Locals who have long followed the saga of the West Memphis Three — three Arkansas teenagers who, despite a shocking lack of evidence, were convicted of killing three 8-year-old Cub Scouts in 1993 — may have never imagined they'd one day see WM3 central figure Damien Echols walking and talking freely on the streets of Nashville. But tonight in Hillsboro Village, that's exactly what will happen.
Echols is now 37 years old, and he spent half of those years on Arkansas' death row — condemned, his supporters maintain, for the crime of wearing black and listening to the devil's music in a small town. But in August, Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr. walked free after DNA evidence, claims of juror misconduct and the threat of a retrial forced prosecutors to offer them a seldom-used "Alford Plea." As a result, their sentences were suspended, but their controversial convictions stood. The WM3 vehemently maintain their innocence, bolstered by forensic evidence as well as an international chorus of outrage.
Less than six months after his release, Echols will appear 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 26, at The Belcourt's sold-out screening of West of Memphis — a documentary telling the WM3 story, which he produced along with his wife Lorri Davis, The Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson and Jackson's wife and collaborator Fran Walsh. Following the film, Echols, along with Baldwin, Davis and the film's director, Amy Berg (Deliver Us From Evil), will give a Q&A as part of the Sundance Film Festival USA program taking place simultaneously in cities across America. The Scene recently spoke with them after the film's triumphant premiere last weekend at Sundance.
Amy Berg, director, West of Memphis
How did you get involved in this project? Had you followed the case of the West Memphis Three before getting involved?
I got a phone call regarding this project at the end of 2008 from Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, who had been investigating this case financially and with their time as well. [They] had presented a new wealth of information to [trial and appeals Judge] David Burnett. This was Damien's last state appeal. [Burnett] denied everything. So they could not be heard in the courts. They decided to make a documentary. They called me. I had not been following the case at all. I had not seen Paradise Lost at that point.
I watched the film right after I got the call from them, and it's very important for me that you get that. Please include that I've seen the film, because I've been misquoted a couple of times on that. I hadn't seen it in 2008 when they called me, but I quickly watched Paradise Lost and read [Mara Leveritt's book] Devil's Knot to try and get to get some background on the case. And then I started talking with Peter and Lorri Davis and Damien Echols at that time.
What was the biggest challenge in setting out to make documentary on a story that is already so well-documented?
Well, the story is well-documented as it pertains to the case in 1994. But what's happened since then didn't really get a lot of coverage until the time that I went down there. Not because I was down there, but it had just been in a holding pattern for 10 years at that point. So it was kind of like this interesting case that promoted a huge question over whether justice was served, but then nothing happened. It was just sitting there. So there wasn't really a challenge in that way.
I wanted to go back into the case and say, "Where are these people? Where is Vicky Hutcheson? Where is Michael Carter? Where is Steve Jones? Where is David Jacoby?" I wanted to talk to all the original players and find out how they felt about it today.
How is the perception of the West Memphis Three, and this case in general, different in West Memphis as opposed to the rest of the world?
When I went down there, all the officials (involved in the case) were dead-set on their conviction — the right people were in prison, they did their jobs, everything was status quo. The people in the town started to feel a bit of a shift on the whole satanic theory. That was the first thing that people [questioned], "I think they did it, but I don't know about that whole satanic thing."
So that was the thing I heard over and over again. And then if you take the overwhelming turtle evidence, the snapping turtle evidence, and all of the experts that have said that these were post-mortem wounds [on the victims], then that kind of means that they didn't get the right guys. And nobody was willing to admit that. They all thought that the turtle theory was this wild tale.
Now that people in West Memphis have had their community at the center of this controversial case for so many years, do you feel like that had any affect on the way they acted on camera? Have they developed a kind of media savvy as a result of this case's notoriety and the people that have come in at various points to analyze them and their town?
I actually tried to avoid that because I do not like sensational journalism at all. I absolutely despise it. I think it's counterproductive, especially in a case like this. I really had to do my work, put in my time and kind of see [who] these people were before I started filming. Because it definitely is a deterrent when you have people performing for the camera. And I feel like I really went to people who hadn't spoken in front of the camera before. Most of the people in my film have never been on camera before.
Pam Hobbs [the mother of murder victim Stevie Branch] is the exception. I spent so much time with her. So I felt I had a real sense of who she was in essence, and I didn't see a "Pam Hobbs on camera" and a "Pam Hobbs off camera." We developed a comfort that allowed her to be herself at all times. She came to see the film at the Sundance festival a couple nights ago and felt really proud of it, so I think that says a lot.
