For a decade and a half, Vedder worked tirelessly with a team to free Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley who, as teenagers, were sentenced to life in prison for the murder of three eight-year-old Arkansas boy scouts (Echols was sentenced to death). The 18-year nightmare – plus their release in August 2011 – is chronicled in the new film West of Memphis, directed by Amy Berg and produced by Peter Jackson, which presents new evidence suggesting the trio’s innocence.”I’m grateful that I can live in a country and feel at least like there is some hope,” Vedder says. “If Damien would have been executed that would have been something I can’t even imagine.”
You were there the day Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley were released from prison. What was that like?
It was tantamount to seeing a child born, but instead of nine months, it took 18 years for them. [Laughs] I think I was involved for about 15 years. The dramatic last couple weeks were probably some of the most gut-wrenching times of my life, so I can only imagine what it was like for them. But the fact that it happened and the way that it happened really just showed that if you’ve got the guts and the staying power, great things can happen. I learned so much about the judicial process by being involved and saw so many of the things that are wrong with the system that seem like they could be fixed. I also got quite an education on the prison system and how prisons are corporatized and privately owned.
Having seen the footage of when they were first brought from the courthouse to the jail, seeing the angry crowd looking almost like an outtake of the Frankenstein movie, screaming for these three young men’s heads, and to be there that day and to walk out that back door and see an even bigger crowd reacting with utter joy all those years later – outside of having kids, it was the most powerful moment in my life.
You‘ve said before it took years to educate yourself on the case. Did you always believe Damien, Jason and Jessie were innocent?
To be honest, there came a point when we had raised a bunch of money on their behalf around 2000 or 2001. [Pearl Jam] weren’t working that year, but we still needed funds for private investigators and DNA testing. I had to start calling and asking people that I had helped, and see if they could help us out with this cost. That’s when I went and talked to Damien. I just had to ask him straight up, face to face. The answer he gave me and the unflinching trust that I could see from human to human – that was when I truly, truly believed. Of course, I had wished and believed and done all the research but I just didn’t know. Especially when I fooled some other people into it, people that trusted me. I needed to know. There’s a big difference, actually, between believing something and knowing something. I asked him face to face. And I was completely satisfied.
What did he say?
He just said, “No.” But the way he said it, I’m sure he followed up with a sentence but that was all – it was just, you know – you can tell. You can tell.
Damien has said he‘s surprised at how many people are interested in it, because he feels that it‘s no different from dozens and dozens of other cases over the years. Why did the West Memphis Three case resonate with you?
Like most people, and, of all the supporters, I think probably 90 percent of them, their involvement came out of seeing the first Paradise Lost film. And it makes complete sense that there’s musicians involved, because we weren’t the cool kids growing up and some of us kind of had the experience of being under the lion’s paw and having adults who should know better and being an adolescent who knew that these adults were kind of fucked up. They had the power to oppress not just your being, but your dreams or your sense of what’s right. And, you know, I think that was something that immediately resonated with this thing of, you know, these adults throwing these kids under the bus when they should know better.
Damien has mentioned regular brutal prison beatings from guards. It‘s amazing that can still happen in our country today.
Yeah. I’m afraid I wasn’t shocked by that, maybe just because I’d be in contact throughout the years and I think he downplays it in the book, to be brutally honest with you. I think he’s not telling you 90 percent of how bad it got. Jason, too. It shows the power of the human spirit and how it can somehow maintain itself in the worst possible scenario. It’s just incredible.
A major turning point came a few years ago when Natalie Maines made some public statements about DNA evidence linking Terry Hobbs to the murders. He sued her and lost, but it forced him to speak to authorities on the record.
Oh, yeah, Natalie came in and blew open the case. There was more evidence that came out of it and you were able to get the evidence from the women that saw Hobbs yelling at his son at dinnertime when they were on the way to church or something. You know, it’s bizarre to think that so many people had information that they didn’t come forward with for almost two decades. Fifteen years gone.
There are other famous rock musicians – but that you put yourself out there for this is pretty incredible.
It wasn’t anything spectacular at all. I mean, I’m grateful that I can live in a country and feel at least like there is some hope, you know. If this wouldn’t have turned out this way, or if, God forbid, Damien would have been executed, that would have been something I can’t even imagine. It would have been really hard to raise your kids in a country you just felt like something so tragic could happen and that justice wouldn’t be served, especially when you were able to raise the money. In the initial case I think they each had maybe $2,300 each to fight in Damien’s case, the death penalty case, and then two life sentences, and then the amount of funds it took goes into the millions.
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