The long road to exoneration in West of Memphis
Producer Peter Jackson, director and screenwriter Amy Berg, producers and subjects Damien Echols and Lorri Davis and supporter Johnny Depp reopen the case of the West Memphis Three in a new documentary screened today at TIFF.
In 1993, Damien Echols and two other teenagers were convicted by the West Memphis police department for the horrific murder of three young boys in the Arkansas town of West Memphis. Several years after their imprisonment, new evidence suggested the charges were false, revealing misconduct within the state judicial system.
Previously unaware of the plight of the West Memphis 3, Peter Jackson and his wife Fran Walsh became involved with the defense team after watching Paradise Lost - a 1996 documentary directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky [the pair also directed two follow-ups]. Jackson also spoke to Lorri Davis, Echols’s wife. Jackson called upon Berg to carry out a further investigation in the form of a new documentary film, which developed into West of Memphis. Outraged at the injustice of the story, Johnny Depp and Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks offered their support for the so-called West Memphis Three, as well.
At today’s press conference before the West of Memphis screening in Toronto, Jackson, Berg, Echols, Davis and Depp – who only makes a brief appearance in the film – discussed how the struggle to exonerate Echols continues. Since Jackson funded a fresh investigation, Echols has been released from prison under the conditions of a compromised deal that doesn’t offer any financial compensation, though he is potentially entitled to $18m dollars.
Echols and Davis said they had mixed feelings about previous film and TV portrayals of the case and welcomed the chance to tell their own story in West of Memphis. “It feels like I was seen by the world as nothing more than a victim,” said Echols. “In this case, we got to participate in it.”
Speaking via Skype, Jackson asserted that he didn’t think that his celebrity status made him responsible to take up an activist cause, but that he and co-producer Walsh were drawn to the case on a more personal level. “Our involvement is born of friendship, not of responsibility,” he said. Coming from a similar point of view, Depp also reflected on his close friendship with Echols, which began when he made a prison visit and felt an “instant connection of some brotherly love”.
Berg spoke about the challenges of carrying out an investigation in condensed cinematic form. With many different witnesses involved, all bringing their own offshoot stories to the table, “there were so many different truths and so many versions of reality,” she said.
Even at two and a half hours, the film couldn’t include all of the details of the case and Echols’ experience. His book Life After Death, to be published in North America on Sept 18, focuses on elements outside of the case, such as his relationship with Davis. Echols also expressed interest in future film and TV projects, saying “I support anything that’s accurate and truthful and helps get the word out”.
Jackson stressed that West of Memphis is a “work in progress film” and is not “finished,” by conventional definitions. With new developments being made each day, the team will pursue their investigation as they attempt to exonerate Echols. When asked what she would add to film, Berg said she would like to challenge John Fogleman, the former prosecutor in the case, in more interviews: “He was struggling somewhere. I could just see it in his eyes”. Echols is also calling for the 200 pages of never-seen-before FBI documentation on the case to be released.
The team wants the documentary to raise enough awareness to pressure the state of Arkansas to reopen the case. Understanding the complex local politics of the issue, they hope someone in power will be persuaded by public interest and take up the case in an attempt to boost his or her career. Starting next week, free screenings of the film have been organized in Arkansas to coincide with the election cycle. “This is an interesting window of opportunity to try to get something going,” Berg said.
West of Memphis screened this afternoon at TIFF, and will be released in theatres on Dec 25.