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Top Five Celebrity Activists: Lady Gaga and a Palin, Too

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Star power goes a long way.

Celebrities can often shed light, or make a big impact, on a cause or an issue in ways that even the best public relations campaign simply cannot.

During World War II, Hollywood stars promoted war bonds, rationing and Victory gardens. These days, they take to social media and television to get their points across on myriad issues affecting the world.

Five celebrities who made a difference this year:

Lady Gaga: The pop superstar dipped her toe into celebrity activism in 2009 when she appeared at the National Equality March in Washington. But in 2010, Lady Gaga chose full-body immersion. She took on “Don’t ask, Don’t tell” and encouraged her “Little Monster” fans to make a ruckus by calling elected officials and asking them to repeal the law. For many Millennials, Lady Gaga’s call to action was the first time they realized that they could even call a senator.

The fashion diva, who took heat from PETA for a costume made from meat, also lambasted Arizona’s immigration law and took on the anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church when the hate group protested her St. Louis concert. Her solution: Embrace them with love and peace.

How did she motivate her fans to action? Via Facebook and Twitter. Lady Gaga rules social media with more followers and fans than any politician, including President Barack Obama.

Expect the 25-year-old Lady Gaga to continue her fight for GLBT rights in 2011 as her third studio album will be called “Born This Way.”

Sean Penn: Academy Award-winner Sean Penn went beyond the extra charitable mile in 2010. When Haiti suffered a devastating earthquake in January, Penn didn’t just write a check to a relief agency. Instead, he started his own organization and ventured to the ravaged country.

And he decided to stay.

Penn became a camp manager for the International Organization of Migration at Petionville, one of the most complex temporary camps in Haiti. The IOM is the United Nations agency responsible for camp management and coordination. He also traveled to Washington to testify at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on rebuilding Haiti.

In December, Penn, 50, even skipped out of a fancy Dubai film festival where he was to receive a lifetime achievement award to return to Haiti because of concerns regarding the safety of his staff. He received the “Hollywood Humanitarian Award” at the Hollywood Awards for his “selfless” efforts.

Penn continues to stress the importance of medical supplies and doctors as the country battles cholera. He’s not going anywhere, he says. In fact, Penn has recently vowed to spend years in Haiti until the country is stable.

Michelle Obama: Like first ladies before her, Michelle Obama has a cause — childhood obesity. Sure, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Bill Clinton were pushing the issue long before Obama got on the scene, but she took the issue to a new level. She launched “Let’s Move,” a program to “raise a healthier generation of kids.”

She has called obesity a “national security threat” and an epidemic. Last year, she created a White House garden to show how easy it is to raise healthy food. She kicked off 2010 by speaking to the U.S. Conference of Mayors about the issue. This month, Obama celebrated a win when her husband signed into the law the child nutrition bill for which she strongly lobbied. The first lady isn’t above showing her hula-hooping skills or practicing with NFL teams to show kids how to exercise and get outside.

Her obesity campaign recently got Sarah Palin’s attention.

On her TLC reality television show, Palin said, “Where are the s’mores ingredients? This is in honor of Michelle Obama, who said the other day we should not have dessert.” In fact, Obama said, “The problem is when things get out of balance, when dessert is practically a food group.”

In turn, Huckabee, a former overweight diabetic who wrote a book about his weight battle, came to Obama’s defense. Don’t expect Michelle Obama to back down on the issue. She plans to make the battle against childhood obesity her White House legacy.

Bristol Palin: She tangoed her way into the consciousness of just about every American household this year on “Dancing With The Stars.” But she also did her fair share of advocacy against teen pregnancy. Palin was 17 and unmarried when she became pregnant.

In May, Palin appeared in a public service announcement for The Candie’s Foundation, an offshoot of the clothing brand that promotes awareness of teen pregnancy. In 2009, she was named an ambassador for the foundation.

During her “DWTS” appearance, Palin filmed another PSA promoting safe sex for the foundation with Jersey Shore star and fellow DWTS contestant, The Situation. He promotes condoms, Palin promotes abstinence.

In December, Keith Olbermann called Bristol Palin “the worst person in the world” because she preaches abstinence to teens even though she was an unwed teenager when she became a mom.
Palin pulled a Lady Gaga and took to her Facebook page to defend herself. She wrote: “In order to have credibility as a spokesperson, it sometimes takes a person who has made mistakes. Parents warn their children about the mistakes they made so they are not repeated. Former gang members travel to schools to educate teenagers about the risks of gang life.”

Palin graduated out of her teens this year but is likely to continue her abstinence message into her 20s. That is unless she finds a new cause.

Johnny Depp, Eddie Vedder, Natalie Maines and Patti Smith: Collectively, these four kindred spirits came together in of all places, Little Rock, Ark., to shed light on the West Memphis Three – Jason Baldwin, Damien Echols and Jessie Misskelley, Jr.