There's always the whole Mark Byers [father of murder victim Christopher Byers] theatrics from Paradise Lost with the pumpkins and the grave. And you know, I actually interviewed Mark and I found that if you put him in a situation where he's shooting pumpkins, he's gonna act a certain way. If you put him in a very quiet room with just me and him, he's gonna talk differently. I just did a real straight interview and I found that to be the right way to get more to the bottom of [things] with him.
Talking about Pam Hobbs, and Mark Byers for that matter, the issue regarding Terry Hobbs [Stevie Branch's stepfather] and how he is portrayed in West of Memphis has become huge since the film's Sundance screening. Given especially how you're trying to avoid sensationalism with this film, what would you say to people who will inevitably accuse you of trying him in the court of public opinion?
You know what, I appreciate you asking me that question. I will say that everything we did in our film that has to do with Terry Hobbs is based on science and evidence. And we did not cross any lines in terms of going into hearsay and "he said, she said." That wasn't interesting to me at all — as a filmmaker, as a documentarian, as a journalist. We stuck with the facts, and we put a case in front of our viewers that there are serious issues with this person's story, and we want to know why he's not being investigated. If he didn't do it, then let's find found out for sure. Because now we have three guys that have been released, but not exonerated — the state knows [it] has no case, so why are they not trying to find some justice for this murder? It's not fair to the victims' families — all three of them. And I know that one family still believes that Damien, Jason and Jessie did it, but two families do not agree with that. Two families believe that these three are innocent. And I think that speaks volumes to the validity of the charges.
While making the film, what was it like to go and confront the brass in this case — John Fogelman, the prosecutor at WM3 trials, and David Burnett, the trial judge?
All of them are trying to put this behind them and they've all moved on with careers, appointments. Judge Burnett is now a senator. Fogelman is a judge now. Going to them and talking, it was difficult. They're not listening again. They have their version of the story. I speak with Fogelman regularly. He does not know all the facts in this case and has said, "You know, everything I've seen doesn't convince me." But you ask him if he's looked at all these experts' reports, and he hasn't looked at those. If you ask him to look at the [recanting] of testimony — which is in my film, I ask two witnesses that recanted their testimony directly with me, and then actually a third who recanted his statement from earlier interviews. So I feel that he's just not knowledgeable about this case. I feel that it's his job to be, because he was so involved in their convictions.
Would you say that he's willfully ignorant?
Willfully ignorant? Maybe so. I think that would be a fair statement.
(To Damien Echols) How has Sundance been treating you?
It's been extremely nice. Everybody's been very receptive, and everybody's been very respectful. The first night we had the showing they gave us a standing ovation. It's just been more than I could possibly hope for.
And you're bringing the film to Nashville on Thursday and doing a Q&A too. Will this be the first public appearance you've made in the South since Aug. 19, when you were released?
It may be, I'm not 100 percent positive — we've done so much traveling since (then). But I believe it is. Yes. As a matter of fact, yeah, I'm gonna go ahead and say yes.
How does it feel to be returning to the region? Obviously Nashville is far enough away from West Memphis, but it's fairly close too — not only to where you grew up, but to the epicenter of this saga that the film documents.
I mean it is a little odd coming back in that close. But at the same time, I've loved Tennessee ever since I was kid because that's where my grandparents lived. And I spent a lot of time with my grandparents when I was a child. So something about it, especially the Memphis area, felt like home to me. So I'm really, actually looking forward to coming there.
There's quite a contrast between footage from around the time of your trial —where you're in handcuffs and a bulletproof vest, being escorted past this angry mob into the courthouse — and footage of your release. It seems like you were kind of chased into prison by people with torches and pitchforks.
What was the contrast between that feeling and the feeling of walking out of the courthouse in August to all of this fanfare?
It really is like a mirror image. You know, it's exactly the opposite of when we went in. And that's really what kept me from giving up when we were in there. I no longer have any faith at all in the legal system. I've seen how corrupt it is. But what I do have faith in is the people. It was the people who rallied around us, and the people who cared, and the people who supported us — that's what got us out. And that just, it means more than you could ever articulate.
I know that you'd received all kinds of letters and communication from supporters around the world while you were on death row, but while you were there, were you really aware of the scope of that support?
