“West of Memphis,” written and directed by Academy Award nominated filmmaker Amy Berg 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, is a powerful new documentary about a catastrophic failure of justice and the extraordinary fight to bring the truth to light. The gross miscarriage of justice put three teenagers behind bars for eighteen years for crimes they did not commit, has brought no repercussions for the State of Arkansas, and the killer of three 8-year-old boys still remains at large.
Starting with a searing examination of the police investigation into the 1993 murders of 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 crime – Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley – who were teenagers when they became the target of the police investigation.
Berg’s unprecedented access to the inner workings of the defense allows the film to show the investigation, research and appeals process in a way that has never been seen before, revealing disturbing new information about a case that still haunts the American South. The film also reveals how close Echols, his wife Lorri Davis, along with his legal team, friends and supporters, came to losing that battle.
At the film’s recent press day, Echols, Davis and Berg talked about what inspired them to make the film, the unusual challenges they encountered trying to shoot in prison, the lack of physical evidence connecting the West Memphis 3 to the crime, why they will continue to fight for exoneration, what life is like on death row, the difficulties of maintaining a relationship with someone in prison, what gave Lorri and Damien strength to carry on throughout the process, the most difficult aspects of transitioning out of prison, what they found most rewarding about making the documentary, and their plans for the future.
Q: Amy, what inspired you to make this documentary?
Amy Berg: There was a huge injustice. This case represents one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in history. There was a man on death row and I needed to do something.
Q: Damien, you’ve probably made a bit of history by being the first film producer ever to have been on death row.
Damien Echols: (laughs) I didn’t think of that.
Q: I’d be very surprised if this film isn’t nominated for an Oscar for Best documentary. It’s really well done.
Lorri Davis: It wasn’t.
Echols: We just saw that the short list came out and we’re not on it.
Q: What was most important for you to convey about what Damien was going through?
Berg: It’s hard to describe that. I mean, he was on death row and he was fighting to stay alive and fighting to stay away from all the evil that he was surrounded with every day. For me, it was important to try to capture Damien’s view of Arkansas and to also investigate the case further.
Q: Did you make the film hoping it would make a difference or was just getting the information out there into a public forum all you could hope for?
Berg: No, I needed to feel I could make a difference before I could start making the film. I feel like that is something that I put into it every day, and if you’re going into something with that intention, then you’re focused on that. That’s how the story kept getting deeper and stronger and multi-layered.
Q: There have been three documentaries on this and the third, “Paradise Lost 3,” overlapped with your documentary. How did directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky feel about you making a documentary about the West Memphis 3?
Berg: When I started going down there, it was before they got into “Paradise Lost 3.” I only saw them two times, I think, when I was down there. We were doing something very different, and I spoke to them. I spoke to Joe early on and they weren’t even sure if they were going to make a film at the time. So it just happened that events started picking up. Of course, if you’re documenting this story, there would be a bit of overlap. But I’ve seen their film and I think our film is a very different film. They told me they were fine with it.
Q: What type of cameras did you use to shoot this documentary?
Berg: We started out shooting mostly on 5Ds and then we incorporated the EX3 into it when we brought Maryse Alberti on. She works very well in the EX3. And then, I think we did a little bit on the F3. We used a lot of different cameras, but we always had the 5 or 7D as a second camera. And then, we shot that whole turtle scene on the RED.
Q: Did you feel like people were watching you while you were down there trying to film?
Berg: In West Memphis, you definitely get that sense. The West Memphis Police Department shows up whenever there’s a camera around. So I definitely felt like they were watching, but I didn’t feel that restricted by anything. I just kept doing what I was doing all the times.
Q: Were there any unusual challenges you encountered while trying to film in the prison?
Berg: You’re reminding me of a really strange experience that we had at prison one time. We were shooting some B roll and we were dropping Damien’s attorney off at the prison. We dropped him off and we were going to shoot around the prison. There are no signs that say you can’t go to the first row of parking. We went up there to turn around, and then the next thing we knew, we were surrounded by prison guard vehicles on both sides and they were so rough with us. (to Damien) Do you remember when this happened? They took all of our licenses and they turned them into the Arkansas State Police and said we could never come back into the prison. It was this crazy moment. They had no markings anywhere. We didn’t know we had broken any law. It was the same guy, the Assistant Warden, who had beaten you up.
