Peter Jackson believes Damien Echols would be dead now if not for a 1996 documentary that cast doubt on the man’s guilt in three child murders.
And Amy Berg, Jackson’s colleague on the Sundance Film Festival premiere “West of Memphis,” believes former Death Row inmate Echols and two other men might still be in prison if not for the independent investigation launched by “The Lord of the Rings” filmmaker and his wife, Fran Walsh.
There’s no better testament at Sundance to the power of art and artists than “West of Memphis,” which premiered Friday night at Robert Redford’s independent-film showcase. Sundance films often come from mavericks who challenge the establishment. “West of Memphis” is a tale of artists not only challenging the system, but also beating it.
Jackson, Walsh and Berg said “West of Memphis” amounts to the fair trial Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley — known as the West Memphis Three — never got as Arkansas teenagers when they were convicted in 1994.
“We went into this case believing that they didn’t do it, and the facts and the evidence we came out with at the end completely supported that,” Jackson said in an interview. “So is the documentary sort of providing the prosecution’s point of view? No, it’s not. We’re not interested in that. They had their go back in 1994. … The documentary, it’s the case against the state, really.”
The case was a shocker in the rural Arkansas community where 8-year-old Cub Scouts Michael Moore, Steve Branch and Christopher Byers were slain in 1993. Found naked and hogtied, two of the boys drowned in a drainage ditch, while the third bled to death, his genitals mutilated, evidence prosecutors used to claim the children were killed in a satanic ritual.
The defendants were convicted based in part on a confession Misskelley later recanted. Misskelley and Baldwin were sentenced to life in prison, while Echols was condemned to death and once came within weeks of execution.
The case became a cause after Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s documentary “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills,” which premiered at Sundance in 1996 and questioned whether justice or misguided public opinion was served in the trial. Over the years, celebrities such as Johnny Depp, Patti Smith, Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam and Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks joined the effort to free the men.
Jackson and Walsh watched “Paradise Lost” in 2005 and were outraged over the case. From their home base in New Zealand, they got in touch with Lorri Davis, who had met and married Echols while he was on Death Row and was leading the fight to free the men.
“Justice should be beyond popular opinion, and in this case, it wasn’t,” Walsh said. “The popular opinion was these guys were guilty, therefore, they’re going down. It really was a done deal.”
Over the next six years, Jackson and Walsh financed their own investigation, hiring forensics experts, gathering DNA evidence and tracking down witnesses to show that the prosecution had convicted innocent men.
“The way Peter and Fran just attacked the case, it made us feel like we had hope for the very first time,” Echols, 37, said in an interview alongside Davis.
The hope was well-founded. Helped by evidence Jackson and Walsh’s investigation collected, the case seemed headed toward a retrial.
Then last August, both sides agreed to a rare legal maneuver in which Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley entered guilty pleas that allowed them to maintain their innocence and gain their freedom for prison time already served.
Some people in Arkansas, including the family of one of the murdered boys, still believe the three men are guilty. Yet as the years passed, even the families of the other two dead boys became convinced that prosecutors went after the wrong suspects. The mother of one boy and stepfather of another came to Sundance, sharing hugs at the premiere with Echols, who said he’s “happy to call them friends now.”
Three years into their investigation, Jackson and Walsh contacted director Berg, whose 2006 priest-molestation documentary “Deliver Us from Evil” earned an Academy Award nomination. Berg signed on to direct “West of Memphis,” which traces the 18-year history of the case and features interviews with Jackson and many witnesses and experts he and Walsh worked with.
“I would submit this film to court, so that’s how strongly I feel about it,” said Davis, a producer on the film along with Echols, Jackson and Walsh.
The film also builds a case that a stepfather of one of the murdered boys should be investigated.
Jackson said that without “Paradise Lost,” '‘Damien would be dead by now, so I do believe that film saved his life. AndI’m hoping that our movie goes some way toward exoneration and catching the person that killed those three kids.”
Walsh and Jackson stop short of saying their efforts led to the release of Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley. Yet Berg thinks the evidence brought to light by Jackson and Walsh was crucial.
“Without the discovery of the DNA, there’s no way that these guys would be walking free, and that came so much from Peter and Fran and their investigation,” Berg said.
Since his release, Echols has lived a nomadic life with Davis. He went to New Zealand to visit the set of Jackson and Walsh’s upcoming “Lord of the Rings” prequel “The Hobbit” and has been staying with other friends while trying to decide on his future.
Sitting with his arm entwined around Davis’, Echols said the hardships he endured were worth it because of the life he now has ahead of him.
“If I had to go through everything I did in the last 18 years to be with Lorri and to be in this situation, no, I wouldn’t change it,” Echols said. “I would go through it again if it meant being with Lorri.”