‘West of Memphis’: A Documentary Trip Back to Where Justice Still Isn’t Served

After leaving Death Row, Damien Echols fights to clear his name of a wrongful conviction for the horrific murder of three boys.

Lorri Davis and Damien Echols, pictured in a scene from West of Memphis, continue to fight for justice. (Photo: Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

Dec 27, 2012· 2 MIN READ
Stephen Saito writes about movies for the L.A. Times, IFC.com and his own site, The Moveable Fest.

Just over a year after he was released from Death Row, Damien Echols is still readjusting to being back in public. That transition was made particularly surreal one afternoon in Los Angeles earlier this month. Echols sat in front of a group of reporters.

“This isn’t fun. This is actually pretty damn miserable most of the time,” the central figure of the West Memphis Three said, wearing sunglasses indoors. A decade in solitary confinement had robbed him of the ability to enjoy the California sun. “Talking about the worst thing that has ever happened to you over and over and over. It gets to the point where you feel like you don’t even have a personality anymore. People just look at you, and they see the case. But if we want any sense of closure in the future, this is what we have to do now.”

MORE: Death Row’s Damon Thibodeaux Is 300th Person Set Free by DNA

Every time Echols is compelled to talk about his case is a reminder that though he’s no longer behind bars, it’s unlikely that he, Jessie Misskelley Jr. and Jason Baldwin—the trio known as the West Memphis Three—will ever fully escape the pain and judgment of being wrongly convicted of the 1994 murders of three young boys in Arkansas. The state all but forced the three men, after spending the better part of two decades in priosn, to accept something known as an Alford plea. Taking an Alford plea, Echols, Misskelley and Baldwin admitted guilt as a condition to get out of jail but simultaneously maintained their innocence. The plea, in effect, protects the State of Arkansas against further embarrassment and prevents civil suits in the face of overwhelming evidence that the boys were railroaded for a crime they did not commit.

The new documentary West of Memphis, which opens in theaters this week, should provide all the evidence the Arkansas court system needs to prove the innocence of these three men. West of Memphis is the reason for Echols’s press conference. The movie digs deep into the case and brings forward new evidence and witnesses that darken the shadow of doubt about the guilt of the West Memphis Three to a shade of certainty.

“This documentary isn’t just about this case. Every single person who sees this documentary is a potential jury member on another case and can make sure this doesn’t happen to someone else in the future.”

The movie also documents an incredible campaign by people on the outside to seek full exoneration for the West Memphis Three. Lorri Davis is the tireless activist who eventually became Echols’s wife. Johnny Depp and Eddie Vedder used their celebrity to bring attention to the case. Thousands of regular citizens contributed their voices or their dollars to keep hope alive for the Three’s appeal. The spirit of community extends to the film itself.

“It was a momemtum-building collaboration between people who wanted justice served and the filmmakers,” says the film’s director, Amy Berg. Berg takes the unusual step of acknowledging all the people who helped by placing a giant Thank You title card just before the end credits roll.

Still, the case will linger on for all involved until Misskelley Jr., Baldwin and Echols have their names fully cleared. Echols vows to keep up that fight, though he’d like to leave the spotlight sooner than later. His long-term desire is to open up a meditation clinic with Davis, teaching the same methods that helped him get through his time in prison.

While customers would need to travel to the couple’s adopted hometown of Salem, Massachusetts, for the meditative healing, Echols hopes that West of Memphis can at least contribute something positive from the horrific experience he had to live through.

“This documentary isn’t just about this case,” says Echols. “Every single person who sees this documentary is a potential jury member on another case and can make sure this doesn’t happen to someone else in the future.”

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