I’ve loved rock and roll music all of my life. When I was a teenager, I listened to Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles and Bob Seger and other staples of FM radio that most parents were listening to as well, unless they were hopelessly uncool, but I also sought out more “dangerous” music that didn’t just push the envelope of teen rebellion. It stomped all over the envelope and then burned it into ashes. I listened to bands like AC/DC, the Blue Oyster Cult, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. When I was 17 years old, my favorite album was “Highway to Hell” by AC/DC. Black Sabbath had an album called “We Sold Our Souls For Rock’n’Roll,” and members of Led Zeppelin were said to have been obsessed with occultist Aleister Crowley.
Like a lot of kids, I was attracted to this kind of music for various reasons. It was not music that any parent or teacher would have approved of, which was one big selling point. It offered a place to go for people who didn’t feel they fit in anywhere else, and it gave a sense not only of community but of power to a group that hadn’t had much of either in life. The power was in the power chords, thunderous hooks, music that would rattle the windows in your car, except that your windows were down, because you wanted everybody in your stupid-ass town to know that you were into AC/DC. You were part of that. The normal kids could listen to Peter Frampton and date cheerleaders and go to the prom. You were on “the highway to hell.” Rock on.
I thought of my high school days the first time I saw the documentary “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills” in 1996. In this documentary, three teenage boys from West Memphis, Ark., were arrested, tried, and ultimately convicted of murdering three 8-year-old boys. The essence of the prosecution’s case against the boys was that they committed the murders as part of some occult ritual. They dressed in black, listened to Metallica, and didn’t really fit in with the “normal” kids. One of the boys, the ringleader, was named “Damien,” like the antichrist character in the movie “The Omen.” In the documentary, much is made of his interest in Aleister Crowley. There is an appalling lack of any real evidence in the movie, and most of the prosecution’s witnesses were discredited on cross-examination, even by court-appointed attorneys who would remind no one of Clarence Darrow.
Still, the boys were convicted, and Damien was given the death sentence.
Once the documentary aired, there was an immediate and strong reaction among the many people who saw it and felt a terrible injustice had been done. Even celebrities such as Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks, actor Johnny Depp, and “Lord of the Rings” director Peter Jackson — not to mention the members of Metallica — worked to raise money for the boys’ appeals and to raise awareness of the injustice. There were tribute albums, and a web site, and then a sequel to the original documentary.
There were also appeals, but even though the West Memphis Three had become quite literally a cause célèbre and had more resources at their disposal than the boys would have ever been able to imagine, for 17 years it all amounted to nothing in terms of changing their immediate reality. They were in prison, and would remain in prison, year after year after year. Echols spent much of that time in solitary confinement.
Finally, two Thursdays ago in a courtroom in Jonesboro, Ark., the three men — Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley — entered into a plea agreement called an Alford Plea that essentially means that they are maintaining their innocence but believe there is a strong likelihood that a jury would find them guilty in exchange for being released from prison. It is a complicated legal maneuver that basically gets the state of Arkansas off the hook for a literal witch hunt that cost three innocent boys nearly 18 years of their freedom.
In a press conference shortly after their release from prison, Jason Baldwin said this: “This was not justice. In the beginning we told nothing but the truth — that we were innocent and they sent us to prison for the rest of our lives for it. We had to come here and the only thing the state would do for us is to say, ‘Hey, we will let you go only if you admit guilt,’ and that is not justice anyway you look it. They’re not out there trying to find who really murdered those boys, and I did not want to take the deal from the get-go. However, they are trying to kill Damien, and sometimes you just got to bite the gun to save somebody.”
The third documentary on the West Memphis Three is scheduled to be released in November. There may be a happier ending in this one, but Jason Baldwin is right: don’t dare call it justice. Those boys can’t have back 17 years of their lives, the actual killer (or killers) of three 8-year-old boys got away with it, and the Arkansas legal system essentially resorted to legal blackmail to get itself off the hook.
The West Memphis Three are free, but this is no happy ending.