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Do you have your Free the West Memphis Three T-shirt yet? No, it's not a promo item for a Blair Witch Project sequel but a spinoff of a true tale based on the 1993 Robin Hood Hill murders in West Memphis, Arkansas. Three eight-year-old boys were found slain, and three teenagers were arrested, tried, and convicted in their deaths.
The story has it all: satanic panic, nasty details, toothless imbeciles, cops losing or intentionally destroying evidence, witch-hunt hysteria, an allegedly coerced confession, and three young men in prison -- one now on death row. So far the case has spawned international debate, a mass of Websites, a book, and two documentary films. The Free the West Memphis Three Support Fund is spearheading a drive to reopen the case and retry the convicted teens, whose guilt is very much in doubt.
So what does this have to do with the South Florida rock scene? To drum up ducats for West Memphis Three, a benefit concert is scheduled for Sunday night at 6 p.m. at Ray's Downtown Blues in West Palm Beach. At a cost of $5 a head, the show will feature local participants Gonemad, Livid Kittens, One Dog's Opinion, Shrill, and Monkey Paw.
If you and your mousie haven't visited Shrill's site, www.themightyshrill.com, do so quickly -- it's one of the funniest local Web pages around and also links you to www.wm3.org, where you can find loads of documents and opinions supporting the innocence of the West Memphis Three.
Shrill's outspoken guitarist, Jean Roid, is the catalyst behind the benefit. He caught wind of the controversy via Paradise Lost 2: Revelations, the second HBO movie about the case (which aired mid-March) and from one of his favorite groups, the Supersuckers, who will visit FU*BAR May 18. Eddie Daly of the Supersuckers is turning the case into the Midwest's own Mumia Abu-Jamal political cause, and he'll be joined by Tom Waits, Steve Earle, Jello Biafra, John Doe, Joe Strummer, Killing Joke, the Long Beach Dub All-Stars, Nashville Pussy, and others on an upcoming benefit compilation.
Roid and Chris Yerina of Monkey Paw claim to have received "weird looks" while passing out fliers promoting the show in the Broward area. "I've encountered a few people who've come to their own conclusions," adds Roid. "One was yelling and screaming, 'How can you support those guys?!'"
Easily, if you believe the Paradise Lost films, which claim the collective investigation, trial, and conviction of the three was a complete clusterfuck, driven by religious fundamentalism and a rush to judgment. The alleged ringleader, Damien Echols, wore black concert Tshirts, loved heavy metal, and was interested in the occult -- evidently enough to convict him in Arkansas. Most folks there believe Echols is right where he belongs, including the West Memphis cops and area resident Shaun Wheeler, the most vocal opponent of the Free the West Memphis Three movement. He's a pro-death penalty activist and apologist for "the fine officers and detectives at the West Memphis Police Department." Both blame the HBO movies for misrepresenting the facts of the case and ignoring facts pointing to the youths' guilt.
"I wish you could have seen the tapes of the trials: this kid [Echols] was blowing kisses to the parents of the victims, flicking his tongue out at people -- while he's on trial for his life!" says Wheeler.
"If people saw that footage," agrees Capt. Mike Allen of the West Memphis Police Department, "then everybody would shut up. They'd think these boys need their ass in jail." Though he certainly disagrees with the motives behind raising money for the imprisoned kids, Allen doesn't hold a grudge against the participating musicians.
"Some of these bands probably think these kids are innocent and they're doing righteous work," Allen continues. "I'm not damning these people for what they're doing, I'm sure they feel like they're doing the right thing. If I lived in Florida and all I saw was that documentary, I would have a reasonable doubt. But the film is completely misleading. If all you had to do was watch an HBO special and call a 1900 number and vote yes or no whether you think they're guilty or innocent -- if we're going to start a justice system like that, then we're in a hell of a shape is all I can say. I still wouldn't hold it against any band that went into this half-cocked. That HBO documentary made those three killers look like choirboys. But [the benefit] would be a slap in the face for the parents of the murdered children."
"I don't have to speculate about how they would feel about it," says Wheeler. "I spoke with Todd and Dana Moore (parents of one of the murdered boys) just last night. They see people expressing their opinion. We've talked about it, and I think we both settled on the idea that listening to rock musicians express their beliefs in somebody's innocence doesn't really say much. Dana was pleased that the radio stations here aren't going to play the benefit album. It won't get airtime on at least two of the three major rock 'n' roll FM stations."