Echols: She’s talking about a guy that started off as a prison guard at another unit and beat an inmate so badly he lost an eye. Whenever news reporters wrote a few stories on it, the prison system said, “We’ve got to get this guy out of here. He’s bringing too much attention on this prison.” So, they promoted him to warden and sent him to my prison. That’s who she’s talking about.
Berg: There were some other interesting stories. When we did film Damien the first time, one of the prison guards went to the kitchen and got the biggest plate of food that I’ve ever seen in my life, and he just parked himself. It was literally heaps of dumplings and sauce and biscuits and gravy and meat. He was sitting there watching us do this interview, eating off this plate. And then, behind Damien, the other guards were trying to get into the shot. They were making all this loud noise and saying they were going to be discovered by Hollywood. It was this crazy juxtaposition, but those are just ancillary tales from the filmmaker.
Q: Damien, what led the police to the three of you in the first place? It never seemed like a very thorough investigation. Were you just juicy targets?
Echols: That’s exactly what it was. It’s become common knowledge now that a lot of the reason that they focused on us was because we didn’t fit in, in a really small, hard core, fundamentalist town. But the story actually goes back a couple of years before these murders ever happened. There used to be these juvenile officers that would come through our neighborhood and pick up teenage boys and say, “Either give me a blow job or you’re going to jail.” Eventually, one of them was forced to give his resignation after he was caught molesting a teenage boy. Another one went to prison in Florida after he was caught stealing from the police department. These guys had made my life a living hell for almost two years before the murders. As soon as the murders happened, these guys went straight to the West Memphis Police Department and said, “We think we’ve got your guy right over here. This is the one you need to look at.” That’s what directed the investigation on us in the first place.
Q: Did the Arkansas police look at anyone else who could have done this, or did they focus solely on you and the two other guys?
Echols: They focused on us from the very beginning. The guy you see in the film, Steve Jones, the cop that’s leading Amy around and telling her stuff, he actually was there at the crime scene when they pulled the bodies from the water. His very first words were “Damien Echols finally killed someone.” Before they even got the bodies out of the water, he’s already bringing my name up. Terry Hobbs was not even interviewed until years and years after the murders happened. That’s common knowledge. The first thing you look at is the families. Those are the first people you question. They didn’t even talk to him for over a decade after these kids had been dead.
Q: Are you convinced that Terry Hobbs and Dave Jacoby are the actual killers?
Echols: To be honest, I don’t know. It’s one of those things we always say we shouldn’t have to point the finger at anyone. It should be the evidence. The evidence should be heard and it should be what points the finger. When they sent us to prison, they never had any physical evidence connecting us to this crime. They now have ten thousand times more connecting this man to the crime than they ever had on us, but we can’t even get the prosecutor to call a grand jury.
Q: Will you continue to fight?
Echols: We don’t have a choice. The state of Arkansas is not going to do anything. Anything that’s done in this case from here on out, the burden will rest entirely upon us. That’s why we’re doing this now. We’re here talking about this. This isn’t fun. This is actually pretty damn miserable most of the time talking about the worst thing that’s ever happened to you over and over and over. It gets to the point where you don’t feel like you have a personality anymore. People just look at you and they see the case. But, if we want any sense of closure in the future, this is what we have to do now. It’s a necessary evil if we want to be exonerated, if we want the person in prison who belongs in prison, and if we want the people who did this to be held responsible, then we have to keep doing this. We have to let the state of Arkansas know we’re not going anywhere until they do the right thing.
Q: You interviewed Pamela Hobbs and the Byers who felt the West Memphis 3 were not guilty of the crimes, but there are no interviews with Steve Branch or the Moore parents who still consider them guilty. Did you try to interview them?
Berg: You’re talking about Steve Branch, Sr. He literally gave up the rights to his child before Pam even married Terry. We spoke to Terry at length. We spoke to Pam at length. The Moores refused our interview requests. They believe that these guys did it and they still talk about Jesse’s confession and that’s their whole case. We did try to talk to both of them but were refused.
Q: Why do some people still insist that the West Memphis 3 are guilty despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary?
