I'm going to influence the world. People will remember me."'

The killings shocked West Memphis, a blue-collar town just across the Mississippi River from bustling Memphis, Tenn. Police found the bodies of the three Cub Scouts a day after they disappeared from their quiet, tree-lined neighborhood May 5, 1993. Their hands bound to their legs by shoelaces, the boys showed signs of suffering severe beatings before being left in a drainage ditch. One boy was sexually mutilated.

A month passed and the community posted a $30,000 reward before police arrested the three teens. Misskelley told investigators how he watched Baldwin and Echols sexually assault and beat two of the boys as he ran down another trying to escape.

A jury gave Misskelley a life-plus-40-year sentence for the killings. A later jury gave Baldwin a life sentence without parole. Echols, then 19, the oldest of the three, received the death penalty.

Newspapers across the country featured the case, including testimony and prosecutors' allegations that the boys acted as part of a satanic cult, eating the hind legs of dogs and participating in sex orgies. The case might have faded from interest, however, if two documentary filmmakers hadn't read an early account of the killings in The New York Times.

The two filmmakers, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, shot "Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills," during the trials. The film, shown on HBO, includes taped strategy sessions by both prosecutors and defense attorneys for the teens. It also galvanized supporters, especially for Echols.

Larry Salinger, a criminology and sociology professor at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, said preconceived notions about Southern justice, formed from the civil rights movement and the stereotype of small-town sheriffs, provided film viewers with a means to immediately discount prosecutors. "The justice system works," Salinger said, disagreeing with the film's premise.

Since the film's release, Echols' art made from old magazine and prison-issued razors has sold at auctions benefiting the three's defense fund. Echols contributed lyrics to rock band Pearl Jam's self-titled 2006 album. Henry Rollins, frontman for punk rock band Black Flag, issued a tribute album to raise money for their defense. Comedian Margaret Cho highlighted the case several times on her personal blog, including a picture of her across from a bespectacled Echols, sitting behind prison glass.

"Damien is beautiful like a girl, with a pale, delicate complexion that is Dove Cleansing Bar-worthy," Cho wrote after a 2004 visit. "Though we have never met face to face until now, we know each other well. He is an inspiring teacher and a remarkable thinker. His writing is a constant source of wonder, especially as he lives in this terrible captivity."

The celebrity interest helps the case's notoriety, as well as the three's legal defense. In all, the fund received more than $1 million over the last decade from celebrities and Internet donations, enough to fund lawyers, new DNA testing and a second federal appeal on behalf of Echols, said supporter Capi Peck.

The new appeal, filed in October, includes DNA tests conducted by a private laboratory in Virginia that handled bone fragments found in rubble at the World Trade Center after the Sept. 11 terror attacks. A report from the lab included in the filing shows much of the evidence failed to yield reportable results. However, on evidence that could be tested, the lab found no traces of the three convicted for the slaying, according to the recent court filings.

The filing also included claims by forensic experts saying the mutilation of the boys' bodies came from animals after their death.

A federal judge ordered state courts to examine the new claims first. The state attorney general's office has asked for more time to look over the tests and other materials.

Supporters for the men herald the recent appeal as a step toward holding a new trial. However, it is one of many appeals filed on behalf of Echols since his conviction. Echols himself initially declined to appeal his death sentence, later saying he made the decision without talking to his attorneys.

Echols' other appeals claimed his mental state stopped him from properly assisting in his 1994 joint trial with Baldwin. Echols also claims his lawyers at the time made an unfair deal with the producers of the HBO documentary, responsible for much of the attention the case received in later years.

The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a 1997 appeal by Echols, after the Arkansas Supreme Court roundly rejected a joint appeal filed by his and Baldwin's lawyers. That opinion cited "substantial evidence" of the two's guilt, upholding the lower court's decision to show evidence like a funeral register Echols owned, as well as a journal that contained "morbid images and references to dead children."

A psychologist who examined Echols noted the teen had "an all powerful Godlike image of himself" and once tried to "claw the eyes out" of another student before dropping out of high school.

"I kind of enjoy it because now even after I die, people are going to remember me forever. They're going to talk about me for years," a 19-year-old Echols told documentary filmmakers. "People in West Memphis will tell their kids stories. It will be like, sort of like I'm the West Memphis boogeyman. Little kids will be looking under their beds before they go to bed."

The convictions are largely based on Misskelley's confession. Defense lawyers claimed detectives coerced two taped statements out of the then-17 year old, who they described as having the mental grasp of a child. Supporters of the three point to inconsistencies - how Misskelley offered the wrong times for the slayings and the wrong colors for the shoelaces that bound the second-graders.

Arkansas Supreme Court justices refused to throw out statements, noting that Misskelley was advised of his rights three times during a four-hour interview with officers. The court also said Misskelley had been advised in other juvenile proceedings between 1988 and 1993 and "was no stranger to the criminal justice system."

Then-Chief Justice Bradley Jesson wrote in an unanimous opinion upholding the convictions: Misskelley's "detailed knowledge of the injuries inflicted on the boys suggests that he was in physical proximity to the activities taking place and took a much more active role than he admitted."

Jesson said some of the questioning came "perilously close to psychologically overbearing" but upheld the conviction nonetheless, saying that "numerous other factors point to the voluntariness of the confession."

Peck, a co-owner of a Little Rock restaurant, met Echols' wife Lorri Davis and eventually helped organize Arkansas Take Action, a new group focused on the case.

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)

Powered by Frankly