While teenagers, the three were charged with the murders of three 8-year-old boys, whose bodies were found in 1993 naked and bound in West Memphis, Ark. For the last 17 years, the three have been trying to get the Arkansas courts to retry the case. Echols sits on Arkansas Death Row. The other two men are serving life sentences.

Vedder and Depp have long been supporters of the West Memphis Three. Only this year, however, did Depp decide to become more vocal publicly about the case. Depp appeared on “48 Hours” to plead for a new trial and pulled his friend, punk goddess Patti Smith, into the project.

In August, Vedder, along with Arkansas Take Action advocates, led the charge to organize a concert to shed light on the need for new hearings in the case. Depp, Maines and Smith appeared. Depp read poems written by Echols and also sang and played guitar. Maines, too, performed, and Smith closed the evening with her classics.

The celeb firepower may have just worked.

The Arkansas Supreme Court ruled in November to allow new evidentiary hearings for the West Memphis Three.


West Memphis Three Case: Court Orders New Evidentiary Hearings

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After 17 years of asking, the West Memphis Three are finally getting another day in court.

On Thursday, the Arkansas Supreme Court ordered a judge to consider whether newly analyzed DNA evidence might exonerate the three men convicted in the 1993 murders of three West Memphis Cub Scouts. The justices also said a lower court must examine claims of juror misconduct, which opens the door for defense attorneys to bring in all evidence not presented in the original trials. The court voted unanimously for new hearings.

Damien Echols sits on death row for the murders of the three children. Jason Baldwin and Jesse Misskelley Jr. received life sentences.

At the time of the murders, there was speculation that the case was an occult killing. Echols was singled out because he wore black clothes, listened to heavy metal and read horror novels, although he did not know the three boys. He and Baldwin and Misskelley were accused of murder, sexual mutilation and cutting and beating the victims. The evidence and the facts of the crime never matched. All three of the accused were teenagers when they were convicted.

Damien Echols, West Memphis ThreeThe WM3 case has generated major netroots activism, and drawn celebrity support from Johnny Depp, singer Patti Smith, Dixie Chick Natalie Maines and Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, among others. They staged a concert in August to draw attention to the case, especially in Arkansas, where it had gotten very little attention until recently. HBO has produced two documentaries and is currently filming a third.

The court also pointed out Thursday that Circuit Judge David Burnett erred repeatedly in the case, including dismissing requests to consider DNA and other exculpatory evidence without a hearing. Burnett has been the focus of activists’ campaigns because of his pro-prosecution stances. He will not hear the new case because he was recently elected to the state legislature. Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel has also fought against a new hearing. 

McDaniel said he respected the court’s ruling but added that his office “intends to fulfill its constitutional responsibility to defend the jury verdicts in this case.”

When the state Supreme Court heard oral arguments in late September, activists from around the world for Free the WM3 and Arkansas Take Action filled the chamber.

Over the years, Echols has petitioned higher courts numerous times, including the U.S. Supreme Court, but has been denied a new hearing.

Written by suziparker1313

March 8, 2011 at 10:30 pm

The West Memphis Three, and the Two Women Fighting to Free Them

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LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – In a historic Gothic church in downtown, more than 150 people from Arkansas, around the country and the world gathered Wednesday night to show their support for the West Memphis Three.

The West Memphis Three are Jason Baldwin, Damien Echols and Jessie Misskelley Jr. While teenagers, they were charged with the murder of three 8-year-old boys, who were found in 1993 naked and bound in West Memphis, Ark. The case immediately made national headlines and was the focus of two HBO documentaries.

Echols was sentenced to death, while Baldwin and Misskelley received life sentences.

Since 1993, the case has received attention from celebrities, including a rally and concert in August that featured Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, Dixie Chick Natalie Maines, Patti Smith and Johnny Depp.

On Thursday morning, the Arkansas Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Damien Echols’ case. His attorneys asked for a new trial based on claims of juror misconduct and new DNA evidence – DNA testing was unavailable in 1993 – that they say proves his innocence. Attorneys for the state attorney general office argued that DNA testing wasn’t enough to warrant a new trial. More than 100 people packed the Supreme Court chamber and an overflow room where West Memphis Three supporters viewed the proceedings on a closed-circuit television.

Two women are at the heart of the West Memphis Three activism — Capi Peck, a Little Rock restaurant owner, and Lorri Davis, the wife of Echols. Together, they have become a force to be reckoned with as they have pushed for a new trial and more grassroots activism in Arkansas, the one place where attention on the case has been minimal.

“Arkansas voices needed to be heard,” Peck told Politics Daily. “I’ve taken flack for getting involved since I own a restaurant and been told it wasn’t wise because the public position was divisive and polarizing. But this is social justice. It is a black mark on our state and judicial system.”

Peck met Davis through her restaurant four years ago. Back then, Davis, who is shy, didn’t publicly talk about the case or her relationship with Echols. The two women never mentioned the case as they began to hang out on Saturday nights. Peck, who was aware of the case, says see initially saw their friendship as a way for Davis to relax and put the case out of her mind. Then Davis started opening up to Peck.