I don't think so. Because, you know, I didn't have access to things like the Internet. I didn't have cable television. Very little radio. So I know that it was spreading more and more over the years, but I don't think I really grasped the full extent of it until we were out.
How did it hit you when you realized what a cause your case is for so many people?
I guess when it really started to hit home was when we went to New York for a short period when I first got out, and I would be riding the subway or walking down the sidewalk. And you know, it's just a packed place. It's not like the South. There are so many people. And out of all these people on the sidewalk, on the subway, in stores, I would have people come up to me that recognized me and just say they were glad I was out and that they had just followed the case for years and stuff like that. It means more than you can say whenever something like that happens.
On the flipside, have you been approached by anyone who is a detractor, who believes in your guilt?
No, I haven't. I haven't had one single person that has said anything to me that wasn't 100 percent positive. You know, it's been absolutely great!
But knowing that there are people out there who remain suspicious, if there was something that you could say to them, what would it be?
The only thing I could say to them is just to ask them to watch this film, to watch West of Memphis. Because, really, I do believe that if anybody were to take just a small amount of time and start looking at the case and the evidence, they would change their minds. I think this film does a really good job at taking everything and compressing it into a small amount of time, so that you really learn a great deal from it. That's the only thing I could tell them — "watch this," and just be open to the evidence.
Would you say that this film is the case that you would want to present in court if you had the opportunity?
I think so. There's lots of other stuff, like smaller things that you don't always have time for. The documentary is two-and-a-half hours long. And even then there was so much more footage and so much more information that we wanted to get in, but you can't very well have a 12- or 15-hour movie. So there was other stuff, but I think, you know, this is the seed of it. This is the heart of it.
How did you end up becoming directly involved in this as a producer, as opposed to just a subject? What did your role as producer entail?
Most of the stuff was run by us beforehand. For example, there's footage in the movie of when Lorri and I got married at the prison. And they were always extremely respectful. They would ask us exactly beforehand, they would say, "Is it OK if we use this? Is it gonna bother you if we use this?" And we had to watch several previous cuts of the movie before it reached its final form, and you just have to decide what works, what doesn't work, what you would like to have added in, what people are gonna lose interest in. It's all that sort of stuff.
Having gone through this experience, was it hard to have to constantly watch cuts of the movie and revisit a lot of these things?
It was hard in a way, having to relive that stuff. But at the same time Amy Berg, the director, she did it in such a way that, even for me, being so intimately familiar with all the details of the case, it even held my attention. I didn't grow bored with it, and that's when I knew that she'd done an incredible job. It was hard. But at the same time, satisfying in a way too.
I know that, given statements you've made in previous interviews, part of your motivation with this film is to try to draw attention to how this happened, because you're not the only one. And that you're not an anomaly here, that this is something that really does happen to people more often than people would like to think.
Are there any specific cases of people that you were maybe incarcerated with, or that you've researched, that you would like to make mention of here?
Yeah! The one I've been directing people to right now is a guy by the name of Timothy Howard. And you know, it would take forever to go into a lot of details of the case, but that's the one I've been telling people, look, if you're interested in maybe doing something to help someone out, or learning about another unjust case, then please just go look at this one and maybe prevent an innocent man from being executed.
When you were released, a lot was made over you having to adjust to a new world of smart phones, and technology, and the Internet, things like that. But what are the cultural changes that you've observed? Do you think someone who might be in the position you were in in 1993 socially — someone who is a kid like that today — might have a better shot now at avoiding what you went through?
I think it's entirely possible. You know, I see things so much that have changed now. You know, like Metallica gets played on classic rock stations. It's not considered a cutting-edge thing or a dark, underground thing. Or you see, now, housewives that have tattoos. There are things that aren't as scary now as they were in a small town back then. Things have changed a lot. But at the same time, people are still hoping to [use] a lot of the manipulation and the tricks that they used to railroad us. I mean it's not entirely impossible for it to happen again and to someone else.
As far as the case that this film makes against Terry Hobbs, did you have any uncomfortable feelings about the film pointing the finger at somebody else?
I did. And that's why I'm very pleased that pretty much everything that takes place in the film, all the stuff against Terry Hobbs, is either, like, concrete physical, forensic evidence, or it's eyewitness testimony to certain things. We wanted to make sure that it wasn't just a bunch of hearsay, or ghost stories or rumors — you know, things like they used against me. It was, you know, science. And we tried to stick with that as much as absolutely possible, because we don't want to ever to do to someone else what was done to me.
