“The reason I’m out is not because of the evidence. It’s because people were paying attention, people were watching what they were doing,” Damien Echols said in a recent Dallas interview of his release from an Arkansas prison in August, 2011. Along with two younger friends, Echols, then eighteen, was convicted in 1994 of the brutal murder of three eight-year old boys in his hometown of West Memphis. As the supposed leader of the perpetrators in what was portrayed as some sort of Satanic ritual, he was sentenced to death, and the others to long prison terms.
But the case didn’t end there. Filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky turned their cameras on it in the 1996 HBO documentary “Paradise Lost,” and the combination of archival footage and interviews engendered serious doubts about the youths’ guilt and led to a public campaign on their behalf. One person who signed on was Lorri Davis, a New York landscape artist who eventually moved to Little Rock to devote herself to the effort, which was furthered by the 2000 sequel “Paradise Lost 2,” which added fuel to the belief that the imprisoned men had been railroaded. In the process she got to know Echols well, and they married in 1999. She joined him in Dallas to discuss Amy Berg’s new documentary “West of Memphis,” which builds on the previous films (as well as a third “Paradise Lost” installment), for which they served as producers along with producer-director Peter Jackson and his partner Fran Walsh.
How did Echols learn about the work by his supporters, trying to collect evidence to support reopening the case, while he was incarcerated? “Letters,” he said. “When I was in prison, we’d get tons of letters from people. And I would call home and talk to Lorri. But at the same time, as soon as you hang up the phone, you go back and just try to survive another day in prison. It’s somewhere in the back of your mind, but at the same time it’s almost like something happening in another world, or a million miles away.”
Davis remembered how Jackson and Walsh got involved: “Fran Walsh and Peter Jackson contacted me in 2005, and eventually became part of the legal team. They were helping to fund the investigation, and once all of the evidence that we had uncovered was shut down by Judge Burnett [and] the court system, Fran and Peter—and they never wanted to make a film from this, that wasn’t their goal, that wasn’t even an interest of theirs…said, ‘Let’s just do a documentary.’ The ‘Paradise Lost’ films were not so much investigations, that’s not [Berlinger and Sinofsky’s] style of filmmaking, they’re not investigative journalists. So we wanted to go that route because we wanted to…show everything we had to date, as well as anything that we were going to discover and put that out to the world. If the court system wasn’t going to hear it, then we were going to get it out there.”
Echols added, “A lot of people don’t realize that Peter and Fran were a core part of our legal group. It’s not like they just made it a cause or threw money at it. Every single day they were actually doing work on this case…. So then when we did get all the stuff together and the judge refused to hear it, and said, ‘it doesn’t matter, I don’t care what it is, this case is closed,’ Peter said, ‘Let’s do what we do best and make a documentary, make a movie.’ When you’re watching this documentary, basically what you’re watching is the case we would have presented had it gone into court.
“And we would have never gotten involved personally with any other filmmaker,” Echols added. “We’ve always been really, really wary of any kind of exploitation, or being made to look sensational. With this, being producers on it gave us a sense of control, so we knew it wasn’t going to be turned into some kind of carnival or talk-show event…. When you’ve got something in your life that’s really precious, that means something to you, you have to protect it from that.”
Though the original case judge adamantly refused to allow a new trial where the mass of new exculpatory evidence could be presented, an Arkansas Supreme Court decision in 2010 ordered a lower-court judge to determine whether DNA data could exonerate the West Memphis Three. That led to negotiations that led to an offer to the trio to accept a so-called Alford plea, according to which they would be released asserting their innocence but remaining convicted of the crime.
Why did Echols agree to such an arrangement? “I knew, whether it was from failing health or violence, I wasn’t going to live to see the outside of those walls without taking that deal,” he said. “So for me it wasn’t like wrestling with it. It was like you’re drowning and someone throws you the one and only life preserver that you’re going to get. You don’t debate over whether to grab it or not.”
