Henry Rollins on The West Memphis Three
It was an unspeakable crime – on the afternoon on May 6, 1993, three eight-year-old cub scouts, Steve Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore, were found cruelly mutilated and murdered in West Memphis, Ark. Before long, three teenagers, Jessie Misskelley Jr., Jason Baldwin and Damien Echols, were in custody.
Police boasted that they’ve solved the case – that the three in question were, in fact, the killers. But there lied a problem in this certainty – it was based on a jaundiced eye and a disturbing need to put it to a close. These were three kids with black hair and heavy metal t-shirts and novels by Stephen King (during the trials, prosecution use these common predilections as indicators of their culpability, claiming the three boys were sacrificed in a satanic ritual), so they had to be guilty, right?
After 12 hours of grueling interrogation without counsel or parental consent, mentally handicapped Misskelley Jr. confessed (he later repudiated it that evening but to no avail). It was a coerced “error-filled” confession, the defense claims, but that didn’t matter to police. On June 3, 1993, the boys – now known as the West Memphis Three – were arrested and in early 1994, convicted of murder.
Found guilty, Baldwin received life without parole, Misskelley Jr. got life plus 40 and Echols was sentenced to death.
Fifteen years later – and still imprisoned – Misskelley Jr., Baldwin, and Echols, along with loved ones and supporters, maintain their innocence (in 2007, Christopher Byers’ stepfather, John Mark Byers, said he was finally convinced the WM3 are innocent after 14 years of believing otherwise). Others are still certain of their guilt. What’s Rollins take?
“Well, there’s a lot of [injustice] in America,” he says. “I think America has a great justice system but sometimes it makes mistakes and justice is not served, even though the verdict was left to a jury of your peers. The peers didn’t get all of the information or the information wasn’t kneaded out in a way of proper context. So I believe in the innocence of Jesse, Jason and Damien very much.”
“This is not uncommon for people who are quite innocent to be champed up on really scary charges,” he adds.
Rollins is just one of many supporting the WM3. As part of his espousal, which began seven years ago after watching case documentaries, Rollins has organized benefit shows and released Rise Above: 24 Black Flag Songs to Benefit the West Memphis Three in 2002 to help raise awareness.
Like many others, Rollins contends it was a botched case. The defense, he says, didn’t have the budget to “realize the results from the evidence,” while the prosecution had unlimited amounts of resources and finance. “It’s just too bad that Judge [David] Burnett, in all his wisdom, couldn’t see this miscarriage of justice on his watch and, to this day, he still doesn’t want to know about it,” Rollins says.
In early September 2008, Judge Burnett, who served on the original trials, denied a motion for a new trial, rejecting claims that new DNA evidence proves the innocence of the three men convicted. This could be seen as a set back on some level, says Rollins, but it could also be a fast track to get to federal court. (Ed. Note: As of October 12, a month after the Rollins interview was conducted, Baldwin and Misskelley will return to court from Nov. 19 – 21 when their Rule 37 hearings – failure to make disclosures or to cooperate in discovery – continue in front of Judge Burnett).
“Hopefully, [the denial] expedites a more rational courthouse because you really don’t want Judge Burnett going through all this again because you see that he has no interest even though it’s a whole new day,” he says. “Evidence-wise, he’s still stuck in, ‘well, a jury of their peers saw that they were guilty and I’m done’…As far as his judgment, you know he knows better.”
So where do Misskelley Jr., Baldwin and Echols find their patience in mist of this seeming injustice? “Perhaps some of their inspiration is knowing that there are people on the outside who are pushing,” Rollins says. “There’s thousands of us out here who [are] not forgetting. This isn’t a thing we did for a while. We’re on this until they get out…I think it’s very important to let something like that be known to someone who’s in that situation.”