SAN FRANCISCO — An art show featuring work by an Arkansas death row inmate opened this weekend to kick off a series of events this month advocating the release of the convicted killers known as the "West Memphis Three."
Damien Echols, 31, was one of three teenagers convicted in the 1993 bludgeoning deaths of three 8-year-old boys whose bodies were found in a ditch near their homes in West Memphis, Ark.
Supporters claim Echols, Jessie Misskelley and Jason Baldwin, were railroaded because they listened to heavy metal, dressed in black clothing and read Stephen King novels. The case has become a cause celebre for a host of musicians and other big names, including Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder, punk rocker Henry Rollins and comedian Margaret Cho.
"I think America can do a little better for you than what they got, being thrown in prison on such intense charges with no physical evidence," said Rollins, who spoke at the art show held at the 111 Minna Gallery on Friday. "This shouldn't happen in America."
The one-night show and auction, sponsored in part by Vedder, is the first of many events planned around the country to bring attention to the 13-year-old murder case. Money raised from the art auction and other events will go to the West Memphis Three Defense Fund.
The events will culminate with screenings of films about the case and concerts on June 3.
"Touching a nerve is not enough. We will not rest until those three guys are out of jail or at the very least granted a new trial," said Jello Biafra, an activist and former vocalist of the Dead Kennedys.
Friday's show prominently featured collage art Echols has assembled in his prison cell and a performance of songs Echols co-wrote with musicians. Others artists donated work for auction.
Echols' art, including a self portrait, were crafted with old magazines and prison-issued razors. One image features a woman who appears to be blowing a kiss surrounded by several butterflies. Opening bids on some artwork were as high as $500.
The bludgeoned bodies of second-graders Steven Branch, Michael Moore and Christopher Byers were found submerged in a water-filled ditch near their homes in 1993. Echols was the only of the three defendants to end up on death row, while Baldwin was given life without parole and Misskelley was sentenced to life plus 40 years.
The case, with its lurid overtones of Satanism and witchcraft, gained national prominence with an HBO film "Paradise Lost."
Echols' San Francisco-based attorney Dennis Riordan says interest in the case hasn't ebbed in more than a decade.
"These were three poor kids with no resources to defend themselves, but there's an enormous amount of political support and resources being put into it now," Riordan said.
Brent Davis, the prosecutor who handled the case, didn't return calls requesting comment Friday, although his office said he was aware of the show.
All three men are awaiting DNA test results and likely will file for a retrial to allow the test results to be entered as evidence, Riordan said. Echols also has several appeals pending in federal court.
Rollins, who held a summer tour three years ago to raise money for the men, said he identified with Echols because of his experiences growing up as an outcast simply because he was a punk rock fan in an elite Washington, D.C., area prep school. He said the men want to go back to court.
"None of them want a get out of jail free card. They want to go to court with the DNA evidence, and that to me is the voice of an innocent man," he said.
Michale Graves, former vocalist of the seminal punk band The Misfits, is touring for a month playing songs he wrote based on lyrics Echols penned in prison. The inmate also co-wrote a song called "Army Reserve" on Pearl Jam's latest album.
Graves said writing songs with Echols has been the highlight of his musical career.
"These words and these lyrics, I read them and for a brief moment I can be where Damien is at," Graves said. "With this gift I've been given, the gift of song and music, I can grab my guitar and strum some chords and everyone who hears the song can feel those emotions."
On the Net:
West Memphis Three: www.wm3.org
Skeleton Key Art: www.skeletonkeyart.com
Henry Rollins: www.two1361.com
Michale Graves: www.michalegraves.net