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Hear no evil 

Musicians rock for closer look at West Memphis murder case.

This is a story about evil. Murderous evil. Evil perceived. Evil portrayed in art. This murderous evil erupted one night seven years ago. The next day, on May 5, 1993, police searching along a creek bed in a wooded area of West Memphis found the lifeless, naked bodies of three eight-year-old boys. All were tied. Two had drowned. One had been sexually mutilated and died from that injury.

It was evil without a doubt.

A month later, police charged three local teenagers -- Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley -- with the crime. At the teens' trial, prosecutors argued that they had killed the younger boys as part of a satanic ritual, that the children had been sacrificed in a virtual worship of evil.

In his closing argument to the jury, Prosecutor John Fogelman mentioned that Echols, the accused ringleader, listened to heavy metal music. There was nothing wrong with that, " in and of itself," Fogelman said, but he referred to the fact as an indication of the state of Echols' soul.

The jury agreed that it was dark, indeed, and even though Fogelman would later acknowledge that, "there was a remarkable lack of evidence against anyone in the case," Echols was sentenced to death, and Baldwin and Misskelley were sentenced to life in prison.

Many, if not most of the people who heard of the verdicts, believed that the matter was settled; that a terrible evil had been, if not adequately, at least legally, addressed. But soon after the defendants were taken to prison, this story of evil took another turn. HBO released an award-winning documentary on the case, with video shot at the trials and a soundtrack contributed by Metallica. Suddenly, the perceptions of evil that had led to the convictions were being examined by a national audience.

Three Californians -- a screenwriter, a photographer, and a graphics artist -- were disturbed enough by the film that they formed a website to support the convicted teens, whom they dubbed the West Memphis Three. Interest in the case expanded, and last month, five years after HBO's original release of the film "Paradise Lost," the network aired a sequel. That show, "Paradise Lost: Revelations," expanded awareness of the case still further. And this summer, the attention on Arkansas will increase again when the documentary is released to theaters and a group of primarily West Coast, independent musicians release a benefit CD to help "free the West Memphis Three."

Tom Waits, Steve Earle, Jello Biafra, Kelley Deal, Zeke, Mark Lanegan, and the groups Rocket from the Crypt, Joe Strummer and the Long Beach Dub All-Stars, Murder City Devils, Nashville Pussy, The John Doe Thing, and Killing Joke have all contributed cuts to a CD that was the brainchild of rock musician Eddie Spaghetti of Seattle and his group, The Supersuckers. While many Arkansans may recognize only a few of the names on that list , all of the musicians tour widely and play to international audiences.

Joe Strummer, for instance, was formerly with the Clash. Jello Biafra, formerly of The Dead Kennedys, now devotes himself to what he calls "spoken word" performances, in which he sometimes refers to the West Memphis case. John Doe, widely regarded as the father of music's grunge movement, has added acting to his musical career. Like many of the artists brought together on the CD, Doe first learned of the West Memphis convictions through the first HBO documentary.

The more Doe learned about the case by visiting the website -- www.wm3.org -- the more appalled he became by the portrayal of the defendants as likely killers because of their tastes in music. "There wasn't anything in that court case that led me to believe they were guilty," Doe says. When he was invited to participate in the CD, he did not hesitate.

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