Director Amy Berg’s transcendent documentary, WEST OF MEMPHIS, tells the harrowing tale of three teenagers – Damien Echols, Jesse Misskelley, and Jason Baldwin – who were convicted of a heinous crime they didn’t commit. After eight-year old boys Christopher Byers, Steven Branch, and Michael Moore were murdered in a small town in Arkansas, a gigantic miscarriage of justice followed. Still reeling in the aftermath of prison life, the three men are now on a quest to have their names cleared and bring the truth of what really happened to those young boys to light.
Since we found the press conference held at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills incredibly intriguing, we wanted to share with you the details Echols, his wife (who doubles as a producer on this film) Lorri Davis and Berg shared with us journalists.
10. Echols’ vision has been destroyed because of his time on death row. He says, “I didn’t see sunlight for ten years.”
9. Echols emphasizes that the courts need to look at the evidence of the crime to find the real killer. “To be honest I don’t know. It’s one of those things we always say we shouldn’t have to even point the finger at anyone. It should be the evidence. The evidence should be heard and it should be what points the finger. They now have ten thousand times more connecting this man [Terry Hobbs] to the crime than they ever had on us, but we can’t get the prosecutor to call a grand jury.”
8. Maintaining a relationship with someone in prison is expensive. Davis says, “Phone calls are very expensive. Traveling to the prison is expensive. That’s one of the things people forget. People who are incarcerated are often times cut off from their families because their families don’t have the means to keep in touch with them. Luckily, I was able to support myself. I worked two full time jobs. I was living very sparsely for many years to make sure I could balance it all and it is stressful. Sometimes the most important thing was to keep the correspondence going at all times – whether it be letters, visitations, talking on the phone. My phone bills for just the two of us could be $500 a month.”
7. The West Memphis Three’s history with officers goes back a couple of years. He explains, “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.’ These guys made my life a living Hell before the murders even happened. So 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 over here. This is the guy you need to look at.’ So that’s what directed the investigation on us in the first place.”
6. Berg and her crew were roughed up at Echols’ prison. A few of his guards even wanted to be a part of the Hollywood spotlight. “We were shooting some B-roll and were dropping Damien’s attorney off at the prison. There were no signs that said you can’t go to this first line of parking. We went up there to turn around and the next thing we know, we are surrounded by prison guard vehicles on both sides. They were so rough with us. They took all of our licenses and turned them into the Arkansas police. They said we could never come back into the prison. It was the same guy – the assistant warden – that had actually beat you [turns to Damien]…” Echols picks up the story, “She’s talking about a guy who started off as a prison guard in another unit and beat an inmate so bad 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.” Berg continues, “There were some other interesting stories. Behind Damien, the other guards are trying to get into the shots and they’re making all this loud noise and saying they’re gonna be discovered by Hollywood. It’s this crazy juxtaposition.”
5. Celebrity support from people like Johnny Depp, Henry Rollins and Natalie Maines didn’t happen overnight. Echols points out, “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. A lot of my information came from Lorri. She would tell me what was going on. You hear it and it gives you a little bit of heart and hope, but at the same time, that’s something going on in another world.” On keeping that celebrity support going during their decades long fight, Davis says, “It wasn’t a struggle at all because the people who became interested in our case saw themselves somewhat in Damien or the other two so they took it to heart. And they took it personally. I have to say everyone stayed on board – none of them wavered. They were there when we needed financial help. They were there when we needed help in the media. They became our friends and still are our very good friends.”
4. During times of crisis, what gave Davis and Echols strength and comfort was twofold. Echols answers, “The two things that kept us going through was our relationship and our spiritual practice. It was something that we could both do. It keeps you from getting angry. It keeps you from getting bitter – something to focus on like that. Not to mention when you are in prison, there’s no medical care on death row. There were times where I would get extremely sick or get excruciating pain and I had to learn things like reiki and chi gung to keep myself going. We had to focus on the things we did have to keep from becoming bitter about the things we didn’t have.”
3. After the press tour is over and the film has been released, Echols plans to keep writing and open up a meditation center where he and Davis reside (which, ironically, is in Salem, Massachusetts). “I’ve loved writing ever since I was a kid. I would like to have a small meditation center where we could share the same things we had to learn while I was in prison – the things that helped us through difficult times. To be able to share that with people who feel like they don’t have anywhere to turn or that can get them through hardships. That’s where my passion lies. That’s what I enjoy doing.”
2. Human interaction has been the hardest part of transitioning out for Echols. “Not only had I been in prison for eighteen years, I had been in solitary confinement for almost a decade on the day that I walked out. There are no words to even articulate how difficult something like that is. For the first two to three months, I was in extreme shock from coming out. Most people think you’re just 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. I hadn’t walked anywhere without chains on my feet in almost twenty years, so it’s almost like I had to learn to walk again. You don’t use silverware in prison, so you have to learn that again. On top of that, you’ve got all this new stuff like cell phones and ATM machines. It can be panic-inducing in the beginning.”
1. All hope that this film makes a difference. Berg says, “I needed to feel like I could make a difference before I could start making the film. I feel like that’s something I put into that everyday. If you’re going into something with that intention, then you are focused on that. That’s how the story kept getting deeper, stronger and multi-layered.” Davis states, “It’s not a documentary where the camera runs and you capture what happens which is a different style. We wanted to film our investigations. I think we captured everything that could go wrong in a case.” Echols expands further, “This documentary isn’t just about this case. Everyone who sees this documentary is a potential jury member on another case and can make sure the same thing doesn’t happen to someone else in the future.”
WEST OF MEMPHIS opens in New York and Los Angeles on December 28. It opens wider in subsequent weeks.