Berg: Nobody wants to admit a mistake. It’s the permeating theme in this story that nobody wants to say, “I made a mistake.”
Q: Isn’t it also money because if they admitted they made a mistake and put the wrong people in prison for that murder, they would suddenly be liable in a court of law?
Berg: Of course. We were talking about the parents, but of course, on the State’s behalf, that is one hundred percent of the motive right there. That’s it.
Q: Isn’t there also an aspect of the legal system that says once a jury has reached a verdict, that’s the end of the case?
Echols: It’s politics. People think that these judges, these attorney generals, these prosecutors involved in the case have these jobs because they’re somehow moral people who deserve these positions. In reality, they’re politicians. They’re elected, just like senators, just like congressmen. They will do and say whatever they have to in order to win that next election. They know if they come out and admit they sentenced an innocent person to death while allowing a murderer to walk the streets for almost 20 years, they’re not going to win that next election. They know if they have to come out and admit they made a mistake and open the state up to a lawsuit for what they did to us, they’re not going to win that next election. For them, that is the first and foremost priority. Justice will always take a backseat to politics.
Q: What was your reaction when you first became aware of the growing support out in the community to prove your innocence?
Echols: It’s odd. It wasn’t an all at one time thing. It was a gradual process, but I didn’t see a lot of it because I was inside. I didn’t have access to things like the internet or cable TV or anything like that. A lot of my information came from Lorri. I would call her in the mornings and she would tell me what was going on and who was doing what. But, at the same time, when you hang the phone up, that’s a million miles away. That’s in another world. You’re going right back to fighting to survive another day in prison. So, you hear it and it gives you a little bit of heart or hope, but at the same time, that’s something going on in another world.
Q: Lorri, we’re used to stories about Hollywood celebrities that find a cause of the week and they sign their name or they write a check or they make an appearance, and that’s it. How were you able to keep them involved? Was it a struggle?
Davis: It wasn’t a struggle at all, because the people who became interested in our case were people who saw themselves somewhat in Damien or the other two and that it could have been them. So, they took it to heart and they took it personally. And yes, we did have correspondences that spanned some 12 to 14 years with some of them, but I have to say, everyone – Henry Rollins, Natalie Maines, Johnny Depp, Eddie Vedder, Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, and there were many more – all of them stayed on board. None of them wavered, and they were there when we needed financial help. They were there when we needed help in the media. The fact that Johnny Depp did “48 Hours” was just… It’s not easy for him. He does not like to do interviews, and he did it for us and it was very helpful. But that support [continued]. They became our friends and still are our very good friends.
Q: Damien, can you talk about what you don’t get when you’re innocent on death row?
Echols: You don’t get much of anything. I didn’t see sunlight in almost ten years. It’s part of what destroyed my vision. The food is so bad. I don’t think most people can even comprehend what it’s like. The things that most people out here take for granted — like salt, pepper, butter, sugar, cheese — there’s none of that in prison. Whenever they give you noodles, it’s just plain white noodles that have been boiled until it’s mush. Or, plain white rice that’s been boiled until it’s mush. Or, grits that have been boiled until it’s mush. You’re eating that. You’re trapped in this tiny space where you never get any exercise. And the next thing you know, people are getting legs chopped off and they’re going blind and everything else because they’ve got diabetes. It’s horrendous, and then you add to that no sunlight, no fresh air and stress, the stress they put you under. Not only are you living with this death sentence, or in my case three death sentences hanging over your head, but you’ve got people who come in there and try to hurt you on a daily basis. You never, ever get to rest. Even when you sleep, you only go half way to sleep. It’s taken me forever to get out of this habit since I’ve been out. There have been times in prison where you hear a noise in the middle of the night, and you are literally up on your feet in the middle of the cell ready to fight before your eyes are even awakened and you know what’s going on. Of course, for 18 years, it gets engrained in you so deep that it’s more than reflex. After I first got out, of course, it scared the hell out of Lorri at night when something like that would happen and I would have that reaction. But you never get to rest. You’re always sleep deprived. At the most, technically, you’re allowed four hours of sleep at night from 10:30 to 2:30 because they want to get as much slave labor out of people as possible. If they get everybody up at 2:30am, they can have you working in the fields by 5:00. I didn’t have to go to work because I was on death row, but I still had to follow the same schedule that everybody else did. It crushes you. It destroys you in every way.
