In 1993, three boys were murdered in the backwoods of West Memphis, Arkansas. Three teenagers were arrested and charged with performing the crimes as part of a satanic ritual. What followed was a nearly two decade long struggle that would spark intense debate over justice, society, and what actually happened WEST OF MEMPHIS.
Damien Echols was 18 years old when he was arrested for the murders of Stevie Branch, Michael Moore, and Christopher Byers. He – along with co-defendants Jessie Misskelley and Jason Baldwin – insisted they were innocent and became known worldwide as the West Memphis Three. Echols was sentenced to death for the murders and, over the next 18 years, fought relentlessly against the conviction.
The three became the focus of a documentary series that would spark an international movement for their release. The documentaries also caught the attention of Lorri Davis, who would eventually marry Echols, as well as Academy Award winners Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, who became strong advocates for Echols’ release.
In 2008, Davis and Walsh reached out to director Amy Berg, who would go on to direct WEST OF MEMPHIS, which captures Echols’ desperate push towards freedom, the love that supported him, and a search for justice WEST OF MEMPHIS.
Junkyard Arts Contributing Editor and SFF Online Media Editor Brian Lepire recently asked Echols – who now resides in Salem with Davis – about his experiences making the documentary from behind bars, the support he received during his time in prison, and what his life has been like since he left WEST OF MEMPHIS.
Brian Lepire: Executive Producers Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh (THE LORD OF THE RINGS) took a very active role in your legal defense in 2005, spending time with your wife Lorri Davis and your attorney and conducting research on their own. What were your initial thoughts when you saw how dedicated they were to your cause?
Damien Echols: Our initial thoughts were that we finally had a fighting chance. We had been bullied by the state for so long, and now we finally had someone on our side that could help us fight back.
BL: There’s a large community of artists, musicians and actors who have been vocally supportive of you, Jessie Misskelley, and Jason Baldwin since your story broke into news, and then more so once the PARADISE LOST documentary series brought your story international attention. How did you react when you first learned that these people were in the media supporting you, and why do you think so many creative (people)s came out vocally in support of you?
DE: Most say the reason they felt so strongly about the case is because when they saw it they realized it could have easily been them in the same situation. They knew what it meant to be outside mainstream society, and to be mistreated because of it.
BL: How did the idea to make your own documentary come about? What were the main goals you originally had set for the film? Did you have any initial concerns?
DE: Initially we decided to make this film when the judge who sentenced me to death refused to hear new evidence that was uncovered, which pointed towards our innocence. Through the course of our investigation we had uncovered that DNA at the crime scene matched one of the victim’s step fathers, as well as the man providing the step father with an alibi. Several eye witnesses came forth, who said they saw the step father with the victims about an hour before they were murdered.
When these things started to come out, the judge refused to let it be heard in court. He was very politically invested in the case, and didn’t want to risk his career. So we decided the best way to get the info out to the public was to put it all on film and release it as a documentary. At least we could show the world what was being covered up.
BL: Walsh and Davis, who is also a producer on WEST OF MEMPHIS, were very active in recruiting Amy Berg to direct the documentary. What about Amy made her the director you and the other producers wanted to work with?
DE:We wanted Amy Berg as our director because she started her career as an investigative journalist. She knew how to dig for facts and get people to open up to her. When you’re trying to discover a truth that’s been buried for so long, those are very valuable assets. Amy was a big part of our investigative team.
We also knew she had done great work in the past with another documentary she made, called DELIVER US FROM EVIL.
BL: Documentaries can run the gamut in terms of ‘evenness’, with some having a clear point of view, others more balanced in terms of showing both sides of a story. With a subject so critically important to you, how did you approach the telling of this story? Were you or director Amy Berg concerned about balance?
DE: We were concerned with telling the truth, and getting the evidence out to the public. Since Amy was working as an investigator, we were more concerned with facts. She studied the case for several months before deciding to take on the job. She was convinced of our innocence when she started, and that spurred her on to find the truth.
BL: Were there any difficulties while making the initial part of the film?
DE: No, not that I can think of; there were the usual difficulties of getting into the prison to see me, and finding people to interview after an 18 year lapse.
BL: As production on WEST OF MEMPHIS was preparing to wrap in 2010, a series of court decisions led to your dramatic release from prison. How did that change the focus of WEST OF MEMPHIS, if it did so at all? Was there ever a discussion about not releasing WEST OF MEMPHIS after the court’s decision?
DE: Other than Amy flying back from New Zealand, where she was editing, at a moment’s notice to film the release, things just took the course of the story. We were struggling with when to release the film before the news of our release came out – whether to release it before or after our scheduled December hearing.
BL: It has been two years since you were released from prison and, in that amount of time, you have written an acclaimed book and released a documentary for a major film studio. What drives you?
DE: To be stronger, better and committed to whatever I’ve undertaken in this life.
BL: In your book, LIFE AFTER DEATH, you talk about your concern that some people will only be morbidly interested in your story because you were once a Death Row inmate and not for the person you’ve become from that experience. What has audience reaction been like to the book and film? Do those original concerns about morbid fans continue to weigh on your mind?
DE: No, I’ve found people to be interested in all aspects of this case and my story. It’s inspiring for me and Lorri to talk to people on the book and movie media tours. I find I have little or no time for negativity. There’s so much for to life.
BL: Your writing style in LIFE AFTER DEATH shows you are an extremely well-read writer. Who are some writers that have influenced your own style?
DE: Stephen King
BL: I can only assume the kind of deprivation that comes with being in prison, with limited access to new music, books, film. Can you tell me some of the cultural things you have been absorbing in the past year?
DE: Living in New York for the first year, I had access to so much. Mostly I walked around and absorbed the City. We also spent a few months in New Zealand, so I’ve had a chance to travel and see another country. I’ve been to temples and a Red Sox game, to Disneyland and I saw the country on my book/movie tour.
BL: You’re now a Salem resident. Why did you and Lorri decide to move here? Was there anything about the city that really stood out to you?
DE: We loved it from the moment we saw it. It is a city that has learned from its mistakes. I always say for that reason, I’m safe here. It also is a haven for every alternative way of thinking/living, and that is the place I want to live. It’s also beautiful, and a town of great people.
BL: What do you hope Salem audiences will take away from WEST OF MEMPHIS?
DE: The truth, and the knowledge that they may be jurors someday, and perhaps something they take away from our film will help them make better decisions in that role. We also hope they walk away inspired, for it is a story of love and hope. Everything is possible.