In the early 1990s, Damien Echols was just another pale-skinned, trench-coat-wearing high school freak with a penchant for bands like Metallica, the Misfits, and Depeche Mode. He never imagined those musical heroes would become his closest allies.
But these days, as Echols sits on death row in a Grady, Arkansas, prison, those guys are raising awareness and money for his defense fund.
Echols is one-third of the notorious West Memphis Three (WM3), a group of teens from Marion, Arkansas, convicted of murdering three younger children in a "satanic ritual" in 1993. Echols was handed the death penalty, while Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr. were given life sentences. But the three maintain their innocence, blaming their convictions on "Satanic panic."
Echols believes he was singled out because he was different, and so does Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, James Hetfield of Metallica, Henry Rollins, and Michale Graves of the Misfits.
In March, Graves kicked off a 34-city concert tour in support of Echols' 2005 autobiography, Almost Home: My Life Story Vol. One. He'll be stopping in Memphis at the Complex on Sunday, May 21st.
From 1995 to 2000, Graves served as lead singer of the reunited late-'70s punk band the Misfits (originally headed by Glenn Danzig). After leaving the Misfits, Graves formed a couple short-lived punk bands and spent some time in the military. He was honorably discharged after sustaining a back injury.
"I really didn't want to go out and tour again. I didn't want to do another record," says Graves. "I was still mourning the whole military thing."
But Graves popped in a copy of the West Memphis Three documentary Paradise Lost that he'd gotten for Christmas, and suddenly he found his motivation. The film prompted him to visit the wm3.org Web site, the online headquarters for the defense campaigns of Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley.
The site included a mention of Echols' book, a memoirs-style account of his life from birth to death row. The book recalls summers in his trailer park, his first real girlfriend, and his days at Marion High School. It's a compelling look at how terribly normal life was for Echols before his arrest in 1993.
Graves ordered a copy and decided to start selling the book on a nationwide WM3 awareness tour.
Graves began writing letters to Echols in January. In one letter, Echols told Graves how excited he was that Eddie Vedder had used part of a poem he'd written in a song ("Army Reserve") on Pearl Jam's new record.
"I told him that since he had poetry in some of his writings [to me], maybe we could set it to music," says Graves. "So he wrote me a letter, and it said he'd written his first song. He'd been hearing all these Nick Cave songs in his head, and then he wrote these beautiful words called 'Frostbite.'"
Graves listened to Cave's music for a couple of days. Then he picked up his guitar and wrote music to accompany Echols' words. The result is the encore song Graves plays each night of the tour.
Besides the music, Graves is using the tour to educate people on the West Memphis case and to raise money for Echols' defense fund. Echols is currently appealing at the state level.
"Our merch girls are ready to engage anyone who wants to talk about the case," Graves says. "We have a donation can, and everyone can sign a note that will be sent to Damien."
Attendees can also sign letters asking Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee for a retrial. They'll be sent to Little Rock on WM3 World Awareness Day, June 3rd. WM3 supporters contend the confession made by the mentally disabled Misskelley was coerced, and they cite a lack of physical evidence against the three as grounds for a new trial.
Graves hopes to spark a national debate. He wants the federal court or "somebody with power" to take a closer look at this case.
For now, Graves is working on a benefit album album of songs co-written with Echols. Sales will go toward Echols' defense.
"I think what Damien's doing now with his art and his writing is proving how strong the human spirit is," Graves says. "Those walls in Grady, Arkansas, that he sits behind can't keep his soul contained. It's everywhere, and it's growing every day."