Activists around the country are organizing rallies and concerts this weekend to benefit the three young Arkansas inmates known as the West Memphis Three. Two are serving life sentences, one faces death, for a triple child homicide committed almost a decade ago. Supporters contend they were convicted by a miscarriage of justice, but critics claim the support movement itself may be a misuse of information. NPR's Neda Ulaby reports.
Neda Ulaby: On June 3rd, 1993, police arrested three teenagers in West Memphis, Arkansas. They were charged with the ritual murder of three eight-year-old boys.
David Burnett: The first verdict reads as follows: We, the jury, find Damien Echols guilty of capital murder in the death of Stevie Branch. We, the jury, find…
Neda Ulaby: The trial was documented by a team of filmmakers. Bruce Sinofsky and Joe Berlinger had already directed the critically acclaimed documentary Brother's Keeper. What they found in West Memphis was similar. Nonconformists facing an unsympathetic justice system.
Dale Griffis: I have personally observed people wearing black fingernails
Neda Ulaby: The testimony of an expert in the occult helped convict Jason Baldwin, Jessie Misskelley and Damien Echols. The teenagers were known about town for their all black outfit and taste for heavy metal music. And largely because of the documentary made by Sinofsky and Berlinger called Paradise Lost a number of people are convinced the teenagers were scapegoats for styles.
(L7: Boys in Black)
Neda Ulaby: Rock group L7 is part of an increasingly high-profile support movement for the West Memphis Three.
Danny Bland: Especially in the music scene you see a lot of people grow indifferent and feeling sort of persecuted for it and we all realize this could happen to anyone of us.
Neda Ulaby: The album producer Danny Bland put together a CD to raise money and awareness for the case. The line-up include L7, Steve Earle, Joe Strummer, Eddie Vedder and Tom Waits.
Danny Bland: You know if they rounded up half of the kids around here with black hair and who listen to Black Sabbath and wear black coats you know there'd be no one around here to work at Burger King
(Tom Waits: Rain on Me)
Neda Ulaby: You can't buy the West Memphis Three CD at some stores because of the controversial cause. But you can get it at WM3.org. The supporter site also sells the Paradise Lost documentary and its follow-up called Revelations along with T-shirts and dog tags. All of this troubles Law professor Marjorie Cohn. She wrote the book Cameras in The Courtroom.
Marjorie Cohn: This is a criminal case and it must be decided in a courtroom by a jury and not by the court of public opinion. And the audience who watched the video feel that it has the right to judge the case. But unless those people who watched the video also watched every minute of the trial they did not see what the jury saw.
Neda Ulaby: Supporters argue that by posting the entire court transcript on their website they provide a virtual jury's eye view of the trial. Doctor James Monihan says it's a distorted picture. Monihan teaches criminal justice at the University of New Haven in Connecticut.
James Monihan: They have what looks to be forensic like evidence, police information, statements by people claiming to be experts. What disturbs me, however, and, I, you know I believe in freedom of speech is on that very same website somebody has decided, in their questionable wisdom, to place the autopsy pictures of the little boys who were the victims.
Neda Ulaby: This isn't the first time the West Memphis Three case has threaded the boundaries between good intentions and poor taste. Ebay was pressured to change its policies on trading crime scene evidence after a West Memphis autopsy photo was sold to the internet auction site last summer. Monihan thinks that much of the interest in this case stems from simple voyariousm that is justified by a misguided attempt to help.
James Monihan: You can kind of be a wannabe criminalist. You can kind of participate in a fantastical way with looking at the evidence and trying to solve it yourself, which I suppose is legal in America.
Neda Ulaby: See the movie, visit the website, solve the crime. Burk Sauls defends the approach. Sauls co-founded the free the West Memphis Three website and support fund. He says it doesn't take an expert to understand the case's nuisances.
Burk Sauls: Just look at the website and use the website as a starting point for, you know, delving deeper into the justice system and look at the things yourself, you know, you read the police reports. But the other thing is to look at the transcript of the trial and to look at how the trial was so biased towards the prosecutors.
Neda Ulaby: Examples of this bias, Sauls says, includes inconsistent testimony and lost evidence admitted into the record. But personality also seems to be a factor in attracting supporters. The West Memphis Three have become celebrities and the biggest is Damien Echols. He's exchanged his Goth clothes for all white ensembles and converted to Buddhism on death row. West Memphis Three supporter Jene O'Keefe has no problem with the concept of convicted murderer as cult hero:
Jene O'Keefe: It doesn't bother me because I think that it's great, that's, how, whatever gets you interested, is great, get involved, get interested.
Neda Ulaby: O'Keefe's involvement with the West Memphis Three literally changed her life. She left a relationship and a job because of her passion for the case. Now she's a professional advocate against the death penalty. Her friend, Sara Cadwallader is a University of Arkansas sophomore. She saw Paradise Lost on television two years ago, then struck up a conversation with accused killer Jason Baldwin who is in jail for life. Now they're engaged.
Sara Cadwallader: I don't really know why besides I thought it was a terrible injustice, so I just wanted to say, you know, there's someone else out here that thinks you're innocent, and I felt compelled to at least say something to them like I heard you I understand what has happened.
Neda Ulaby: Supporters say they often make friends through the website which seems to be as much support group as support fund. Organizers say the site gets up to a thousand hits a day. The West Memphis Three are appealing their convictions. Neda Ulaby, NPR news, Washington.