Despite there being almost no evidence to convict them, Damien Echols was sentenced to death in 1994 for the killing of three boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. Jessie Misskelley and Jason Baldwin were both sentenced to life.
Prosecutors alleged the three men, then teenagers, had conducted a Satanic ritual, and pointed to their interest in rock music as proof they were guilty.
They were finally freed in 2011 after nearly 19 years behind bars – but only on condition they accepted there was enough evidence to convict them.
Vedder spent many years fighting on the West Memphis 3′s behalf, and was present when they were allowed to go home. But he reveals he didn’t know for certain they were innocent until he asked Echols in 2001.
The singer tells Rolling Stone: “To be honest, there came a point when we had raised a bunch of money on their behalf. 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.”
Vedder reports that Echols simply replied “No” to the question, but adds: “the way he said it, you can tell. You can tell.”
The story is told in the documentary movie West Of Memphis, released last month.
Meanwhile, ukulele fan Vedder reports that a new Pearl Jam album, widely expected this year, is “maybe halfway there.” He continues: “We’re taking our time. 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. We’ll be ready to go when we’re ready to go.
“We really work together as a unit these days. 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.”
-Classic Rock Magazine