Rock and a Hard Place

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The idea for the disc, like all others connected to the West Memphis Three, came after Spaghetti saw Paradise Lost, directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky (they also made the second film). The Supersuckers had recorded some songs with Vedder and were looking for some way to get them released. The two Eddies had seen the first movie independently of each other and began talking about putting together a disc that would raise money and awareness of the boys' plight. Bland contacted the organizers of the Free the West Memphis Three Web site, and received their blessing, and within months, he lined up the roster of musicians, most of whom had also seen Paradise Lost and become convinced of the boys' innocence.

It's not hard to see why musicians would take interest in the case: If indeed one is to believe the films, they were not on trial for murder, but for listening to heavy metal in a country-music town. They were the town pariahs, pale-faced and long-haired outcasts clad in black. Their crime, in the end, was not fitting in. As Spaghetti says, "It just sorta resonated as something we identified with--their alienation, how they're freaks in their neighborhood." While working on the disc, Spaghetti and Bland went to Arkansas to visit the boys in prison; Spaghetti says his visit with Echols was like hanging out with "a friend."

The musicians' contributions do come with a cost: When celebrities embrace the convicted, they risk their credibility, if not their careers. Norman Mailer successfully got Jack Henry Abbott released from prison after the publication of Abbott's 1981 book In the Belly of the Beast: Letters From Prison. Shortly after he was freed, Abbott killed a waiter and ended up back in prison, claiming it was all just "an accident." Mailer looked like a fool--worse, a sucker.

But he spawned something of a trend, what the newspaper The Scotsman referred to last year as "celebrity justice," what happens when actors and musicians and authors attach their fame to the infamous. Just last year, Glenn Close helped free Precious Bedell, who was convicted in 1980 of killing her 2-year-old daughter. After prodding from Close, a New York judge negated the 20-year-old conviction on a technicality. Celebrities from Toni Morrison to Woody Harrelson to Noam Chomsky have protested the so-called "legal lynching" of black journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal, sentenced to death in 1982 for the murder of a white Philadelphia police officer. (Perhaps it wouldn't be a bad idea for the West Memphis Three to trade up: Nashville Pussy, Killing Joke, and Rocket from the Crypt for one, oh, Martin Sheen.)

As John Doe says, the West Memphis Three make for perfect symbols of celebrity justice: They're white, good-looking, and, hey, their public found out about their story through the movies. "I would hope it would be the same thing if it were three black guys who weren't as cute, because those three kids are awfully cute," says Doe, who performs one song on Free the West Memphis Three and contributed another (Vedder and the Supersuckers cover an X's "Poor Girl"). "It's a travesty of justice, but that's what the media tend toward, unfortunately. Cute gets the coverage." But Doe, like all those involved in the disc, insists the same thing: Echols, Misskelley, and Baldwin are innocent. No doubt about it.

Shockingly, Sinofsky and Berlinger went to West Memphis in 1993 convinced the boys were guilty. They never expected that seven years later, they would become their greatest advocates. Though the two filmmakers are working on new projects--Berlinger directed the forthcoming Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, and Sinofsky is making a documentary about Sun Records--they frequently find themselves reminded of the West Memphis Three. Not a week passes that they aren't interviewed about the films or asked to donate a videotape to a law school. They went to Arkansas in search of a story. They came back with a cause.

"You talk about the lines you're not supposed to cross as documentary filmmakers, and Joe and I thought those lines were ridiculous," Sinofsky says. "If you drew them in the sand, you wanted the ocean to erase them, so you didn't feel that responsibility. I get close to the subjects I make films about, whether it's [Sun Records founder] Sam Phillips or Damien Echols. I have a personal relationship with them. I have been able to separate my personal feelings from what's presented in the film. Anytime I get a chance to scream from the mountain that justice was not served--and we owe it as a community to make sure justice is served--I will do it."

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky