LITTLE ROCK, Ark. - An effort to free three young men convicted in the 1993 slayings of three 8-year-old boys is gathering speed, with rock stars and other celebrities taking up their cause and about 150 supporters rallying yesterday on the steps of the Arkansas Capitol.
Supporters of the so-called West Memphis Three say prosecutors and a small-town police force railroaded the young men because of their fascination with heavy metal music and the occult. And they say new DNA tests and other forensic evidence call their guilt into question.
At the Capitol, sympathizers including Natalie Maines, lead singer for the Dixie Chicks, unfurled a long banner of postcards asking for the men to be released.
"You want to do anything you can to right this wrong," Maines said. "I'm just amazed that these guys are still in prison and have turned into men in prison."
For years, prosecutors have steadfastly maintained the defendants committed the crime. And the convictions have withstood numerous appeals, with the Arkansas Supreme Court saying in 1996 that there was "substantial evidence" of guilt.
The killings of Stevie Branch, Christopher Byers, and Michael Moore shocked West Memphis, a blue-collar town of about 28,000 across the Mississippi River from Memphis.
Police found the battered bodies of the three Cub Scouts in a drainage ditch a day after they disappeared from their neighborhood.
Their hands were bound to their legs with shoelaces, and one boy was sexually mutilated, prosecutors say.
Three teenagers - Jason Baldwin, Damien Echols, and Jessie Misskelley - were arrested a month later, largely on Misskelley's confession. Misskelley told investigators how he watched Baldwin and Echols sexually assault and beat two of the boys as he chased down another who was trying to escape.
A jury in 1994 gave Misskelley life in prison plus 40 years. Baldwin got life without parole. Echols, then 19, the oldest of the three, was sentenced to die. No execution date has been set.
A 1996 HBO documentary, "Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills," galvanized many supporters, who say that it reinforced their belief that the defendants were falsely convicted because they listened to heavy metal music and dressed in black in a small Southern town.