Q: What exactly happens and why are you awakened if you’re not going out to work in the fields?
Echols: They come around and beat on the door with a steel bar and give you your breakfast, and then, they come back 30 minutes later and pick the breakfast up. Everybody else at that point gets lined up and taken outside to work in the fields. On death row, you just sit there looking crazy. Where I was, I was still in a concrete box 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The only time I was ever even brought out was once a week when I was allowed to see Lorri. So you have to sort of make your own schedule in there. There’s nothing to base anything on. Christmas Day is the same as the Fourth of July. Noon is the same as midnight. You have to structure your own life. Most people in there don’t. You have a lot of people who aren’t capable of it. Some people give up as soon as they come in and they sit there and wait to die. But if you want to move forward, if you want any sort of momentum to develop as a person, to not just stop and start stagnating the moment you walk into the door, you have to develop some sort of routine for yourself. You can either turn your cell into a monastery or you can sit there and go insane and wait for them to kill you.
Q: Lorri, what it was like trying to maintain a relationship with someone in prison?
Davis: Having a relationship with someone in prison is extremely expensive. Phone calls are very expensive. Travelling to the prison is expensive. One of the things people forget is that most of the time people who are incarcerated are cut off from their families because their families don’t have the means to keep in touch with them. Luckily, I did. I was able to support myself. Most of the time, I worked two full time jobs – the case and my profession. But there were times when the caseload would get too big. I was hired by Fran and Pete at one point to help them coordinate their efforts. And then, at another time, the defense fund hired me the last year because the workload was too daunting to do without actually doing it full time. So that’s stressful because you do have to worry. I was living very sparsely for many years to make sure I could balance it all. Sometimes the most important thing for Damien and me was to keep our correspondence going at all times, whether it be letters, visitation or talking on the phone. My phone bills just for the two of us could be $500 a month.
Q: What gave you the strength to carry on during the whole process and has that changed now?
Echols: The two things that held us together and kept us going were number one, our relationship, and number two, our spiritual practice. It was something we could both do together at the same time. It keeps you from getting angry. It keeps you from getting bitter whenever you have something to focus on like that, and not to mention when you’re in prison, there’s almost no medical care on death row. They’re not going to spend a lot of time and money and energy taking care of somebody they plan on killing. There were times when I would get extremely sick or be in excruciating pain and I had to learn things like Reiki and Chi Gong (Qigong) just to keep myself going. A lot of time and energy went into that and we would do these things together. We didn’t have the things that most people have to rely on. We couldn’t go to movies together or go out to dinner together or sleep in the same bed at night, so we had to focus on the things we did have to keep from becoming bitter about the things we didn’t.
Q: What was the hardest part of transitioning out of prison?
Echols: Human interaction definitely. Not only had I been in prison for 18 years, I had been in solitary confinement for almost a decade on the day that I walked out. I wasn’t used to interacting with people at all. There are no words to even begin to articulate how overwhelming something like that is. For the first two to three months after I was out, I was in a state of extreme shock and trauma just from coming out into the world again. Most people don’t understand that. They think you’re going to be happy and excited that you’re out of prison, and you are, but at the same time, the anxiety and stress and fear and everything else that comes along with it is absolutely crippling in a lot of ways. That was a huge thing. There are all sorts of things. The list could go on forever. I hadn’t walked anywhere without chains on my feet in almost 20 years, so it’s almost like you have to learn to walk again. You’re constantly tripping over your own feet or down stairs. You don’t use silverware in prison because that would be considered a weapon, so you have to learn that again. And then, on top of that, you’ve got all of this new stuff — computers and cell phones and ATM machines. It can be panic-inducing in the very beginning.
Q: If the two of you decide to have a family in the future, have you given any thought to how you will explain to your children what you went through and what happened?
Echols: I have no idea. Not even thinking down the road though to future generations, I think right here, right now, to us, one of the things that we keep in mind is this documentary isn’t just about this case. Every single person who sees this documentary is a potential jury member on another case and can make sure this same thing doesn’t happen to someone else in the future. So, it’s not generations down the road. It’s right here and now that people can make a difference. It all depends on how many people it reaches.
