‘West of Memphis’: A personal quest for producer Damien Echols, freed from death row

Most fledgling movie producers are eager to discuss their new project. Not Damien Echols, one of the producers of the new documentary “West of Memphis.” He’s more than half an hour late for an interview because, a publicist explains, he’s steeling himself to talk about the subject.

“This isn’t fun for me,” says Echols once he arrives at a Georgetown hotel suite, flanked by director Amy Berg and his wife, Lorri Davis, both also producers of the movie. “In fact, it’s pretty [expletive] miserable a lot of times. I hate it.”

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That’s because “West of Memphis” isn’t just a movie Echols helped make. It’s the story he lived for 20 years, most of them spent behind bars. In 1994, he and two other Arkansas teenagers — Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, dubbed the West Memphis Three — were convicted of killing three 8-year-old boys.

Echols was painted as a homicidal sociopath because he, a teenage heavy metal fan, both looked and acted the part of an adolescent outsider. Based on that commonplace behavior, police, prosecutors and more than a few reporters imagined that the teenager masterminded a Satanic ritual in which three boys were mutilated. “West of Memphis” demonstrates that there’s a simpler, and much less lurid, explanation for the victims’ wounds.

The the three men were released in August 2011 after entering an Alford plea, which allows defendants to profess innocence while conceding the strength of the case against them. But the case against Echols and his co-defendants no longer looks strong. It’s been undermined by a series of documentaries — three in the “Paradise Lost” series, directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky — as well as ad hoc inquiries spurred by those movies and the trio’s celebrity supporters. The latter include actor Johnny Depp; musicians Eddie Vedder, Henry Rollins and Natalie Maines; and “Lord of the Rings” filmmaker Peter Jackson and his wife, Fran Walsh.

Jackson and Walsh are also “West of Memphis” producers, but they originally signed on to back a reinvestigation, not another documentary. “Fran and Peter never wanted to do a film,” Davis says. “But when it became clear that the courts weren’t going to hear new evidence, this was the last resort for them.”

The producers hired Berg, who had made “Deliver Us From Evil,” a powerful film about priests’ sexual abuse of children and subsequent cover-ups. “I went into this project knowing that Damien, Jason and Jesse were innocent,” the director says. “And that we needed to find out the truth. And we needed to try to help Damien become free. That was the goal of the film. That’s all we ever were doing.”

Echols, the only one of the three who was sent to death row, and his co-defendants were convicted on false and misinterpreted evidence, but also because crucial information was overlooked or suppressed. After 20 years and three previous films, “West of Memphis” still manages to surprise. It’s the first account to demonstrate clearly, for example, that all three defendants had alibis for the murders.

“Yeah, and nobody cared,” Echols recalls. “Even our attorneys at the time. They all had ideas of how they were and weren’t going to go about this case, and they wouldn’t allow anything to make them deviate from that. Jason Baldwin’s attorneys, their entire plan was to somehow make me look guilty, thinking that’ll somehow help Jason.

“They didn’t care who did it or anything else. They just wanted to blame it on me.”

When she watched the first “Paradise Lost” movie, Davis saw not a killer, but someone much like herself. “I grew up in the South,” she explains. “Even though I was respectful of my family, I was always the one that didn’t believe, and the one that was always going my own way. Growing up in a community like that in the South, I could see that Damien was just searching for something. You could get that from the film.”

Echols studied Buddhism in prison, and he and Davis were married in a Buddhist prison ceremony in 1999. He now professes an interest in “magick,” and he and his wife last year bought a house in Salem, Mass., the town made famous for supposed witches.

Today’s Echols might still alarm a small-town jury. He’s dressed all in black, with shoulder-length hair and dark sunglasses. A T-shirt reveals that his forearms are covered with tattoos, an eclectic array that includes runes, Chinese characters and a large ankh, the Egyptian hieroglyph for eternal life.

After nearly two decades in prison, he says, life outside presented “a crushing, crippling amount of anxiety, stress and fear. Not only was I in prison for 18 years, I was in solitary confinement for almost a decade. Just human interaction alone was enough to send me over the edge. The first two or three months I was out, I was in a state of extreme shock and trauma. I couldn’t do anything for myself.

“I had to learn to walk again. I hadn’t walked anywhere in almost 20 years without chains on my feet. Just walking down the street, you trip over your own feet.

“I had to learn to eat with utensils again. You don’t have silverware in prison. That would be considered a weapon.

“In addition to that, you’re trying to figure out things like how to use a cellphone, how to use a computer.”

The growth of computers and the Internet, in fact, is part of his story. The release of the West Memphis Three resulted in part from what one of their backers calls “a crowd-sourced investigation.”

“It helped enormously, just in being able to study the case, because most of the documents were online,” Davis says. “Also, in finding experts, and researching other cases. And fundraising.

“If this case had happened 30 years ago,” she adds, “it wouldn’t have been the same.”

Echols’s primary goal now is exoneration. “We want the person responsible to be imprisoned. We want the people who did this to us to be held responsible for what they’ve done.”

But even if that happens, it’s not the end of the movie Echols and his allies envision. “It would be great to broaden the discussion after they get exonerated,” says Berg. “We do see that happening.”

“To me, this documentary isn’t just about our case,” Echols concludes. “I keep in mind that every single person who sees it is also a potential jury member. Who can see that, in another case, this sort of thing isn’t done to someone else. Because we’ve always said, this case isn’t out of the ordinary. It happens all the time, all over the country. We were just fortunate enough to have cameras in courtroom.”

Jenkins is a freelance writer.

West of Memphis

(R, 146 minutes) opens Friday at Landmark E Street Cinema.

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