Peter Jackson's innocence project
For years, the ''Lord of the Rings'' director and his partner, Fran Walsh, worked to free the West Memphis Three. In August, the men were released. Now Jackson hopes his new doc can clear their names forever
In 1993, three 8-year-old boys were murdered in West Memphis, Ark. It was a horrifying, sensational crime. Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley Jr. — who’d become known as the West Memphis Three — were painted by prosecutors as devil-worshipping metalheads and convicted. Echols, then 18, was sentenced to death, while Baldwin, 16, and Misskelley, 17, got life sentences. The trial struck many as a sham, and an HBO documentary about the case, 1996’s Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, outraged and inspired celebrity supporters such as Eddie Vedder, Natalie Maines, Johnny Depp, and Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson and his partner, Fran Walsh. (Two more Paradise Lost films have since been made; the third just aired on HBO.) In 2004, Jackson and Walsh quietly began financing investigations to get the men released. Then, last August, after 18 years in prison, Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley were finally freed — but not exonerated. In exchange for their freedom, they agreed to an ”Alford plea.” The upshot is that they can tell the world that they’re innocent, but the state can tell the world that they’re guilty — and never get sued for wrongful imprisonment.
Now Jackson and Walsh have produced West of Memphis, a new documentary directed by Amy Berg (Deliver Us From Evil) that will premiere at Sundance on Jan. 20. (The film does not yet have a distributor.) EW spoke with Jackson, Walsh, Berg, and Echols and his wife, Lorri Davis.
EW Damien, what did you think of West of Memphis?
Damien Echols I loved it, which kind of amazed me. After you deal with anything long enough, it sort of — I don’t want to say it loses the edge — but you just reach a point where you have to let it go or it’s just going to eat you alive inside.
EW How does it feel to be free?
Echols It’s still incredibly surreal in a lot of ways. I went from being trapped in a box — I mean, literally sealed inside a tomb — for almost 20 years to coming out and seeing New York City and New Zealand and doing all these different things.
EW Peter and Fran, what made you want to get involved in the case?
Peter Jackson It came from watching the original Paradise Lost, which we didn’t actually see until 2004. And even though the film only covers the events around the original trial, you get the strong sense that this is not right. It makes you angry.
Fran Walsh We thought they’d already been released.
Jackson We just assumed that this case had finished, because we were watching it 10 years after it happened. As soon as we saw that this was still carrying on, we contacted Lorri and struck up an email correspondence. We didn’t make a conscious decision to become involved or anything; it just evolved as we learned more about the case and we became friends.
EW It seems like you two became obsessed with this case. Is that a fair word to use?
Jackson Yeah, it’s fair in some respects. We don’t regard ourselves as being flaky people. If we commit ourselves to something, then we’re committed until there’s an end — whether it’s a movie that we spend seven years doing, or whatever. When we got involved, it seemed that the case was in a state of stasis. The momentum had sort of dropped away. And we started to ask questions about different lines of inquiry, and then started to fund those lines of inquiry, so it grew from there.
EW Lorri, tell me about receiving that first email from Peter and Fran. Did you know who they were?
Lorri Davis Oh, yeah! I love their films. I got the email at work and I’m just sitting there dumbfounded, thinking, ”This is one of those moments you kind of can’t believe.”
EW Damien, while you were in prison some celebrities joined the many non-famous supporters of the case. What did you make of that?
Echols In the beginning I was shocked, because stuff like that doesn’t happen in the world I came from — the world of poverty and illiteracy, just stuck out in the middle of nowhere. It’s kind of weird when I see one of the Lord of the Rings movies now. It’s hard to reconcile the fact that the guy who made this is the guy you had dinner with last night.
EW Peter, at what point did you think that this would be a film?
Jackson We had no intention of doing a movie. Our involvement for the first three or four years was purely funding the case, and we made a decision to keep our funding quiet. We were working very hard, spending a lot of money gathering all the new scientific evidence and forensic evidence that had never been available to the defense before. And there was a moment in 2008 when all of our new evidence was presented to Judge Burnett, the original trial judge. We were utterly horrified when it was basically thrown out. Fran and I looked at each other and said, ”How can we get this in front of the public?” And at that point, we thought, ”Well, we’re filmmakers. Maybe we should resort to what we do.” That’s when we contacted Amy Berg.
EW Damien, when you began working with these folks, did you worry about getting your hopes up?
Echols When Fran and Peter first came on and started looking at all the files and bringing in all these experts, that was the very first time I felt like I had a fighting chance. That was the first time that I had the feeling of ”Okay, something is finally being done. Finally somebody is looking out for me. Someone is trying to move this mountain.”
EW Peter and Fran, how did you juggle your day jobs making movies with the huge time commitment that this case had become?
Jackson Fran took a lot of the burden of the investigation. We’d be shooting King Kong or Lovely Bones in the day, and then Fran would be up for hours at night talking with Lorri about case points and writing endless emails to the lawyers.
Walsh I always saw it as a battle between religion and science. It was religious hysteria that put them in prison — with Damien being branded a devil worshipper — and science that got them out. It happened at a time when that stuff was sweeping the globe: There was Satanic panic. It was like an infection, and I do think that, to some extent, we know better now.
EW Amy, were you surprised by what a daunting project Peter and Fran had taken on?
Amy Berg Basically [they were] taking on the state of Arkansas. But Peter has this hatred of bullying and people not having a voice and the system crushing people. It hit me when I was interviewing him that he makes these massive films that no one could take on because he has this capacity to handle things that are larger than life. And this case, in a way, was larger than life.
EW Now that the West Memphis Three are free, the next step is to find the real killer. The film points the finger at one of the victims’ stepfathers [who maintains his innocence].
Jackson It’s not our job to accuse anyone else of this crime. That’s the job of the state and a judge and a jury.
EW Damien, do you think the state of Arkansas wants to find the real killer?
Echols I don’t think most of them care about anything but their political careers. I think justice is completely irrelevant to most of them.
EW How do you feel about the plea you accepted? Obviously you wanted to get off death row, but it had to be bittersweet because you weren’t exonerated of the crime.
Echols I still have hope that that will eventually happen. But here’s the thing I had to look at: In the film, the prosecutor talks about us [potentially] filing lawsuits against the state for around $60 million. The thing I had to keep in mind was these people were doing anything they possibly could to keep from having to admit that they made a mistake. They could have easily had me stabbed to death in prison for $50 and then never have to worry about paying out that $60 million. I had no medical care, no dental care, my health was rapidly deteriorating. So between that and the fact that they could have done anything they wanted to at any time, I don’t believe I would have lived to see an exoneration.
EW Lorri, when you first met Damien he was already on death row. Did you and he have concerns about how things would change when you were finally together on the outside?
Davis We’ve been to hell and back. And after you’ve been through that, deciding what movie you’re going to see doesn’t seem like a very big deal.
EW Amy, now that the movie’s about to be shown at Sundance, what do you hope comes from it?
Berg I hope that the state is put in a position to react. We want them to investigate this case properly. Because right now, the families of the murdered children have no justice and the three guys who were wrongly convicted have no justice, so it’s just a failed system that needs to be repaired.
EW Damien, what will it be like if you’re exonerated?
Echols A sigh of relief that it’s finally over and I don’t have that mark on me anymore. I never should have had it on me in the first place. It will be a relief that it’s finally done with and you don’t have anyone looking at you like that anymore.
EW Fran, Peter, and Amy, will you be there to film that day?
Jackson It doesn’t have to be filmed, it just has to happen.