DAMIEN ECHOLS, LORRI DAVIS, And AMY BERG Talk WEST OF MEMPHIS
On June 3rd, 1993, three teenagers from West Memphis, Arkansas were arrested for the murders of three eight year old boys. Despite their innocence, and a complete lack of evidence, Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley became targets for the police investigation, and eventually convicted for the brutal slayings of Christopher Byers, Steven Branch and Michael Moore.
18 years later, Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley were finally released from prison. With his newly found freedom, Damien Echols (along with his wife Lorri Davis and supporters of the West Memphis Three) is determined to find the person behind the murders, and finally gain closure. Recently, at a small press conference in Beverly Hills, California, WAMG got the chance to speak with Damien Echols, his wife Lorri Davis, and Director Amy Berg about their new documentary that follows Damien’s fight to save his own life, and their search for the truth. You can read the complete transcript below.
A new documentary written and directed by Academy Award nominated filmmaker, Amy Berg (DELIVER US FROM EVIL) and produced by first-time filmmakers Damien Echols and Lorri Davis, in collaboration with the multiple Academy Award-winning team of Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, WEST OF MEMPHIS tells the untold story behind an extraordinary and desperate fight to bring the truth to light; a fight to stop the State of Arkansas from killing an innocent man. Starting with a searing examination of the police investigation into the 1993 murders of three, eight year old boys Christopher Byers, Steven Branch and Michael Moore in the small town of West Memphis, Arkansas, the film goes on to uncover new evidence surrounding the arrest and conviction of the other three victims of this shocking crime – Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley. All three were teenagers when they became the target of the police investigation; all three went on to lose 18 years of their lives – imprisoned for crimes they did not commit.
How the documentary came to be, is in itself a key part of the story of Damien Echols’ fight to save his own life. The film reveals how close he, his wife Lorri Davis, along with his legal team, friends and supporters, came to losing that battle. But as Echols, who spent eighteen years on death row, himself has stated “… in the face of such horror, in the face of resounding grief and pain, you cannot give up … you must never give up.”
Amy, what made you decide to film this?
Amy: There was a huge injustice. I mean, this case represents one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in history. There was a man on death row, and I needed to do something.
Damien, you probably made a bit of history by being the first film producer who’s been on death row.
Damien: (Laughs) I didn’t think of that.
I was curious about Terry Hobbs and David Jacoby. Are you convinced that they are the actual killer?
Damien: 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, but it should be the evidence. The evidence should be heard, and it should be what points the finger. When they sent us to prison, they never had any physical evidence connecting us to this crime. They now have ten-thousand times more connecting this man to the crime than they ever had on us, but we can’t even get the prosecutor to call a grand jury.
Will you continue to fight?
Damien: We don’t have a choice. The state of Arkansas is not going to do anything. Anything that’s done in this case from here on out, the burden will rest entirely upon us. That’s why we’re doing this now, here, talking about this. This isn’t fun. This is actually pretty damn miserable most of the time. Talking about the worst thing that’s 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. It’s a necessary evil. If we want to be exonerated, if we want the person in prison who belongs in prison, and if we want the person who did this held responsible… then we have to keep doing this. We have to let the state of Arkansas know “We’re not going anywhere until you do the right thing.”
Lorri, when you quit your job, how tough was that? You had to have something still coming in while you were dealing with all of this… while making those long distance phone calls, obviously. Talk about the stress of going through all of that.
Lorri: Actually, having a relationship with someone in prison is an extremely expensive relationship. Phone calls are very expensive. Traveling to the prison is expensive. I think that’s one of the things people forget is that people who are incarcerated, most of the time, are cut off from their families because their families don’t have the means to keep in touch with them. Luckily I did. I was able to support myself. Most of the time I worked two full-time jobs; The case and my profession.
Lorri (Cont.): There were times when the case load would get too big, and I was hired by Fran and Pete at one point to help them coordinate their efforts. Then, at another time, the defense firm hired me, within the last year, because the work load was just too daunting to do it without actually doing it full-time. So, that’s stressful because you do have to worry about it. I was living very sparsely, for many years, to make sure I could balance it all. It is stressful. The phone calls are expensive. The most important thing for Damien and I was to keep our correspondence going at all times whether it be letters, visitation, or talking on the phone. My phone bills, just for the two of us, could be $500 a month. So, it’s expensive.
