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Q&A: Eddie Vedder on West Memphis Three, New Pearl Jam Music

'It was tantamount to seeing a child born,' Vedder says of imprisoned Arkansas trio's release

January 2, 2013 12:25 PM ET
Eddie Vedder
Eddie Vedder
Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images

"The tour is going great, but it could fall apart any minute," Eddie Vedder said with a laugh, checking in from his bus in Texas in November. But at that moment he had something else on his mind: the case of the West Memphis Three. For a decade and a half, Vedder worked tirelessly with a team to free Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley who, as teenagers, were sentenced to life in prison for the murder of three eight-year-old Arkansas boy scouts (Echols was sentenced to death).  The 18-year nightmare – plus their release in August 2011 – is chronicled in the new film West of Memphis, directed by Amy Berg and produced by Peter Jackson, which presents new evidence suggesting the trio's innocence."I'm grateful that I can live in a country and feel at least like there is some hope," Vedder says. "If Damien would have been executed that would have been something I can't even imagine." 

How Rockers Helped Free the West Memphis Three

You were there the day Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley were released from prison. What was that like?
It was tantamount to seeing a child born, but instead of nine months, it took 18 years for them. [Laughs] I think I was involved for about 15 years. The dramatic last couple weeks were probably some of the most gut-wrenching times of my life, so I can only imagine what it was like for them. But the fact that it happened and the way that it happened really just showed that if you've got the guts and the staying power, great things can happen. I learned so much about the judicial process by being involved and saw so many of the things that are wrong with the system that seem like they could be fixed. I also got quite an education on the prison system and how prisons are corporatized and privately owned. 

Having seen the footage of when they were first brought from the courthouse to the jail, seeing the angry crowd looking almost like an outtake of the Frankenstein movie, screaming for these three young men's heads, and to be there that day and to walk out that back door and see an even bigger crowd reacting with utter joy all those years later – outside of having kids, it was the most powerful moment in my life.

You've said before it took years to educate yourself on the case. Did you always believe Damien, Jason and Jessie were innocent?
To be honest, there came a point when we had raised a bunch of money on their behalf around 2000 or 2001. [Pearl Jam] weren't working that year, but we still needed funds for private investigators and DNA testing. I had to start calling and asking people that I had helped, and see if they could help us out with this cost. That's when I went and talked to Damien. I just had to ask him straight up, face to face. The answer he gave me and the unflinching trust that I could see from human to human – that was when I truly, truly believed. Of course, I had wished and believed and done all the research but I just didn't know. Especially when I fooled some other people into it, people that trusted me. I needed to know. There's a big difference, actually, between believing something and knowing something. I asked him face to face. And I was completely satisfied. 

What did he say?
He just said, "No." But the way he said it, I'm sure he followed up with a sentence but that was all – it was just, you know – you can tell. You can tell.

Damien has said he's surprised at how many people are interested in it, because he feels that it's no different from dozens and dozens of other cases over the years. Why did the West Memphis Three case resonate with you?
Like most people, and, of all the supporters, I think probably 90 percent of them, their involvement came out of seeing the first Paradise Lost film. And it makes complete sense that there's musicians involved, because we weren't the cool kids growing up and some of us kind of had the experience of being under the lion's paw and having adults who should know better and being an adolescent who knew that these adults were kind of fucked up. They had the power to oppress not just your being, but your dreams or your sense of what's right. And, you know, I think that was something that immediately resonated with this thing of, you know, these adults throwing these kids under the bus when they should know better.

There are a lot of characters like that in this case.
Gary Gitchell, for one. Once they ask him, 'On a scale of one to 10, how sure are you that these guys are the guys?' And I can't remember if he says 11 or 15. That was the moment where he crossed the line and he was going to have to do whatever he had to do to make sure he was right. And, even if that meant sacrificing three lives of young men, doubling the tragedy. I was naive and thought that once I got involved and once we started organizing, we'd go about this practically. I think some of them hadn't even seen an attorney for a year. Outside of letters from supporters and all that, nothing was really getting done.

Lorri was already involved at that point and so we started having these meetings and flying in attorneys and having these very kind of intense boardroom talks about, you know, practical procedures, and what's the best way to go about this and how much money is needed. The worst part about this whole process is that it goes so fucking incredibly slow. It's like watching paint dry – that's what you wish would happen. The way the appeals process works: you submit the appeal and then they don't decide on the appeal for another three months, then they decide if they'll even look at the appeal and then it takes another three to six months before they tell you what they're gonna decide on that appeal and that might be just to open up another 50 pieces of DNA. And then you have to have both sides agree on a DNA testing lab. That takes another few months.

Lorri and I have had marathon conversations, and they weren't few and far between. And we'd always discuss the case and then we'd talk about relationships and then we'd talk about life and, at the end, we'd really always go back to, what's it gonna be like when he comes out? They were kind of almost hysterical conversations, because, you know, relationships are hard, anyways. Jason and Damien are truly remarkable people. That's why I just feel so fortunate not to have just gotten involved.

Damien has mentioned regular brutal prison beatings from guards. It's amazing that can still happen in our country today.
Yeah. I'm afraid I wasn't shocked by that, maybe just because I'd be in contact throughout the years and I think he downplays it in the book, to be brutally honest with you. I think he's not telling you 90 percent of how bad it got. Jason, too. It shows the power of the human spirit and how it can somehow maintain itself in the worst possible scenario. It's just incredible.

