TORONTO – Even though they’ve now been released, the three men known as the “West Memphis Three” are still getting support from Eddie Vedder and the rest of Pearl Jam.
The three men were convicted in the slayings of three Cub scouts nearly two decades ago, but were recently released – after spending 18 years behind bars – after years of questions about the evidence in the case.
“Now we are helping them regain their footing, and it’s fascinating to see them on the outside world. It’s a real joy,” Vedder told The Associated Press in a recent interview.
Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley and Jason Baldwin were convicted in 1993 for the murders of three 8-year-old boys found naked and hogtied in West Memphis, Ark. Steve Branch and Michael Moore drowned in a drainage ditch in about 2 feet of water; Christopher Byers bled to death, and his genitals were mutilated and partially removed.
Misskelley confessed, but his lawyers said later he was coerced, and the men have proclaimed their innocence. Their story was told in the 1996 HBO documentary “Paradise Lost,” which brought attention to the trial and made a case that the guilty verdicts were unjust. Echols was sentenced to death, while the others got life sentences.
Vedder says Pearl Jam’s efforts for their release began at least 15 years ago. He just decided to keep it “under the radar, because the last thing that they needed was a rock band supporting them.”
He even visited them in prison.
“It was really difficult to visit someone in prison, and then have to leave, and knowing how they were still going to be there,” Vedder said.
Vedder, along with other high profile entertainers who included Johnny Depp, the Dixie Chicks’ Natalie Maines, Peter Jackson, and Henry Rollins, advocated their release and raised money for their defence. Vedder says the idea of musicians and actors coming together to change the system intrigues him: He sees music as a source of power for good.
“It can throw a monkey wrench into forms of tyranny we have around us,” he said.
Last month, the men were released on an “Alford plea,” a legal manoeuvr that lets them maintain their innocence while acknowledging prosecutors have enough evidence against them. They will be on probation for the next 10 years.
While Vedder feels the end result was “tangible because they’re out,” he also sees imperfections in the justice system, which he deems “terrifying.”
“You just want to avoid the legal system if you can,” he said. “But in this case, it wasn’t their choice. It could happen to anybody. “
But he added about the Memphis Three’s release: “There was a happy ending to this.”
However, prosecutors still believe that the men were responsible for the children’s deaths.
Vedder shed light on the subject while attending the Toronto International Film Festival, where a documentary of the band, “Pearl Jam 20,” premiered. Longtime friend Cameron Crowe directed the film.