By Joan Ellis
The premise is stark: The fight to stop the state of Arkansas from killing an innocent man.
West of Memphis (a Sony Pictures Classics release) is a documentary made by men and women dedicated to that cause. They have spent years trying to unravel the truth of the prosecution and conviction in 1994 of a man accused of murdering three 8-year-old boys in rural Arkansas.
Their determination springs from their collective and abiding belief in the innocence of Damien Echols who was convicted of the crime and spent 18 years in prison, more than half of that time on Death Row. Their film will be shown to the public at 7 p.m. Monday, Dec. 17, at a pre-release screening at the Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank. A question and answer period with Echols and Lorri Davis will follow.
It is no ordinary group that directed its energy to this challenge. Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh (The Lord of the Rings trilogy) produced the film; Amy Berg (Best Documentary Oscar nominee for Deliver Us From Evil) directed and co-produced with first-time producers Echols and Davis.
The filmmakers examined the police investigation and then pressed on to find new evidence in the arrest and conviction of Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, all teenagers at the time.
Did Echols’ defense lawyers go on a hunting trip with the trial judge after the trial? Have witnesses admitted lying on the stand? Did new DNA testing reveal even a trace of Echols’ DNA at the crime scene?
Outside the prison gates, new evidence and testimony that suggested innocence led to an outpouring of support from the music community where musicians made an album for the cause – Eddie Vedder, Henry Rollins, Natalie Maines, Marilyn Manson, Dave Navarro, and Patti Smith among them. Many gathered in August 2010 to give a benefit concert in West Memphis. The score for the film was written by the Australian team of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis.
In a round table meeting with the press in New York last week, producer Peter Jackson and director Amy Berg answered questions along with Damien Echols and Lorri Davis, his wife and active advocate ever since they first began corresponding during his prison term. Davis gave up her job in New York to move to Arkansas to work full time for his release.
“There were times,” Echols said, “when I was so low I couldn’t get back up without her.”
Davis, an intelligent woman who radiates authenticity, gave up the life she had built in New York to work for Echols’ release. Married while Echols was still in prison, she continued the search until the day he left his cell. And the search is not over. They have been together for 17 years, the first 16 while he was in jail. Both Davis and her husband talked of their deep partnership and their need for discipline during the years of ordeal. Echols is certain he never would have survived without his wife’s constant support from the outside.
Peter Jackson said that he had gone to New Zealand for post-production on the film when the call came telling them the prisoners would be released. The filmmakers had no idea that new developments in Arkansas would produce an entirely unexpected ending for their documentary. Director Amy Berg left New Zealand immediately for Arkansas to begin work on the new ending.
Asked what triggered his deep involvement with Echols, Jackson said that he had watched a previous documentary, Paradise Lost, with the feeling of watching a train wreck. He and Fran Walsh joined the investigation at first because of the injustice they saw but then, “It became very personal, very emotional.”
Echols’ book, Life after Death, was published last year, some of it a reflection on his nightmare term, most of it written from notes he had made in his cell. His voice is original and vivid, so much so that it is hard to put the book aside even for a while. Rather than a linear narrative, his is a story of his thoughts, first of the abject rural poverty and cruelty of his childhood, then followed by what took place inside his head during his years in a cell.
He said he wished every day that some new prisoner he could talk to would come in, but none ever did. Most were murderers or mentally unbalanced. Except for his telephone calls with Lorri, he had no ordinary conversations for 18 years.
He talks also of the “morphic field” where “like attracts like until all are infected with hatred, ignorance, greed, pain, and humiliation” in guards and prisoners alike.
In solitary confinement for nearly a decade, Echols talks of the overwhelming sound of crickets in a concrete cell and rats that come inside to get warm in winter as they run over his body and chew up his blanket. He was “beaten until I pissed blood,” never saw the outdoors, was spat on, and suffered chains that cut into his skin for 18 years.
The ordeal isn’t over yet. He was refused entry to Canada because on the record he is still a convicted murderer. The drive for exoneration goes on. His own freedom isn’t enough. His legal team and the small army of devoted supporters are working constantly on new leads, DNA testing, and investigative work.
Released on a rarely used technicality called “The Alford Plea,” the three men were allowed by the plea to insist they are innocent but had to admit the prosecutors had enough evidence for conviction. That cloud and the need for justice for the murdered boys will keep the investigation going.
And so there is still a cloud, but there is also their freedom, his compelling book, and now this documentary set to open on Christmas Day.
Anyone gripped by the strength of Echols and Davis can see this film in advance of its opening at 7 p.m. Monday, Dec. 17, at the Count Basie Theatre, 99 Monmouth St., Red Bank. The box office telephone number is 732-842-9000. Tickets are $8.