Paul Salfen interviews Damien Echols, subject of the documentary WEST OF MEMPHIS
A new documentary written and directed by Academy Award nominated filmmaker, Amy Berg (DELIVER US FROM EVIL) and produced by first time filmmakers Damien Echols and Lorri Davis, in collaboration with the multiple Academy Award winning team of Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, WEST OF MEMPHIS tells the untold story behind an extraordinary and desperate fight to bring the truth to light; a fight to stop the State of Arkansas from killing an innocent man.
Starting with a searing examination of the police investigation into the 1993 murders of three, eight year old boys Christopher Byers, Steven Branch and Michael Moore in the small town of West Memphis, Arkansas, the film goes on to uncover new evidence surrounding the arrest and conviction of the other three victims of this shocking crime – Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley. All three were teenagers when they became the target of the police
investigation; all three went on to lose 18 years of their lives – imprisoned for crimes they did not commit.
How the documentary came to be, is in itself a key part of the story of Damien Echols’ fight to save his own life. The film reveals how close he, his wife Lorri Davis, along with his legal team, friends and supporters, came to losing that battle. But as Echols, who spent eighteen years on death row, himself has stated “… in the face of such horror, in the face of resounding grief and pain, you cannot give up … you must never give up.”
In 2007, I received a phone call from a friend, asking if she could give my phone number to Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh because they wanted to discuss a project with me. At the time, I didn’t know much about the West Memphis Three. When I learned that the story of this case had become so important to Fran and Peter that they wanted to produce a documentary about the crime and subsequent legal battle, I wondered what could have moved this pair of successful filmmakers who lived eight thousand miles away from Arkansas to be so invested in seeing the West Memphis Three walk free from prison. But after our first conversation—hearing the
unwavering commitment in their voices as they spoke about the case; about the 18 years of injustice, an investigation rife with corruption, and the destruction of multiple lives—I understood that this was a story that not only exposed a frightening failure of justice within our legal system, but exposed a judicial culture where innocence did not matter.
Soon after that conversation, I met Lorri Davis, the wife of Damien Echols. Lorri and Damien had been together for 15 years, married for twelve of them, yet had never shared a life together that did not involve prison bars, and shackles; a life of having to say goodbye every time they met. We spoke for hours; I heard about the promising developments and outrageous disappointments that they had lived through, day after day, and year after year. After I met Lorri and Damien in person, and experienced first-hand their strength of character, poise, and love for each other I knew I wanted to make this film.
Much of my career has been devoted to the plight of all victims of the judicial system. The families of murder victims and the wrongly incarcerated both suffer from the same corruption that is endemic to the very institutions they look to for guidance and protection. Rarely had I come across a failure of justice with such profound consequences – three young men falsely convicted of crimes for which they were still imprisoned; six families lives forever destroyed while the real killer of three eight year old boys remained free.
A combination of poverty, corruption, political ambition and religious bigotry had collided in this case to create a horrific illustration of how wrong things can go for everyone when we, as a society, fail to do all in our power to discover the truth. I spent over two years chasing down every lead, every person willing to talk to us, pulling at the tangled threads of the truth to see where it might lead. This film is the end result of that journey.
The day after I left Memphis, a friend and prominent figure in the US justice system told me about a phrase that’s been coined to describe how the legal community operates in corrupted judicial systems: “Just Us” … The term encapsulates the idea that rather than an equable court of justice, there are only the authorities who control that system. To me, the phrase eloquently summarizes the long series of omissions and outright manipulations that characterized this case for so many years. But the phrase can also be flipped around. Damien, Jason and Jessie took the power from the state to successfully broadcast the facts of their innocence. They became the “us.” It has been a source of great pride and gratitude to me to be able to share in the process of three, young, innocent men, supported by thousands of well-wishers from all over the world, taking the judicial system back. West of Memphis shows how “Just Us” can transform into All of Us; all those who refuse to surrender to injustice, regardless of what higher authorities might like us to accept.
– Amy Berg, January 2012