A major turning point came a few years ago when Natalie Maines made some public statements about DNA evidence linking Terry Hobbs to the murders. He sued her and lost, but it forced him to speak to authorities on the record.
Oh, yeah, Natalie came in and blew open the case. There was more evidence that came out of it and you were able to get the evidence from the women that saw Hobbs yelling at his son at dinnertime when they were on the way to church or something. You know, it's bizarre to think that so many people had information that they didn't come forward with for almost two decades. Fifteen years gone.

There are other famous rock musicians – but that you put yourself out there for this is pretty incredible.
It wasn't anything spectacular at all. I mean, I'm grateful that I can live in a country and feel at least like there is some hope, you know. If this wouldn't have turned out this way, or if, God forbid, Damien would have been executed, that would have been something I can't even imagine. It would have been really hard to raise your kids in a country you just felt like something so tragic could happen and that justice wouldn't be served, especially when you were able to raise the money. In the initial case I think they each had maybe $2,300 each to fight in Damien's case, the death penalty case, and then two life sentences, and then the amount of funds it took goes into the millions.

Do you remember your first meeting with Damien?
Once you've visited Damien, you know, you realize that he's in there every, every day. The first time, we were on tour and I think I spent the rest of the tour – three weeks to a month just, outside of playing the shows – I would just huddle in my room, in the smallest part of the room, trying to live like he was, just to keep my sense of urgency about it. I didn't want to forget. So I kind of huddled in my room, in tribute, you know? Maybe two years later, I made it back to see him and that time was different. There was some progress on the case at the time or something that made it feel like it was reverse. Like, you have to go out and live in his name and in his honor and do everything, live each day like it's your last because you have this opportunity that he doesn't at this point. 

'West of Memphis' Documents Harrowing Trial on Film

Jessie Misskelley's forced confession was a huge miscarriage of justice.
Well, if you kind of look into it at all, there's all these misnomers about aspects of this case. One of them is the forced or false confession. In fact, one of the attorneys – and I should know his name by heart . . . shit! – but he wrote a book called, I believe, False Confessions. It probably documents at least 50 cases of this happening. And you see how it can happen to parents admitting that they killed their kids and they didn't do it. I mean, it happens. It happens, and people don't understand how it could happen. But when you see how it could happen to, like, a parent, and they're telling the parents, "We saw your van. We have pictures of it at the AM/PM getting gas at four in the morning, so that means that you got gas and then dumped your daughter's body by the side of the river." Saying they have those pictures, and then I say, "Yeah."  And then after 14 hours, he's signing a piece of paper saying that he did it, because he's like "I guess – did I?" And the fact is they didn't have pictures of his van at the thing. I mean that's kind of criminal right there, that they're putting people in this position. I think in that case the guy got out, but it took him five years. I'm giving you long-winded answers. I'm sorry. But you know, there are like hundreds of these cases of forced, false confessions, and they could be businessmen, they could be grown adults that are stand-up members of their community. It's happened to them. And then you see it, a textbook version of it happening to Jessie, who's mentally underqualified to be in this situation, and they're twisting and turning him around, and I believe the interrogation lasted more than 10 hours, maybe up to 12 or 14. 

Everything had this chess level of just kind of crazy circumstances and the way people were connected. It's just one of the most bizarre tellings of any tale you could come up with, whether it's this juror who had a brother who had molested his own daughter, and so the juror is having a conversation with the attorney that he's hired to help his brother and he's saying "I'm on this jury. Can I bring in this confession?" And the guy says, "Well, first of all, you can't even be talking to me."  And he says, "Oh no, that's okay, but I need to know, can I bring this into the case?" And the guy's saying, "I can't talk to you about this." If you could be objective or you weren't connected to the case, you'd find it just completely fascinating. To have gone through it with a friend on death row made it not just heart-wrenching, but it almost could make you insane. So how Damien kept his sanity, that's the whole story, and Lorri, too. This is potentially the greatest, or one of the greatest love stories ever told. Certainly one of the greatest ones I've ever witnessed, and their devotion through these unimaginable hardships and, you know, the way they were able to support each other and keep it going and fight through jealousies 'cause one person's out and one person's in. I mean, we all know that relationships are difficult just on a normal basis, whatever that is. But this, under these circumstances, to have this kind of faith and devotion and trust in each other and this belief that one day they will hold hands and walk the streets of New York City, it's really something else. 

I know we have to wrap up – thanks for your time on this. Pearl Jam is working on new music, right?
Um, maybe halfway there. We're taking our time. I was talking to Jeff [Ament] today, we were texting, he's got his group up there. He's heading to the West Coast, I'm heading east. And we're out here like, you know, like Johnny Appleseed. He's covering part of the country. I'm doing the other. And at some point we'll join forces again for sure, but the band is as healthy as ever and I'm sure it's good to get a little break from each other, but it's nice to – we'll be ready to go when we're ready to go.

Any idea what you want it to sound like?
It just comes out. It sounds like it sounds like. We really work together as a unit these days. It's really the compilation of all the parts. It's not like one guy trying to tell everybody, "These are my songs. This is what it should sound like." We've figured out after all these years that if everybody just puts their stamp on it, then it sounds how we want it to. Then it sounds new, 'cause everyone is growing, you know.  Everyone is growing after all these years.

How are you feeling after the election?
I'm feeling great. Feeling great. That's a whole other conversation. But yeah, feeling great. 

Are you going to make another solo record?
Oh shit, I gotta go, man!

Thank you, Eddie.
I'll talk to you soon, brother.

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