(To Lorrie Davis) What was your reaction when Peter Jackson contacted you expressing a desire to get involved in the effort to free the West Memphis Three?
Well, kind of shock and bewilderment in the beginning, because I knew who he was, and he was such a powerful figure in Hollywood and had made such incredible films. That was in 2005. It was pretty incredible.
Was there talk of a making a film at the beginning? At what point did he and Fran Walsh's involvement extend to the idea of making another documentary on the case?
No. The film was the farthest thing from Fran and his minds at the time they contacted us. They were more concerned with what was happening in the case — wondering why hadn't they been released yet or proven innocent yet. So they did initially provide funding, but over time we got to know each other and became friends and then they just came onboard full time and [started] working with me, building a legal team. It wasn't until 2008, when the state of Arkansas denied Damien's appeal for new evidence, when Judge Burnett denied that appeal and we didn't have any other recourse other then to make this film so that we could get this evidence out and people could know what was happening in the case.
It seems that, over time, there would always be developments in this case. But at the same time, it seemed as though the courts were obstructing your efforts to present evidence at every turn. What was it like trying to reconcile the hope from having new evidence with the frustration of the court's unwillingness to look at it?
It was extremely difficult. There were some very, very dismal times. Every time we would get new evidence — compelling evidence that should reopen the case — I would think, "Oh, we're six months away." Well that would turn into three years. And it really was wearing on all of us. But at the same time, we had such a swell of support and such a foundation of support around us that, especially in the later years, now matter how tired or how frustrated or how downright, you know, sinking and in despair Damien and I were, we couldn't stop. Because we knew we were gonna be victorious at some point, we know we were gonna win at some point. But it was really hard at times. Really hard.
What did it feel like when that moment actually came that you got to watch the Damien walk free?
[Laughs] Well, it's not what you would think. It's never what you think it's gonna look like, right? Because we'd just spent nine days being under extreme pressure and under a great deal of stress, trying to get this deal straight [so that] it would go through with the state. So by the time Damien walked out, of course we were so happy and relieved, but we were also exhausted and in shock. So [laughs] it was a culmination of probably every human emotion imaginable on that day, but it was absolutely amazing.
But not necessarily the storybook kind of picture people would imagine?
Yeah. But at the same time, you know, it was so absolutely perfect in its own way. I don't know how else to say it. And the bad part of the story, and the plea and everything that they have gone through, it's gonna keep playing out. The story is not over.
With Damien having been incarcerated, when you got involved in this case you had to put the life you were living on hold. Now that you don't have to be in Arkansas, now that the two of you can pursue this as well as life on a wider scale, how are you moving on to that next chapter?
Oh, with much joy [laughs]. We don't really know what we're gonna do. Right now we're just focusing on getting this film out and it's going so well. So, you know, life is pretty amazing right now, and we're looking forward to our lives with so much optimism.
(To Jason Baldwin) What has your life been like over these last five months since your release?
Every day I wake up and I'm marveling at the fact that I'm no longer waking up in prison, that I'm waking up free, and life is great and wonderful, and I'm just so thankful for it. It's been awesome. I've spent an entire five months with people who care for me — friends, family. I'm meeting people who have done things to support us that I've only heard about. So I'm finally able to meet them and greet them and thank them in person. All these things are wonderful.
I've just been trying to put my life together — you know, pick up basically where I left off at 16. You probably remember when you were 16. One of the things I was wanting to do that summer was get a driver's license, get a first job. So I'm picking up from there. I recently did get my driver's license. I've been working construction, but I left that job due to traveling with the films and everything. And in April I'll start college and get a job again and work. So life's just been miraculous, really.
Can you say where you'll be going to college?
Well, I don't wanna say. But it's a good college [laughs].
When you were incarcerated, and while the story of your case was getting out there, when could you really start to feel an effect inside from what was going on in the outside? When did you feel the tides start to turn as far as the support goes?