Davis told Peck the story about how she had seen “Paradise Lost,” the HBO documentary about the case in 1995. At the time, Davis, a West Virginia native, lived in New York where she worked as a landscape designer. She became fascinated with Echols and began writing him in prison. Two years later, she moved to Arkansas. In 1999, they married.

Through that time, Davis has fought to get legal and financial help for the cause. She has become friends not only with Peck but Vedder, who has visited Echols numerous times in prison, and Depp.

“It’s not so much my own stress, but the stress of what Damien has had to live with,” Davis says. “It’s horrible to see people you love suffer, to watch their life slipping away.”

Peck says she’s watched the “emotional strain” take a toll on Davis as she tried every avenue to get Echols – and also Misskelley and Baldwin – free and keep focus on the case. Davis never takes a vacation because she doesn’t want to miss her weekly visit with Echols. They talk every day on the telephone.

Some would call Davis crazy for falling in love with a man on Death Row. She dismisses it.

“I felt this kinship with Damien,” she says without further explanation.

Peck realized that while celebrity and global netroots support existed in the case, few in Arkansas seemed to care about the issue. Davis, too, had very little community support, even after she began seeking it. Peck, along with a handful of friends, began Arkansas Take Action to educate the public on the facts of the complex case and generate a grassroots push for a new trial.

The West Memphis Three case is a complicated one. The murders of Stevie Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore rocked the small eastern Arkansas town of Robin Hood Hills, a wooded area near their home in West Memphis. Local and state police were pressured by the community to quickly find the murderer.
Some believed it to be a case of an occult killing. Echols was singled out because he wore black clothes, listened to heavy metal and read horror novels, although he did not know the three boys.
Less than a month later, Misskelley, who was later diagnosed as mentally handicapped, confessed to the crime and claimed Echols and Baldwin sexually abused, cut and beat the victims. The confession and facts of the crime never matched. No DNA taken from the crime scene matched that of the West Memphis Three.

In 2007, Peck and Davis invited Natalie Maines to a rally on the steps of the state capitol in Little Rock where they presented petitions and letters to Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe asking for a new trial. The governor does not have the power to do so, but can commute sentences and grant pardons. He has ruled out both. That rally spawned a controversy when Maines said then that new DNA evidence implicated one of the stepfathers of the dead boys. Maines also posted a note about the new evidence to the Dixie Chicks website.

The stepfather, Terry Hobbs, filed a lawsuit in 2008 against Maines for damages that included “loss of income, injury to his reputation and emotional distress.” The suit was dismissed in December. In April, the court ordered Hobbs to pay Maines’ attorney and court fees.

Peck, who says the last time she was involved in politics or a cause was George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign, placed petitions and informational cards Trio’s, her popular restaurant, about the case. Her group held candlelight vigils, which seldom garnered any local press attention. She became friends with Echols and began writing letters to him.

“I am an eternal optimist,” Peck says. “I ultimately have faith in people. I believe that if we are adamant and vocal we can make a difference.”

The group recently sent a letter to former President Bill Clinton asking for him to lend support to the “tragic injustice.” Clinton’s Harlem office wrote back that the case was a local issue.

The August rally and concert, attended by 2,500 people, was a sell-out. Many had never paid attention to the case but are now involved in Arkansas Take Action, gathering signatures on another round of petitions to take to the governor. A video was also produced for the rally.

The event also focused on the new evidence that will be presented at Thursday’s hearing — new DNA found in one of the ligatures used to restrain one of the victims.
Experts believe that Misskelley’s confession was coerced. The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, along with the Northwestern University School of Law’s Center on Wrongful Convictions, filed an amicus brief with the Arkansas Supreme Court asking the court to grant Echols a new trial. According to that group, there have been 257 post-conviction DNA exonerations in the United States. A quarter of them involved a false confession.

Aside from DNA evidence, defense attorneys argue that the jury foreman engaged in “blatant misconduct” by having improper conversations with a prominent Arkansas attorney that led to Echols’ and Baldwins’ murder convictions.
If the Supreme Court refuses to grant a new trial, lawyers plan to fight the case in federal court. The Supreme Court will likely rule on the case in the next two to six weeks.

At the vigil Wednesday night, letters and journal entries by the West Memphis Three were read by activists. White candles were lit and a silent meditation occurred for 17 minutes to symbolize the 17 years that the three have “endured a grave injustice.”

Supporters – some of whom came from as far as Canada and California – plan to pack the courtroom Thursday morning as the state and Echols’ attorney present their two sides to the state Supreme Court justices, who previously upheld Echols’ conviction.

Peck and Davis take issue with those who say they are fighting a lost cause. “The tide is turning. Whatever happens tomorrow, our work is not over,” Peck says. “Regardless of what happens, we are not going to go away until these three young men are home.”

Davis echoes her friend. “The world is watching Arkansas and its judicial system and politicians now,” she says.

Written by suziparker1313

March 8, 2011 at 10:00 pm