Davis: I think this style of documentary we decided to make also… I mean, that was one of the reasons that Damien and I felt comfortable participating in this documentary was it was the investigation. It’s not a documentary where the cameras just run and you capture what happens, which is a different style. We wanted to film our investigation, so I think we captured just about everything that can go wrong in a case. In a way, it’s textbook, but I think more people would be more apt to watch a film than to read the textbook about how everything goes wrong. That’s what our film does.
Berg: But it ultimately did become more of a verite style film as the investigation was developing over time, because the things that we just started as an interview then became the things that we were chasing, and so I think we mixed the two.
Q: Obviously West Memphis did not handle things in a correct manner as the case progressed. Has this made any difference in how they handle things today?
Echols: No. At the time we were arrested, the West Memphis Police Department was under investigation by the FBI. They have a long history of abuse and corruption, and nothing has changed there whatsoever.
Davis: A lot of the same people still work there. Even while we were filming, a young child was shot by the cops and that made worldwide news, I believe, but that also was never [addressed]. I mean, they never have to account for anything they do.
Echols: They shot a 12-year-old kid that was carrying a bag of chips. They said they thought he had a gun.
Q: Amy, can you talk about having Nick Cave and Warren Ellis compose the score for the film? Have you collaborated with them before?
Berg: I have had a relationship with the two of them for years. We actually tried to collaborate on a film before this and I think that they are the best at what they do. They felt extremely close to the story. They saw dailies and they were involved in the conceptualizing of the music from very early on in the filmmaking process. It was a really great collaboration.
Q: Were there any major scenes that were shot but not included in the final film?
Berg: I shot a series of scenes that were reenactment scenes from Damien’s journals that I really enjoyed doing and I think will be on the DVD. I was trying to capture his perspective of life at the time. There was a really great scene that was just too long to put in the film. Vicki Hutcheson’s son, Aaron, was friends with the three boys that were murdered. The police interrogation and the prosecutor’s interrogation of Aaron Hutcheson is unbelievable footage where they are trying to get him to tell them what happened. He wasn’t there. He clearly wasn’t there and they do this over a series of months. We’re going to put that on the DVD as well. It’s an amazing scene just showing how far the police would go to get what they wanted.
Q: Henry Rollins has this great line in the film “Had I known it would have been this long, would I have done this?” How about you? Did you think it would take this long and was it frustrating?
Berg: This is actually somewhat shorter than average in these cases. Fifteen years is the minimum amount of time before you start to get your appeals going. If their trial had actually went, it could have been another couple of years. Who knows? It’s an unbelievable statistic in wrongful convictions.
Q: Damien, do you and Lorri still live in West Memphis?
Echols: Oh God, no! We left the very second I got out of prison. We left and we’ve not been back, nor do we plan to. No, we live in Salem, Massachusetts.
Q: What did you find most rewarding about being a part of this documentary?
Echols: I think for me, and maybe if I’m speaking for Lorri too, for us, it was being able to participate in our own story for the first time. There had been things in the past. There had been other documentaries, books, TV shows, whatever it was, but it was all someone else’s project and someone else’s vision. This was the very first time we got to have input into our own story. It made us capable of opening up more in a way that we weren’t [able to] with anyone else. We never would have let anyone else, the other documentary crews or TV crews or anyone else, into our personal lives the way we did with Amy – reading our letters, our phone calls, and things like that – because we were always wary of it becoming this sensational freak show and of people taking advantage of it. We just weren’t going to allow that to happen. The fact that we were able to relax a little more and show more of our personal life was rewarding.
Q: What are your plans for the future?
Echols: Once this is all over, and we’re not talking about the case anymore on a daily basis, and we can finally move on and have some sense of closure, I mean, long term goals, what I would like to do is I’d like to keep writing first and foremost. I loved writing ever since I was a kid. I would also like to have a small meditation center in the town where we live where we could share the same things with people that we had to learn while I was in prison, the things that helped us through difficult times. We want to share that with people who feel like they don’t have anywhere to turn or need something to help them get through hardships, something completely and absolutely unassociated with the case. That is where my passion lies. That’s what I enjoy doing.
“West of Memphis” opens in theaters on December 25th.