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'West of Memphis': Tragedy and injustice in Arkansas
Speaking with one of the West Memphis Three, Damien Echols

By Don Kaye
Special to MSN Movies

In May of 1993, three 8-year-old boys -- Stevie Branch, Michael Moore and Christopher Byers -- were found brutally murdered in a creek in the Robin Hood Hills section of West Memphis, Ark. Less than one year later, three local teenagers -- Jessie Misskelley, Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin -- were convicted of the killings, with prosecutors claiming they were done as a satanic ritual. Echols was sentenced to death and his two friends sentenced to life in prison.

Over the years, however, a picture began to emerge that the wrong men were behind bars. That included indications of police coercion, mishandling of evidence and juror misconduct. However, it was a dozen years after the 1994 incarceration of the young men who became known as the West Memphis Three that truly shocking evidence came to light: new DNA testing did not place any DNA from the three men at the scene of the crime -- but it did identify DNA from a man named Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of Stevie Branch, who had never been questioned by police.

As the case became more publicized -- particularly through the efforts of actors like Johnny Depp and musicians like Eddie Vedder and Henry Rollins -- it attracted the attention of filmmaker Peter Jackson ("The Hobbit") and his wife and producing partner, Fran Walsh. They began to anonymously fund new defense tactics for the three men while also considering the possibility of making a film about the case.

The results of their efforts -- the Jacksons, the defense team and Echols' wife, Lorri Davis -- were twofold. The West Memphis Three were released in August 2011, after taking Alford pleas, which allowed them to proclaim their innocence while still admitting that the prosecution had enough evidence to find them guilty (this was widely seen as a move on the district attorney's part to avoid lawsuits). And now there is a documentary, "West of Memphis," produced by Jackson, Walsh, Davis and Echols, and directed by Amy Berg ("Deliver Us From Evil"), which chronicles the entire sad history of how the horrifying murders of three little boys led to a gross miscarriage of justice against their memories and the three men wrongly accused of their deaths.

There have been other documentaries about the West Memphis Three -- most notably the excellent "Paradise Lost" trilogy -- but "West of Memphis" hits particularly hard, examining the many ills that fester under the surface of small-town America and the U.S. justice system, while never letting go of the tragedy that has unfolded for everyone involved and is still not over. MSN had a chance to sit down with Damien Echols to discuss the film and his experiences, and here is an edited version of that talk.

MSN Movies: Is the purpose of this film to keep the case front and center for the sake of the three of you, because in many ways this is not over yet? And is it also to prevent this from happening to anyone else?

Damien Echols: That is exactly what it is. You know, I always tell people that having to talk about this over and over and over every single day has been f---ing miserable. But at the same time it's the only way we're ever going to have a sense of closure. If we want to be exonerated, if we want the person who belongs in prison to be in prison and we want the people who did this to us to be held responsible for what they've done, we have to let the state of Arkansas know we're not going anywhere until you do the right thing. So, you know, even as traumatic and exhausting as it is now, it's like keeping your eye on that end where you finally do have a sense of closure. You know, we can't rest now because we don't have that sense of closure, and we won't have it until those things happen. So it's like we have to keep going.

Do you feel that at least the public knows the real story at this point?

I do. You know, I've been approached by -- I don't even know how many hundreds of people, thousands of people, actually, since we've been out. I have never had one single negative encounter. I have never had somebody say, "I think you really did it." You know, every single time, every single person that has approached us, everyone has always said, "I'm really glad you're out. I'm sorry you had to go through what you went through. I'm hoping you have better luck in the future with, you know, getting whatever it is out of this you're wanting to get out of it." I've never had a single bad outcome. I don't think -- really, I don't think anyone with an IQ of more than 15 thinks we actually did it anymore. You know, the prosecutor -- if they actually believed we were guilty, if they thought I had committed three murders, then there's no way that they would have just come in one day and said, "OK, get out. Go home." You know, it's pretty well known just from looking at the situation what it is.

What was it like for you to actually get out? What have the adjustments been like to simple things like walking around freely, not looking over your shoulder, not having to walk with shackles on?

