LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- Punk goddess Patti Smith, superstar Johnny Depp, Dixie Chick Natalie Maines and grunge political activist Eddie Vedder descended on Bill Clinton's hometown Saturday night with a message.
Free the West Memphis Three.
The West Memphis Three case has dragged on for 17 years, becoming an international cause.
The West Memphis Three are Jason Baldwin, Damien Echols and Jessie Misskelley Jr. While teenagers, they were charged with the murder of three 8-year-old boys, who were found in 1993 naked and bound in West Memphis, Ark. The case immediately made national headlines.
Drawing on its all-star lineup, the benefit's organizers wanted to raise awareness of the case in Arkansas, where support for a new trial has often gone ignored or is minimal at best. Lorri Davis, Echol's wife, said that the event "sends a message to our political and judicial leader that it is time to bring an end to this grave injustice."
Many in Arkansas, including the non-profit Arkansas Take Action, say the West Memphis Three were wrongfully tried and convicted. At the time of Echols' trial, no scientific evidence existed to support the prosecution's case. Echols was 18 and had a court-appointed lawyer.
Echols was sentenced to death while Baldwin and Misskelley received life sentences. The Arkansas Supreme Court upheld their convictions, but Echols' case will go before the court again on Sept. 30.
The murders of Stevie Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore had rocked the small eastern Arkansas town of Robin Hood Hills, a wooded area near their home in West Memphis. Local and state police were pressured by the community to quickly find the murderer.
Some believed it to be a case of an occult killing. Echols was singled out because he wore black clothes, listened to heavy metal and read horror novels, although he did not know the three boys.
Less than a month later, Misskelley, who was later diagnosed as mentally handicapped, confessed to the crime and claimed Echols and Baldwin sexually abused, cut and beat the victims. The confession and facts of the crime never matched.
Misskelley was tried and convicted of first-degree murder in February 1994. At the time, it was argued that the facts didn't match the crime, but a jury that some believe was tainted by news stories found Misskelley guilty.
Baldwin and Echols were tried as a pair following Misskelley's trial. Both were convicted of three counts of first-degree murder. Echols and Baldwin have always maintained their innocence.
In the last three years, new evidence and developments have brought new attention to the case that has been the focus of two HBO documentaries. The channel is currently filming another one about the new evidence.
There was no DNA taken from the crime scene -- DNA testing was unavailable in 1993 -- that matched the West Memphis Three. A hair found in one of the ligatures used to restrain one of the victims is consistent with Terry Hobbs, stepfather of Steve Branch.
Experts believe that Misskelley's confession was coerced. The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers along with the Northwestern University School of Law's Center on Wrongful Convictions filed an amicus brief with the Arkansas Supreme Court asking the court to grant Echols a new trial. There have been 257 post-conviction DNA exonerations in the United States. A quarter of them involved a false confession.
Aside from DNA evidence, defense attorneys argue that the jury foreman engaged in "blatant misconduct" that led to the Echols' and Baldwins' murder convictions. If the Supreme Court refuses to grant a new trial, lawyers plan to fight the case in federal court.
Arkansas Take Action has recently sought support from Bill Clinton and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who did not get involved in the controversy while he was governor. Neither has so far weighed in on the controversial case.
In press availability before Saturday's show, Dixie Chick Maines said: "Three innocent people are losing years of their life on a wrongful conviction on a crime they didn't commit. It makes me scared. It could happen to any of us."
Vedder and Depp have been ardent supporters for the West Memphis Three for years. On Saturday night, Depp read a passage from Echols' journal before playing guitar with Vedder on several songs before the crowd of 2,500.
"Today the guards made me bleed again," Depp read from the Feb. 6, 2010, journal entry in his low, cool voice. "They chained my feet so tight I could barely move. I bleed through my socks. . . . And this place is filthy. I can't remember what it's like to walk as a human being anymore."
Pearl Jam frontman Vedder, who has met with Echols on death row, was the lead performer for the evening and orchestrated many of the acoustic Americana songs and guest stars that also included Ben Harper, George Harrison's son, Dhani, and Joseph Arthur in their new band Fistful of Mercy.
Maines and Vedder both have a history of being politically outspoken.
Maines stirred controversy in 2003 when she declared on a London stage on the eve of the U.S. invasion of Iraq: "Just so you know, we're ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas."
Vedder has been a highly vocal proponent of the pro-choice movement since the 1990s. He told The Guardian in 2009: "People on death row, the treatment of animals, women's right to choose. So much in America is based on religious fundamentalist Christianity. Grow up! This is the modern world!"
Vedder said Saturday that the same thing could have happened to him as a teenager as happened to Echols because of the clothes he wore and the music he liked.
"My life was different than most kids my age," Vedder said to reporters before the show. "There may have been a strange bit of profiling" in this case.
In 2007, Maines appeared in Little Rock on behalf of the West Memphis Three at a rally on the capitol steps. With Capi Peck, Arkansas Take Action co-founder, Maines presented petitions and letters to Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe asking for a new trial. Maines said then that new DNA evidence implicated one of the stepfathers of the dead boys. Maines also posted a note about the new evidence to the Dixie Chicks website.
The stepfather filed a lawsuit in 2008 against Maines for damages that included "loss of income, injury to his reputation and emotional distress." The suit was dismissed in December. In April, the court ordered Hobbs to pay Maines' attorney and court fees.
Other stepparents of the three dead boys are now having second thoughts about the case and want to see new trials for the West Memphis Three.
Patti Smith hit the stage near the end of the two-and-half-hour concert wearing a black T-shirt with the word "Justice" in bold white letters across its front. Backed by Vedder and Depp on guitars, Smith began by playing a song on her guitar, which she repeatedly messed up. "I haven't [expletive] up as much as the judicial system," she said to massive cheers.
In the all-star finale, Smith said that she had a dream where a giant archangel appeared telling her that "small things create great things."
"Each small thing connects and the big thing is to bring those boys home," Smith said.
The closing anthem was Smith's popular "People Have the Power." With pure punk prowess, she yelled, "Don't forget, use your voice."