Interview: Director Peter Jackson and Damien Echols of the West Memphis Three

words and photo by Matthew Schuchman
| Tuesday, December 11th, 2012

Peter Jackson and Damien Echols

Hitting the theaters on Christmas Day 2012, West of Memphis is a brand new documentary about the West Memphis Three. Co-produced by Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Damien Echols (of the West Memphis Three), and his wife Lorri Davis and directed by Amy Berg, the film treads over familiar ground about the case, but also sheds new light on many situations the Paradise Lost films never mentioned — as well as uncovers some shocking new revelations. One surprise is the fact that all of the new evidence that came to light from new DNA evidence and an experienced defense team were funded by Jackson and Walsh themselves. Here is what Peter Jackson and Damien Echols spoke of about the case, their friendship, and the future.

Can you tell us about when you two first talked on the phone or communicated with each other?

Peter Jackson: Well, we didn’t actually meet face to face until Damien got out. Fran [Walsh, Peter Jackson’s writing partner] and I had been involved in the case for about seven or eight years, but I never wanted to go visit Damien in jail because I just didn’t like the idea of being able to walk out of that prison and he couldn’t. I was a coward really to some degree, and I thought I would just find that really tough. Though, Damien sent me gifts, he made me a wonderful little draft set out of cardboard, paper, and glue with some wonderful little paper birds.

Damien Echols: I think Fran was also a little superstitious; she thought if they came to see me at the prison, then I wouldn’t get out.

I’ve heard you say before that as much as the celebrities that got involved in your case was a benefit, it also caused problems for you in jail; they kind of took that out on you.

Echols: They have a way of getting away with things. You may have horrendous stuff going down on a daily basis in prison — there will be massive riots going on, and you’ll never hear about it on the local news. Everything that goes on in prison is never reported because they feel like it gives the prisoners a sense of power or their own voice, and they don’t want that to happen. So the way the prison operates has to be in absolute secrecy. Whenever they would see TV shows and news reports, or the past documentaries, or books, or whatever it was on the case, they didn’t look at it as if I was bringing attention to the case — they looked at it as if I was bringing attention to the prison, and they didn’t like that. So I would usually end up paying for it in some way.

There’s obviously no way to know what would have happened to your life if these events had never taken place, and no one would ever want to go through your experience, but if this didn’t happen, you wouldn’t have met your wife, you wouldn’t be doing interviews with people like Peter Jackson, and you may have never gotten out of West Memphis. Is it tough to think about the bright spots?

Echols: There have been a lot, a lot of blessings to come out of this case. You know, Peter is like family to us now, and we never would have met him if this never happened, as well as my relationship with Lorri. There have been so many people we’ve developed friendships with that we wouldn’t have if not for having gone through this. There have been a lot of good things for it.

There’s also other things that, as much as we want to avoid it — as much as we hate it — the number one thing that makes us mature as people is pain. It forces you to grow, even when you don’t want to, and we had a lot of that in this situation. So even that, in way, I guess is a blessing.

I’m curious as to all the other films that have been made — I was talking to Amy [Berg, director West of Memphis] earlier and she said you hadn’t even watched them, is that still true?

Echols: I tried once. Whenever the second documentary had come out my attorneys asked for a court order that I be allowed to watch them in the prison, just because they said it had a bearing on my case, so they thought I should be familiar with them. I made it through about 15 minutes of the first one and I couldn’t take it, I couldn’t do it. I can understand why they had such a huge impact on people and why they motivated people, because whenever I tried to watch it the only thing I could compare it to is when Vietnam vets talk about flashbacks — it felt like being in the courtroom again. You feel something so huge that you can’t even put a name on it. You don’t know if you should be laughing or crying, it’s just like there’s some huge thing caught in your chest. So after about 15 minutes of it, I said “I’m ready to go back to my cell.”

So why agree to do this film?

Echols: Because this was the first time that Lorri and I had any say in the way our story was told. This was finally our project. Nothing else that had been done before — other documentaries, other books, other TV shows — we had any say in. We were always really protective about parts of our lives because of that. We would have never done the things with anyone else that we did with Amy. Like listening in on our phone calls, and letting her read our letters, because we were really afraid that other people might have made it sensational or like some sort of freak show or train wreck. We didn’t have that fear this time.

Peter, one of the things you said in the movie that really struck me was that one of the reason you got involved with the case was because you felt like these kids were being bullied, and you don’t like bullies. Was that one of the first things that drew you to the case?

