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.