In 1993, three 8-year-old boys were murdered in West Memphis, Ark. It was a horrifying, sensational crime. Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley Jr. — who’d become known as the West Memphis Three — were painted by prosecutors as devil-worshipping metalheads and convicted. Echols, then 18, was sentenced to death, while Baldwin, 16, and Misskelley, 17, got life sentences. The trial struck many as a sham, and an HBO documentary about the case, 1996’s Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, outraged and inspired celebrity supporters such as Eddie Vedder, Natalie Maines, Johnny Depp, and Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson and his partner, Fran Walsh. (Two more Paradise Lost films have since been made; the third just aired on HBO.) In 2004, Jackson and Walsh quietly began financing investigations to get the men released. Then, last August, after 18 years in prison, Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley were finally freed — but not exonerated. In exchange for their freedom, they agreed to an “Alford plea.” The upshot is that they can tell the world that they’re innocent, but the state can tell the world that they’re guilty — and never get sued for wrongful imprisonment.
Now Jackson and Walsh have produced West of Memphis, a new documentary directed by Amy Berg (Deliver Us From Evil) that will premiere at Sundance on Jan. 20. (The film does not yet have a distributor.) EW spoke with Jackson, Walsh, Berg, and Echols and his wife, Lorri Davis.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Damien, what did you think of West of Memphis?
Damien Echols: I loved it, which kind of amazed me. After you deal with anything long enough, it sort of — I don’t want to say it loses the edge — but you just reach a point where you have to let it go or it’s just going to eat you alive inside.
How does it feel to be free?
Echols: It’s still incredibly surreal in a lot of ways. I went from being trapped in a box — I mean, literally sealed inside a tomb — for almost 20 years to coming out and seeing New York City and New Zealand and doing all these different things.
Peter and Fran, what made you want to get involved in the case?
Peter Jackson: It came from watching the original Paradise Lost, which we didn’t actually see until 2004. And even though the film only covers the events around the original trial, you get the strong sense that this is not right. It makes you angry.
Fran Walsh: We thought they’d already been released.
Jackson: We just assumed that this case had finished, because we were watching it 10 years after it happened. As soon as we saw that this was still carrying on, we contacted Lorri and struck up an e-mail correspondence. We didn’t make a conscious decision to become involved or anything; it just evolved as we learned more about the case and we became friends.
It seems like you two became obsessed with this case. Is that a fair word to use?