Jackson: Yeah, I mean, my response to watching the original Paradise Lostwhich is how we heard about the case, we were in New Zealand about eight or nine years after the original trial — was that it makes you angry. We contacted Lorri, and we initially offered a donation as many thousands of people had already done, just to help — assuming they just needed money for this ongoing battle. Then it became a friendship; Lorri, Fran, and I became friends. She came down to New Zealand a couple of time to see us, and it became personal after that. It was interesting; that was unexpected because it’s one thing to learn about a case and feel that injustice and feel that thing inside you that says, “This is just not right, and how can we help?” It changed into becoming about Lorri trying to save her husband’s life, and us trying to help; it became very personal and very emotional.

Was the intention always to wait until you were out before you put the movie out?

Jackson: Well, I can tell you very briefly the genesis of the film, because it is quite a very specific series of events. Fran and I were involved for about three or four years with no intention of making the film. During that time, we were funding a lot of the forensic work, the DNA work, and a lot of the investigative work. We kind of ended up embedded in Damien’s defense team; part of the legal team. Fran in particular did a huge amount of work researching the case, figuring out angles of the investigations that should be followed up. Part of that was assuring the lawyers that we’re not interested in making a film, we’re not here to exploit this case — all we want to do is pay the bills, get the science done that was never done in 1994, and try to get these guys out. There was a moment in time — which is part of the movie — where Judge Burnett had his final chance to review all the new evidence, and it was a moment when he could have ordered a retrial and brought in a new investigation based on all the stuff that we uncovered, and Burnett threw it all out. He said it’s not compelling, there will be no new evidence.

At that point, Damien’s options were running out. This was 2008, I think, toward the end of 2008. That was a very bad turn for the case, and our frustration was that we felt we had uncovered a lot of very compelling evidence — facts, science, we interviewed a lot of people, we got affidavits. Everything you hear and see in the movie is based on a sworn affidavit the people have signed. We thought, Burnett does not want this to be it. There’s all this information, and it’s complex, and it’s kind of detailed. If you talked to a journalist or someone about it, there’d be a story in the paper somewhere, but it would be in a limited space, so we thought that a documentary was the vehicle. If the courts don’t want it to be heard, then a documentary is a great vehicle to help explain to your average person who doesn’t know anything about the case all about the evidence. At that stage, the documentary became an idea. We spoke to the defense guys and said, “Well, look, actually a documentary might be a good idea at this time, because we are running out of options.” It was all to do with gaining an evidential hearing, which is basically a hearing before a judge decides whether a retrial is admissible.

In a way, the movie became the evidential hearing that never occurred, because the Alford plea sort of intervened before the film was actually finished. The ultimate plan with the documentary was [that] at some point there would be a court hearing or an appeal, or an evidentiary hearing, or a retrial that we thought would be a good time to release this film. Now, obviously, even though Damien’s out, it’s about exoneration, it’s about justice, it’s pressure to make the politicians in Arkansas reopen this case and not just to exonerate the guys, but to actually solve the murder of three little boys. It’s only going to happen with pressure –they will only do it if it serves their interest to do it. They are ass-covering to the max, and how do you break through that? There isn’t any other way other than pressure.

Other than the bullying, was there an aspect of being an outsider that drew you into the case?  Did you see yourself in [Damien] as a kid being bullied?

Jackson: Yeah, not so much. I mean, I know that a lot of people identify with Damien. I guess I’m slightly older and I was never into heavy metal, I don’t wear all black. So no, I identified much more with the personal side of all of it. I certainly identified with the fact that Damien, Jason, and Jesse didn’t have the resources to fight this. Everything we uncovered in the last few years should have been done by his defense team back in the original trial. They should have interviewed the people we spoke to — it would have been better if they did because it would have been closer to the actual events instead of years and years afterwards. So these guys were crucified without the means to defend themselves, without any real finances. It is very unfair — the justice system ultimately — because the defendants haven’t got any money at all to get expertise, to get forensics done; yet the state has unlimited finances. There is an unbalance there for sure.

So was that always an interest of yours, maybe something you had a gripe about in New Zealand or just in America?

Jackson: No, really, we were never interested in getting involved with any sort of justice cases at all. As I said, it was seeing Paradise Lost and then it very quickly becoming personal, and Lorri becoming our friend. At that point it wasn’t about the principles involved — it was trying to help her.

