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Story of the West Memphis Three told in new documentary, ‘West of Memphis’

The documentary film (and its companion CD) ‘West Of Memphis: Voices For Justice,’ is, this time, the story told from the point of the view of the defendants, the West Memphis Three (WM3).

“When I was put on trial, it was music they used against me,” Damien Echols writes in the liner notes of West Of Memphis: Voices For Justice, a companion CD to the documentary film of the same name. “My love of heavy metal was considered ‘proof’ that I was evil and a satanic murderer.”

It was 1994 and heavy metal was on trial — again. It was when Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley were convicted of the May 5, 1993 murders of three eight year olds, Stevie Branch, Christopher Byers, and Michael Moore in West Memphis, Arkansas. The case attracted international attention after the release of the first documentary on the subject, 1996’s Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills. The film raised doubts about the convictions, with the three defendants portrayed as troubled teens whose love of heavy metal, black attire, and mullet haircuts didn’t exactly endear them to the neighbors. The three were all fans of Metallica in particular, and the band gave the filmmakers rights to use their music in the documentary; directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky later directed the documentary Metallica: Some Kind of Monster.

It wasn’t just Metallica; other musicians rallied to the cause of the ‘West Memphis Three’ over the years. “It was music that helped to free me when friends and supporters came together to put on the concert in Little Rock, ‘Voices For Justice,’” Echols notes in the West of Memphis liner notes, referring to an August 28, 2010 concert in Little Rock, a benefit concert that featured longtime WM3 supporters like Eddie Vedder, Natalie Maines, and Patti Smith. Smith’s “Wing” appears as a bonus track on the West of Memphis CD, which also features contributions from Vedder (“Satelllite”), Maines (Pink Floyd’s “Mother”), Bob Dylan “Ring Them Bells,” and Marilyn Manson’s cover of “You’re So Vain”; there’s also a digital only bonus track, Bill Carter’s cover of Ozzy’s “Road to Nowhere.” The best tracks are two spoken word pieces taken from Echols’ letters, one read by Henry Rollins, the other by Johnny Depp, both featuring musical backing from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. Proceeds from the soundtrack (which is also available on 180-gram vinyl) also benefit the WM3.

westcb1The soundtrack isn’t even the first compilation based around the WM3 case. In 2000, the compilation Free the West Memphis 3 was released on Koch, featuring contributions from Joe Strummer (“The Harder They come”), L7 (“Boys In Black”), Tom Waits (“Rains On Me”), Kelley Deal (“Fucking Hostile”), and Mark Lanegan (“Untitled Lullaby”), among others.

But it is the first WM3 compilation tied in with a film. Echols and his wife Lorri Davis also co-produced the West of Memphis documentary (along with filmmakers Peter Jackson and his wife Fran Walsh; Amy Berg is the film’s director). That’s the primary difference between it and the Paradise Lost documentaries (there were ultimately three); this time the story is being told from the point of the view of the defendants. Most of the film concerns the post-conviction activity: the litany of appeals, how Jackson and Walsh became involved in the case, the uncovering of new evidence, and new possible suspects. It’s a good primer on the case, especially if you haven’t seen the Paradise Lost films; it also goes into more detail about the new evidence. The film had its premiere last year, and is now playing around the country.

On August 11, 2011, Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley were released from prison as the result of an “Alford plea,” which allowed them to plead guilty while maintaining their innocence. Which gives West of Memphis a happy ending — sort of. Because of the guilty plea, the focus is now on exonerating the WM3, as well as finding the real killer (or killers). But it’s good to know that these three music fans can now play whatever music they like as loudly as they want to, without any fear.