Well, you know, I always had the support of my family and friends. I was with family members at the time the murders occurred. So they knew 100 percent. I remember the first letter I got. It was right after my conviction. I was at the diagnostic unit in Pine Bluff, Ark., in this little cell and I got this letter and it said, "To Jason Baldwin," someone in prison. It didn't have an address or anything. I opened it up and it was the first letter from somebody I didn't know that had written me and it was like, "Hey, I just want you to know I believe that you're innocent and I'm praying for you." So from that moment on letters and things started coming in. Not so many at that time, but it really jumped right after Bruce [Sinofsky] and Joe's [Berlinger] first documentary, Paradise Lost, came out.
Then people from all of the country and from all over the world were able to watch what happened to us. So that's when support really started skyrocketing. And then Kathy Bakken in LA, she was tasked with doing the artwork for Paradise Lost before it came out. So she got with a group of her friends and they came out and visited us and were just floored by what all happened, and they started the wm3.org website, which collected data about the case and kind of centralized the help. So from then on it just got larger and larger. It's just amazing.
While you were in prison, were you able to ever access the website, or were you ever able to see the Paradise Lost films?
I did see the films. I remember one morning, I think it was right after they came out, it was, like, 2:30 in the morning, a buddy of mine that I'd got to be friends with while I was there, another inmate, he came and woke me up and he was like, "Jason, wake up!" And I'm like, "What's going on?" It was 2:30 a.m. and I had work detail in the morning, you know, I had to get up at 6, get ready for work at 7. He's like, "Trust me ... come on!" and I'm like "Yeah, what's up?" And we went down to the visitation area and he had a TV and a VCR set up in there and he's like, "You drink Mountain Dew, right?" And I'm like, "Yeah." So he bought me a Mountain Dew, got a burrito, [put] it in the microwave and we sat down and he pushed play and it was Paradise Lost [Laughs]. I remember, right after we finished watching it, he jumped up and he's like, "Man, you're going home!"
Does it feel strange to go and revisit all that stuff now that it's back in the media, and now that you're traveling with the West of Memphis film?
Well, you know, it's very hopeful to see people coming together and wanting the right things to be done. It's very hopeful. It's very inspiring. It's very heartwarming to be able to meet someone for the first time and they're like, "Hey, I've been supporting you since '96," or donating to the defense fund, or writing letters to the officials in Arkansas, or whatever the case may be. To thank a person like that in person, get to shake their hand, give them a hug, it just touches you in the heart. It's just an amazing thing. Because, you know, at one time we were cursed, spit at, threatened, our lives were threatened, for something we didn't do. So to have people look with eyes open and then just pour out all this love to you, it's just a very amazing, humbling experience. I'll tell you, I just thank God every day, you know. Every day I thank him.
On the flipside, have you encountered or been confronted by any non-supporters who still believe or suspect that you're really guilty?
No. I mean, everybody I've met has been just really positive and, you know, just hopeful that the truth will come out. They're a little sad that the state forced us to take the Alford Plea and stuff, you know, but they're like, "You did the right thing, Jason. Y'all are free. You're not in prison anymore. Damien doesn't have his life threatened anymore." So everybody's been just so good.
I know that you didn't want to take the Alford Plea. What was that process of making that decision like?
I feared that, you know, by taking it things wouldn't be done to find out who really [committed] the crime. But I was reminded that, you know, Damien wasn't in a place like I was at. People loved me and cared for me where I was at. Yeah, I was in prison. I was somewhere I didn't belong and it really sucked. Prison is a horrible place. But you know, the people around me respected me, and came to believe in my innocence and prayed for me. You know, the guards and stuff, they were like, "If I could let you go, I'd let you go, I'd let you go." But they couldn't do that. But they could give me acts of kindness, give me a hamburger or something, you know, little things like that.
So my situation wasn't as bad as [Damien's] was, trapped in this little room all day. I mean, it's a horrible thing to be on death row, to see guys marched past your cell and to never see them again because they've been executed. So to get him free from that, you know, that's why I took that deal. And it's a good thing, because my fears with the investigation not going forward, you know, it is going forward. We were sittin' at dinner last night with some of [our] attorneys and there's a lot — I can't speak of what's being done specifically — but we're still fighting to try to solve this case and figure out who murdered those boys. So my fears about that have been crushed.
If the greatest pleasure of the movie is seeing "DiCaprio be beautiful again", something about…
worth reading on the subject: an interview with Kubrik assistant and friend.
But an outstanding, penetrating comment!
On the contrary: I can't imagine anybody watching ROOM 237 and *not* wanting to see…
This is worth seeing for any fan(atic) of "The Shining", but the film "Making The…