If you read the things attorneys have written in reaction to cases like this or the Central Park Five that deal with wrongful prosecution and forced confessions, it speaks very much to an issue of the need for awareness and education for people at an earlier point in their lives, long before anyone would think we’d need it. I was wondering about your thoughts about how the system works and people needing to understand their rights.

Echols: Once you get into that interrogation room, you don’t have any rights. It doesn’t matter what a piece of paper somewhere says, they can do anything to you that they want to do to you — and they do. How many stories have there been in just the past 10 years about people being tortured into making false confessions?

Really, what it all comes down to, the core problem is politics. The judicial system in America is driven by politics. People have this idea that these judges, prosecutors, and attorney generals have these positions because they somehow earned them, because they’re moral people. The reality is they’re politicians, just like senators, just like congressman. Their number one priority is winning that next election.

Jackson: It is pretty simple, really, because you ask a question of how or why this could happen — and you see you do have a small town police force and justice system. You have the public, who are horrified, outraged, terrified by the killings, and you have the satanic issue that you throw into that, and suddenly the Devil is involved somehow, and it works up a fervor, it’s kind of like a terror. You have people terrified about who is going to die next, who the next child would be, or the next three kids. You have a small town police force with individuals in it who are not really smart, who are not really bright. The concept of it possibly being a stepfather — which the majority of child crimes are committed by a stepparent, it’s a horrible thing, but it’s the truth — they weren’t even smart enough to have that thought.

They were floundering around; the public was putting pressure on them. If they don’t solve this case they would be seen as failures, so they do the classic thing in these sorts of cases: they create the case against these people. They look at these three guys and almost write a script around these three guys about how these things occurred, and then only have interest in fulfilling that script. Any bit of information — like [the fact that] Jesse [Misskelley, Jr.] wasn’t even in town that night, he was at a wrestling match with 14 friends, and he signed a book at the wrestling match, so he wasn’t even there when the murders happened — that sort of information doesn’t work for the scripts, so it gets shoved to one side and suppressed.

As a New Zealander, I do agree with Damien — you know, [New Zealand’s] justice system is not based on elected officials. The Queen, in theory, appoints the judges and the legal system based purely on skill, and if you’re not very good, or seem corrupt, or lack a certain skill, you’re going to be fired — they manage it very strictly. I’d like to think, while [New Zealand’s] justice system makes mistakes, it kind of operates in a more fair way. When you’ve got any system where the people involved — whether they’re the prosecutors, or the judges, or even the police chiefs — have to have one part of their brain thinking about getting elected because it’s their career, it’s money, it’s how they pay for their mortgage and how they put their kids through school, they want to keep their salaries and their job; that’s always going to intrude on whether they’re going to do something that is popular or unpopular. It’s going to be flawed; that system has got to be flawed — even simple principles of it don’t quite work.

In Damien’s case they also see it as, “Well, if he gets off, he can sue us.” So I guess that factors in as part of it too.

Echols: Think about the fact that you’ve had in the past few years, over 300 exonerations taken place — but in the state of Arkansas, in the entire history of the state, no one on death row has ever been exonerated. They still say to this day in the briefs they send in response to our appeals, they say they have never sentenced a innocent person to prison in the state of Arkansas, and this clearly allows them to continue making those statements.

I’m curious about your time outside. I’m sure you have a lifetime backstage pass to any Metallica concert you want to go to, but I’m interested to hear about your experience with things you’ve done since being released; whether it’s a great concert or a good movie you saw, or getting used to something like an iPod?

Echols: For probably about the first three months after I got out I was in a state of extreme shock and trauma. I don’t think I realized how deep it was, and no one around me realized how deep it was until I actually started coming out of it. I still don’t do things like concerts; I’m not up to it yet, to be honest.

So what was it like when you did that public appearance with Johnny Depp?

Echols: Oh God, there was no way I could have done that without him there. I didn’t realize how huge of a thing it was going to be. We get there, and my God, people are going berserk. So having him there; somebody who has been through this on a regular basis, knows what to expect and stays calm during it — having somebody like that walk with you through it, that’s what was able to make me get though it.

He would tell me things all the time, like, “The key to this is, it’s going to be hectic, it’s going to be fast. People are going to try to force you, to push you. The faster everything around you moves, the more you have to force yourself to slow down. The more hectic everyone else gets, you have to get more and more calm. That’s the only way you’re going to be able to keep your sanity going though this.”