For Lorri and Damien, what gave you strength… I’m always curious, during times of crisis… What gave you strength to carry on during the whole process, and has that changed, now?
Damien: It was, really the two things that held us together, and that kept us going through, was number one, our relationship, and number two, our spiritual practice. It was something that we could both do together, at the same time. It keeps you from getting angry. It keeps you from getting bitter, whenever you have something to focus on like that. Not to mention, when you’re in prison there’s almost no medical care on death row. They’re not going spend a lot of time, and money, and energy taking care of somebody they plan on killing. There were times when I would get extremely sick, or be in excruciating pain, and I had to learn things like reiki and qigong just to keep myself going. A lot of time and energy went to that, and we would do these things together. We didn’t have the things that most people have to rely on. We couldn’t go to the movies together, or go out to dinner together, or sleep in the same bed at night, so we had to focus on the things that we did have to keep from becoming bitter about the things we didn’t.
Damien, you were imprisoned for such a long time that, as miserable as it was, you had a routine. What was the hardest part of transitioning out of prison and back into society?
Damien: Human interaction, definitely. Not only had I been in prison for 18 years, I’d been in solitary confinement for almost a decade on the day that I walked out. I wasn’t use to interacting with people, at all. I mean, there are no words to begin to articulate how overwhelming something like that is. For the first two to three months that I was out I was in a state of extreme shock and trauma, just from coming out into the world again. Most people don’t understand that. They just think you’re going to be happy and 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. So, that was a huge thing. There’s all sorts of things. You know, the list could go on forever. I hadn’t walked anywhere without chains on my feet for almost 20 years, so it’s almost like you have to learn to walk again. You’re constantly tripping over your own feet, or down stairs. You don’t use silverware in prison. That would be considered a weapon. You have to learn that again. On top of that, you’ve got all this new stuff: Computers, and cell phones, and ATM machines. It can be panic inducing in the beginning.
Amy, what was most important for you when it came to relaying what Damien was going through. What was that like for you?
Amy: It’s hard to describe that. He was on death row, and he was fighting to stay alive, and fighting to stay away from all the evil that he was surrounded with everyday. For me, it was just important to capture Damien’s view of Arkansas, and also investigate the case further.
Amy, going back to something you said at the very beginning… about wanting to do something about it… I think it begs the question: what the role of art is? Whether it’s a piece of cinema, or somebody’s writing, what is the role of that in modern discourse today? Especially, as Damien was mentioning, he came out to a world where there’s a different communication going on. Do you make the film hoping it will make a difference, or are you just putting the information out there all you can hope for?
Amy: No, I needed to feel like I could make a difference before I could start making the film. I feel like that is something that I put into it every day. The more you’re going into something like that, with that intention, you’re focused on that. That’s how this story kept getting deeper, and stronger, and multi-layered, I think.
Did anybody down there give you obstruction? Did you feel like people were watching you while you were down there trying to film?
Amy: In West Memphis you definitely get the sense… The West Memphis police department kind of shows up whenever there’s a camera around, so I definitely felt like they were watching. I didn’t feel that restricted by anything. I just kept doing what I was doing, all the time.
Damien, you were talking about how difficult it is having to re-live this, but one of the issues that the film raised, in my mind at least, is the question: What lead them to you three in the first place? It didn’t seem as though there was a hell of a lot of investigating that went on. Were you just juicy targets, or is this the way police work is done in West Memphis?
Damien: That’s exactly what it was. It’s sort of become common knowledge, now, that the reason they focused on us was because we didn’t fit in a really small, hardcore, fundamentalist town. But the story actually goes back a couple of years before these murders ever even happened. There use 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.” Eventually, one of them was forced to give his resignation after he was caught molesting a teenage boy. Another one went to prison in Florida after he was caught stealing from the police department . These guys had made my life a living hell for almost two years before the murders ever even happened, so as soon as the murders happened, these guys go straight to the West Memphis police department and said “We think we got your guy right over here. This is the one you need to look at.” So, that’s sort of what directed the investigation on us in the first place.
