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#TBT: Murder, Metal, and Magic – How Music Influenced the Case of the West Memphis Three

Welcome back to Throwback Thursday! This is the place where we get to indulge in nostalgia and wax poetic about excellent metal of years past. Today's 29th TBT revisits an important murder trail wherein three boys' appearances and love for heavy metal stereotyped them into life-time prison and death sentences.


#TBT: Murder, Metal, and Magic – How Music Influenced the Case of the West Memphis Three


This story starts back in 1994, when three young men – Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley and Jason Baldwin – were accused of murdering three little boys. The nature of the murders in question was horrific and sickening. The three children were found sexually mutilated, hog-tied, and drowned in the Robin Hood Hills park area of West Memphis, Arkansas. The suddenness and severity of the crime had the small town reeling and scared. Desperately seeking answers and retribution, the focus of the investigation turned to what are now known as the "West Memphis Three (WM3)". Police somehow determined that the murders were driven by satanic and occult rituals. Echols, who was serving probation for another minor crime, was a name suggested to police for the investigation. Why? Because of his pagan beliefs, his appearance (black hair, trench coats), and love for heavy metal music.

It is for these reasons alone that Echols and his friends Misskelley, and Baldwin were brought in for questioning. There was no DNA evidence, no witnesses placing them anywhere near the area, and no personal affiliations to the three murdered boys. Through a series of tragic events including a false confession by Misskelley, false witness statements claiming that they heard the three bragging about the crime, and an over-all shoddy justice process, the WM3 were found guilty of the murders. All three were sentenced to life in jail and Echols, assumed as the ringleader of the operation, was sentenced to die by lethal injection.

The details of the case were documented by an HBO film crew in the cinema sensation Lost Paradise. The documentary sent a shock wave through a nationwide audience, as wide-eyed viewers saw the conviction of three young men based on conjecture, fear, and judgement of their hobbies and music. With no solid forensic evidence and testimony from unreliable witnesses, it seems that the WM3 were railroaded into the role as the 'bad guys'.

The nation responded. Lawyers, journalists, and activists from all over the country took up in arms in a campaign now known as "Free the West Memphis Three".  The controversy spurred a second documentary, Lost Paradise 2, and eventually Lost Paradise 3: Purgatory. The films sparked interest not only from the public with a passion for justice and truth, but also from celebrities and musicians. Henry Rollins, famed orator with a silver tongue and palpable fury, was a particularly outspoken metal celebrity:

What Rollins says at the beginning of this clip succinctly states why revising this case is so important: "I saw a lot of myself in the three of them."

Henry Rollins also created a Black Flag tribute album to the three called Rise Above, and organized a concert to raise money for them.

#TBT: Murder, Metal, and Magic – How Music Influenced the Case of the West Memphis Three

In yet another and more recent documentary called West of Memphis, Rollins recalls organizing the benefit concert, "I called Iggy Pop, he said sure. I called Lemmy, he said sure. I called Chuck D, he said 'you got it'. All to help these 3 guys who I never met." He goes on to say, "I saw a little bit of myself [in them]. Damien liked to hang out alone and wrote in his journals that he was depressed. HELLO. He liked to listen to weird music. Check! He was a wise ass in the face of law enforcement. I mean, are you kidding? It coulda been me. It coulda been me."

This is why the case of the WM3 is an important story to be familiar with when examining the history of metal. Metal isn't mainstream. It doesn't want to be mainstream. Metal has and always will be a safe haven for the differently-minded among us. This 'alternativeness'; their love for Metallica and Megadeth; is what made them 'guilty'.

Jason Baldwin, one of the WM3, states in an interview with Metal Rules Radio, "20 years ago I was arrested and sentenced to life in jail for liking heavy metal":

Paradise Lost 1, 2, and 3 all feature a poignant and harrowing reminder of metals' influence on the case with a film soundtrack featuring Metallica:

Here's a clip with Eddie Vedder and Rollins from West of Memphis talking about their naivety and struggle with supporting the trio:

If you haven't noticed, many of these clips feature the WM3 who are now free from jail. All three, now grown men, have been released from prison – but only after serving sentences of over 15 years. Vedder was so involved in the case that he was even present in the courtroom, comforting Echol's wife, during the moment the trio 'confessed to be free' in a 2011 plea deal.

You'd think that the notoriety of the case would've softened the public perceptions of folks who dress 'weird' and listen to alternative music. The 1999 Columbine High School massacre reignited the issue all over again, this time blaming Marilyn Manson and violent video games for the atrocities committed by others:

Imagine if the music that you listened to and the way that you dressed truly made you an outcast and a default for blame. There was a time when A-list celebrities didn't wear 'fashionable' Metallica t-shirts:

#TBT: Murder, Metal, and Magic – How Music Influenced the Case of the West Memphis Three

Kendall Jenner wearing a Slayer Tee


#TBT: Murder, Metal, and Magic – How Music Influenced the Case of the West Memphis Three

Kourtney Kardashian sporting Metallica

And this is why Rollins's point is one of such importance: At one point, many fans of metal understood what it is like to be perceived as dangerously different.

When it comes to the case of the WM3, and the murders of Steve Branch, Michael Moore, and Christopher Byers, we still don't know who did it. Many still suspect the WM3 of guilt. I must admit, I was conflicted about writing this piece because so much fame and stardom have been made off of the stunning tragedy of three little boys who were, no doubt, in contact with absolute monsters. Why this case gained so much notoriety is because of the horror of the crime and the miscarriage of justice thereafter. I hope that revisiting it will not only educate those about the dangers of false accusations and mob mentallities, but will also remind us that no matter how tied up everyone was in the rights and wrongs of the situation, at the heart of the matter are people who are suffering from loss and years of constant re-traumatization. Blackstone's law in the study of criminal justice says that, "Better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer". I am not here to debate the ethics of death penalty; but what I am here to defend is the persecution of three innocent men who've seen horrors many of us envision only as nightmares.

Though initially convicted for many reasons, the WM3 were suspect in part because of their affiliation with paganism and heavy metal music. Now, we all know that metal music, including it's practitioners and fans aren't all innocent angels. We know the stories about Varg and the origins of black metal (and if ya don't, sound off below. I'll make that TBT happen). But that doesn't mean that all metal fans have a natural disposition towards acting upon our supposed violent tendencies. That dangerous assumption is what almost convicted three men to life sentences and almost destroyed Marilyn Manson's career. Opinion is not fact, and time and time again we need to remind ourselves that correlation does NOT equal causation. Just look at this graph, for example:

#TBT: Murder, Metal, and Magic – How Music Influenced the Case of the West Memphis Three

The numbers look good, and we all maybe wanted to drown ourselves after watching Wicker Man, but no – one did not cause the other.

Today, many facets of metal are popularly celebrated and accepted, and bands once deemed as damning associations are now revered as mainstays in the history of American music. In fact, here's a commercial for the US Navy featuring Godsmack as the background music:

And yet still, each one of us sporting an all black ensemble capped with a metal t-shirt has at one point been stereotyped, eyeballed, and judged for one reason or another. The stigma may never change. But, I'm not sure many of us want it to.

What do you think? Sound off below with your stories, thoughts an opinions.



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