How much do the circumstances of your release weigh on your mind? Are you able to think of yourself as innocent?

Echols: The problem is [that] we’ve been on the road for about two and half months now. I had a book come out in September; we’ve been doing book signings and tours for that, and now we’re trying to get the word out about the documentary. So we’ve been spending a lot of time talking about this case, and to be honest, it’s fucking misery. It’s like you’re out of prison, but you’re still having to relive it, over and over and over, every single day.

At the same time, it’s a necessary evil, because if we don’t keep doing it, we’re never going to have a sense of closure. We want to be exonerated, 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. It’s not going to happen unless we let the state of Arkansas know [that] we’re not going anywhere, until you do the right thing.

You must also feel added pressure for almost being a spokesperson for all cases of wrongful convictions and so on and so forth, so I imagine you really just want to stop one day?

Echols God, yes. That’s actually one of the things I look forward to the most, when things start to calm down a little, but we do keep in mind — with this documentary, it’s not just about this case. Every single person in every single audience that sees this documentary is a potential jury member on another case, and can make sure this same thing doesn’t happen to someone else.

Who are the legal heroes in this? There are a lot of things wrong with the system, but in the midst of it all, where there moments where you saw people who were just really trying to do the right thing?

Echols: Peter, Fran, and Lorri, number one, they were the core of my legal team. Every single day, Peter and Fran were out making movies like King Kong and The Lovely Bones in the daytime, and then coming home at night exhausted and still spending hours every night, working on this case. They would say, “Someone needs to go talk to this witness; someone needs to gather this evidence and take it to see what this forensic expert says about it.” When Peter, Fran, and Lorri starting working on this case, [it] was the first time I had hope. I had really bad experiences with a lot of attorneys over the years; we probably had 15 attorneys. We had attorneys who would steal money from us and then never even return phone calls. At the end we had Steve Braga, Patrick Benca, Dennis Riordan; those were the ones in the end who got me out.

Why do you feel there’s so much incompetence in the system? I mean, 15 lawyers? That speaks to an epidemic.

Echols: A lot of it is politics; a lot of it is greed.

Jackson: I think you’re fine if the lawyers steal your money, as long as they get you out. These guys were stupid. I’m sorry, just going through this experience and realizing how much they could have achieved at the time. We were trying to get blood samples off the floor of a car…and it was possibly the blood from these little boys, but it was too degraded to get identified. Three or four months after the murders, it would have been great to check the floor of that car. These guys were idiots — they had so many opportunities to solve this case very easily. It was so obviously not these guys, and yet they were too stupid to actually prove that in court.

You’ve written a book, you have an art show coming up — what are your plans? Do you want to do more writing?

Echols: I want keep writing — I actually started another book already. But the main thing, when I was in prison there was almost no medical care on death row. They don’t spend a lot of time and energy taking care of someone they plan on killing. There were times I would get really, really sick and was in extreme amounts of pain, and the only thing I had that would help me get through it were things like Reiki and Qigong; you know, energy work and meditation. It’s become [something] I’m extremely passionate about; it’s what I find joy in. So that’s what I’d like to do in the future. We live in Salem, Massachusetts now, and I’d like to have a small meditation center there, to share these things with people who want to learn about them and care about them — for people who don’t feel like they have anything else, so they have something they can rely on, or depend on.

What is the focus of your book that you’re working on?

Echols: Lorri and I are actually talking about maybe doing one about our letters and stuff from the past. We haven’t come to a conclusion about it yet, but maybe that. What I’ve been writing about are things that I’ve done in the past year, since I’ve been out. It was crazy, when we first got out, after a month we went to New Zealand and Peter tried to make me make up for 18 years of lost time in a month. In a single week we’re going paragliding, and going on helicopter rides into active volcanoes. So I was thinking about just writing a lot of stuff about that.

Is there any hope for other people also going through this type of situation? If they don’t have Peter Jackson, what are they to do?

Echols: I honestly don’t know.

Jackson: It’s a very good question; at the end of the day, for all the bad luck these guys had — and it was some terrible luck — they were the luckiest guys in the world to have the first documentary made about them that saved them. It’s unfortunate because I’m sure there are many, many cases like this that don’t get the media attention, and don’t get the celebrity attention. What can you do? It’s impossible to even know where to start really.

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