You interviewed Pamela Hobbs and the Byers family, who no longer believe that the West Memphis Three are guilty of the crimes, but there are no interviews with Steve Branch, or the Moore parents who do consider the West Memphis Three guilty. Did you try to get interviews with them?
Amy: You’re talking about Steve Branch, Sr. He literally gave up the rights to his child before Pam even married Terry, and we spoke to Terry at length. We spoke to Pam at length. The Moore’s refused our interview request. They believe that these guys did it, and they still talk about Jessie’s confession. That’s, kind of, their whole case. We did try to talk to both of them, but we were refused.
Do you think there’s a reason that some people are still insistent that the West Memphis Three are guilty, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary?
Amy: Nobody wants to admit a mistake. It’s just a permeating theme in this story. Nobody wants to say ” I made a mistake.”
Isn’t it also money? If they admitted they made a mistake, if they put somebody else in prison for that murder, they would suddenly be liable in a court of law.
Amy: We were more talking about the parents, but on the state’s behalf, that is 100% of the motive, right there.
But isn’t there an aspect of the legal system where once they’ve reached a verdict, end of case. “That’s it. It doesn’t matter what you present, we’ve made our decision.” Is it something unique to Arkansas that you’ve encountered, or is there something, perhaps, nationwide, that we have to look at in terms of reopening cases?
Damien: It’s politics. People think that these people involved in the case… these judges, attorney general’s, these prosecutors… that they have these jobs because they’re somehow moral people who deserve these positions. In reality, they’re politicians. They’re elected just like senators, just like congressmen. They will do and say whatever they have to in order to win the next election. They know if they come out and admit that they sentenced an innocent person to death, while allowing a murderer to walk to streets for almost 20 years, they’re not going to win that next election. They know if they have to come out and admit that they made a mistake, and open the state up to a lawsuit for what they did to us, they’re not going to win that next election. To them, that is the first and foremost priority. Justice will always take a backseat to politics.
Damien, what are your plans for the future?
Damien: Once this is all over, and we’re not talking about the case anymore on a daily basis, and we can finally move on, and have some sense of closure… Long term goals, what I would like to do… I’d like to keep writing, first and foremost. I’ve loved writing ever since I was a kid. I’d also like to have a small meditation center in the town where we live, where we could share the same things with people that we had to learn while I was in prison. The things that helped us through difficult times. I’d like to share that with people who feel like they don’t have anywhere to turn, or need something to help them get through hardships. Something completely and absolutely unassociated with the case. That is where my passion lies. That’s what I enjoy doing.
What was your reaction when you found out about the growing support in the community that were determined to prove your innocence, or to at least get you a fair trial? I mean, you’ve got people like Johnny Depp, and Eddie Vedder campaigning for your rights. When you first found out that there was a growing support unit, what was your reaction?
Damien: It’s odd, you know. It wasn’t an “all at one time” thing, it was sort of a gradual process, but 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, or anything like that, so a lot of my information came from Lorri. I would call her in the morning, and she would tell me what was going on, and who was doing what. At the same time, when you hang the phone up, that’s a million miles away. That’s in another world. You’re going right back just fighting to survive another day in prison. You hear it, and it gives you a little bit of heart, or hope, but, at the same time, that’s something going on in another world.
To follow-up on that, Lorri… I think we’re use to stories, or at least accusations that Hollywood, and celebrities find a “cause of the week”, and they sign their name, or they make an appearance and that’s it. You were able to keep them involved. Was that a struggle? How did you maintain that link, and keep them involved and up to date on what was happening?
Lorri: It wasn’t a struggle at all, I think, because the people who were interested in our case were people who saw themselves somewhat in Damien, or the other two, that it could have been them. So, they took it to heart, and they took it personally. Yes, we did have correspondences that stand some 12 or 14 years with some of them, but I have to say that everyone… Henry Rollins, Natalie Maines, Johnny Depp, Eddie Vedder, Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and there were many more, all of them 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. The fact that Johnny Depp did ’48 Hours’ is just… it’s not easy for him. He doesn’t like to do interviews and he did it for us, and it was very helpful. That support… they became our friends, and still are very good friends.