And now the state can claim the case remains solved. Asked about the possibility that it might be reopened, Echols explained that it would be “extremely difficult, because they have so much at stake. The Attorney General is running for Governor, the prosecutor ran for a seat on the Arkansas Supreme Court, the judge was elected to the Senate, another one of the prosecutors ran for Congress. They built careers for themselves off this case. Not only that, but the money—the prosecutor says at the end of the movie that one of his big concerns was that all three of us together could sue the state for about sixty million dollars. They know if they have to pay out sixty million dollars, if they have to admit that they sentenced an innocent person to death and two more to life in prison without parole, that they allowed a murderer to walk the streets for almost twenty years, that they deliberately covered up evidence…then they’re not going to win the next election. And that will always be their first and foremost priority. And they knew from the very beginning what they were doing. They knew we didn’t do this. They just didn’t care. They saw it as a quick and easy solution—three white trash kids nobody’s ever going to miss, knock this under the rug, everybody forgets about it in a month, and we all go about our lives.”
And of the Alford agreement, Echols added, “Because we had to take this deal, they still say to this day…the state would actually claim, ‘we have never sentenced an innocent person to prison in Arkansas.’…It’s ridiculous. It’s a way for them to get out of being held responsible for what they’ve done.”
Echols’ transition to life outside prison was not easy. Davis said, “It’s actually been an easy transition for us, because we’ve been through so much over the last seventeen years. And you have to learn how to get through those hard times. So it was almost actually seamless when Damien came out. What wasn’t was the fact that I could understand what he was going through with anxiety and fear, because everyone expects Damien to be superhuman, and everyone thinks he is, and he’s not. He’s pretty amazing, but we were flying to New Zealand within a month of his release and working on the film, and [with] Fran and Pete…you work, whether you’ve got PTSD or not.
“You lose a limb, you put a band-aid on it,” Echols joked. “They’re the loveliest, most generous people. But they work,” Davis interjected. “And they have no mercy,” Echols said.
Davis added, “He wouldn’t some out and say he was suffering. He was trying to deal with it on his own. And once I had a better understanding of what he was dealing with, I was better able to assist him and help him through it. That was the difficult part—he was struggling, and I didn’t know it.”
Echols explained, “Not only had I been in prison for eighteen years, I’d been in solitary confinement for almost a decade. For the first two or three months I was out, I was in a state of shock and trauma so deep that I couldn’t do anything for myself at all. All these things…that I’m having to learn again—I hadn’t walked for almost twenty years without chains on my feet. I’m having to learn to walk again without tripping down stairs, and how to use silverware—they don’t give you silverware in prison, it would be considered a weapon. On top of that, cell phones and computers and ATM machines. I remember almost having a panic attack the first time I got an ATM card—I’ve never used it yet—and I go to the grocery store and see this great box with all these different colored buttons and numbers, and I’m like, ‘What do I do with this?’
“I’ve never been anywhere in almost twenty years. And suddenly I had to learn to navigate from Point A to Point B. I could not do it for the first several months. It starts to fade over time—it’s been a year and three months now, and it’s faded a lot, a little more every day. But there’s still a lot of anxiety about making it through the day.”
How had Echols survived all those years behind bars? “A lot of meditation,” he said. “By the time I got out I was spending a five to seven hours a day in meditation…energy techniques just to keep myself going in there, just to keep from going insane. It was the only way I could preserve what little of my health I had.
“I would also read a lot… And I wrote a lot. I had a book come out in September, called ‘Life After Death.’ I wrote probably 85% of that while I was in my cell on Death Row.”
As to discussing his experience in conjunction with the release of “West of Memphis”—which points an accusatory finger at Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of one of the boys, as the real culprit—Echols said, “This is miserable. Imagine the worst thing that’s ever happened to you in your life, and then you have to talk about it every single day, over and over for the rest of your life. It’s not fun, it’s not pleasant. It’s like being trapped in a rerun of hell, or something. But the only way we’re ever going to be able to…move on and start a new chapter in life is if we keep doing this right now. If we don’t keep telling the state of Arkansas we’re not going anywhere until you do the right thing, if we don’t keep basically begging people [to] please watch the documentary, read the book, look the case up on the Internet, then the state of Arkansas will get away with what they’ve done. We’ll never be exonerated, and the person who did this will never be in prison, and they’ll never be held responsible for what they did to us. So doing all this right now is like a necessary evil.”
“And the way we look at it is that this documentary isn’t just about our case,” Echols emphasized. “Every single person who watches this is a potential juror in the future. So this is also a way o making sure that they don’t do this to somebody else.”
Like Errol Morris’ groundbreaking “The Thin Blue Line,” which was instrumental in freeing a man from Texas death row, the “Paradise Lost” films showed how blind the American justice system can be—to fact and to truth. By providing a feature-length overview of the deplorable case of the West Memphis Three, “West of Memphis” makes that point again—with passion.