People just think you're going to be happy and excited that you're out of prison, and you are, but at the same time in the very beginning, for the first three months that I was out, I was in a hard-core state of shock and trauma 'cause I had been in solitary confinement for almost 10 years by the time I got out. ... It was really, really hard and I couldn't express to people what I was going through. I couldn't do anything for myself whenever I first got out. Nothing at all. It's gradually improved in the past --- I've been out about a year and four months now, I think --- it's gradually improved. I don't wake up at night screaming anymore, but there are days when it can be really hard.

What are the lessons that people should take away from this film about the justice system?

Well, what we're hoping, what we try to keep in mind, and one of the things that motivates us is that every single person who sits in the theater or sits in their home (watching) this movie on DVD is a potential jury member in the future. They can make sure the same thing doesn't happen to somebody else. You know, a lot of people don't understand that our judicial system is based entirely on politics. Judges, prosecutors, attorney generals, they're all elected officials. So that's always going to be first and foremost priority to them. Any sort of justice or anything else will take a backseat to that, you know, if there's time after we win the next election, if we can figure out how to do the right thing without losing a vote, then maybe we'll do that. So, you know, that's one of the things we're hoping is just that people see that, see what the motivating factor is behind these things and in that way maybe make a difference.

There's a lot of this attitude prevalent today that celebrities should shut up and play music, shut up and make movies, shut up and entertain us. George Clooney shouldn't talk about politics, Eddie Vedder shouldn't talk about justice. But this movie makes it clear that these people can do things and make things move when ... nobody else can.

When the normal avenues can't make it happen.

We would be dead without these guys; without Johnny Depp, without Eddie Vedder, without Peter Jackson, without Henry Rollins, Margaret Cho. I mean, they (the state of Arkansas) would have killed us and swept us under the rug. The individual can't fight the state. You don't have what it takes; you don't have the firepower. If they wouldn't have come in like an army to help us, we wouldn't have stood a chance because, in the end, that's what matters. They don't care whether you're guilty or innocent. They care about how many people are watching them. You know, they'll kill an innocent person just as quick as they'll kill a guilty person. The only thing that prevents it from happening is them realizing the rest of the world is watching them. You can't make the rest of the world watch, but Johnny Depp can. Eddie Vedder can. Peter Jackson can. So they're out there saving lives. So to the people ... who say things like, you know, "Shut up and entertain us," I would say these people are literally saving lives -- what are you doing?

You've written a book ("Life After Death") and now you're holding an art show to sell off the art you made while you were incarcerated.

Yeah. It's going to be January 5th at my tattoo gallery in New York. It's called Sacred Tattoo and this will be the first art show that I've done since I've been out. And a lot of it when we were moving -- we moved recently and I opened up a box, and a lot of the stuff I've made while I was in prison was in it. And I don't want to look at it anymore, you know. It's bad memories to me. But at the same time it was wrong to just destroy it or throw it away.

Is any of this like an exorcism for you: writing the book, selling the art, doing a movie? Does it help you emotionally or spiritually in some ways?

It's not cathartic for me at all. It's not like lancing the boil and letting poison out. It's like being slapped with a dead fish a lot of times, but I guess you could look at it as being helpful in that once it's done it's done. You know, I've always loved writing; I always wanted to be a writer. I had to write about the case because that's what people wanted to hear about the first time. But now it's done. So I can go on and write about other things. With the art show, I do this thing, get rid of the things that I had in prison, and it's done. I can go on and do art now, things I want to do now. Doing all of this now, working towards the exoneration, all the interviews and the screenings and everything else, once it's done, it's done. And then I can move forward. So there is a sense of closure in that regard, but I don't feel like it helps me to talk about it or constantly have to be surrounded by it. In fact, it's quite the opposite.

Do you plan to keep writing?

I do. I'm already working on another book right now. You know, writing is something that I've always loved. I love writing far more than I love visual art. It's like it scratches an itch somewhere deep inside you that you can't get to any other way. I also still have probably 10 to 12 journals, whole journals that I kept while I was on death row that no one has ever seen before. So you know, maybe in the future we'll publish some of those and let people see what I was writing about just on a daily basis in there. But the things I'm loving writing about now are the things I've done since I've been out: the places I've seen since I've been out, the things I've experienced since I've been out, you know -- things with no connection to prison or this case at all.

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"West of Memphis" is now open in limited release.


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