Damien, we talked about this a bit earlier, but what don’t you get when you’re on death row? What is that like?
Damien: You don’t get much of anything. I didn’t see sunlight for almost ten years. It’s part of what destroyed my vision. The food is so bad, I don’t think most people can even comprehend what it’s like. The things that most people take for granted like salt, pepper, butter, sugar, cheese… There’s none of that in prison. Whenever they give you noodles, it’s just plain white noodles that have been boiled until it’s just mush, or plain white rice that’s been boiled until it’s just mush, or grits that have been boiled until it’s just mush. So, you’re eating that, you’re trapped in this tiny space where you never get any exercise, and the next thing you know people are getting legs chopped off, and they’re going blind, and everything else because they have diabetes. It’s horrendous. And then, you add to that no sunlight, no fresh air, and stress… the stress they put you under. Not only are you living with this death sentence, or, in my case, three death sentences, hanging over your head, but you’ve got people who come in there and just try to hurt you on a daily basis. You never, ever get to rest. Even when you sleep, you only go halfway to sleep. There were times… t’s taken me forever to get out of this habit since I’ve been out… There were times in prison where you hear a noise in the middle of the night, and you are literally up on your feet, in the middle of the cell, ready to fight before your eyes are even awake and you know what’s going on. For eighteen years… it gets engrained in you so deep that it’s more than reflex. Whenever I first got out, you know, of course it scared the hell out of Lorri at night when something like that would happen, and I would have that reaction. But you never get to rest. You’re always sleep deprived. At the most, technically you’re allowed four hours of sleep a night, from 10:30p.m. to 2:30 a.m., because they want to get as much slave labor out of people as possible. So, if they get everybody up at 2:30 a.m. they can have you in the fields working by 5 o’clock. I didn’t have to go to work because I was on death row, but I still had to follow the same schedule that everyone else did. It crushes you. It destroys you in every way.
What was the most rewarding part about being a part of this documentary?
Damien: I think, for me, and maybe if I’m speaking for Lorri too, I guess for us, it was being able to participate in our own story for the first time. There had been things in the past, there had been other documentaries, books, TV shows, whatever it was, but it was all someone else’s project… someone else’s vision. This was the very first time that we got to have input into our own story. So, it made us capable of opening up more in a way that we weren’t with anyone else. We never would have let anyone else… the other documentary crews, or TV crews, or anyone else into our personal lives the way we did with Amy… reading our letters, our phone calls, things like that… because we were always wary of it becoming this sensational freak show of people taking advantage of it. We just weren’t going to allow that to happen. The fact that we were allowed to relax a little more, and show more of our personal life… that was kind of rewarding.
Damien, you mentioned that you got up at 2:30 in the morning. What happens? Do the lights come on? You’re not going out to the fields, so why are you awake?
Damien: They come around and beat on the door with a steel bar, and give you your breakfast. Then they come back thirty minutes later and pick the breakfast up. Everybody else, at that point, gets lined up and taken outside to work in the field. On death row, you just sort of sit there looking crazy. Where I was, you’re sealed in a concrete box 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The only time I was ever even brought out was once a week when I was allowed to see Lorri. So, you have to sort of make your own schedule in there. There’s nothing to base anything on. Christmas day is the same as the 4th of July. Noon is the same as midnight. You have to structure your own life. Most people in there don’t. You have a lot of people who aren’t capable of it. Some people, they just give up as soon as they come in, and just sit there and wait to die. But, if you want to move forward, if you want any sort of momentum to develop as a person, to not just stop… and start stagnating, the moment you walk in the door you have to develop some sort of routine for yourself. You can either turn your cell into a monastery, or you can sit there, and go insane, and wait for them to kill you.
Amy, what sort of challenge was it to film in the prison? From what Damien is describing it seems as though that’s not the scene that they would like to have publicized in terms of how people were having to live.
Amy: Yeah. You’re just reminding me of a really strange experience we had at the prison one time. We were shooting some B-roll, and we were actually dropping Damien’s attorney off at the prison. We had actually dropped him off and we were going to go shoot around the prison. There are no signs that say you can’t go to the first row of parking, and we went up there to turn around. The next thing you know we were surrounded by prison guard vehicles on both sides, and they were so rough with us. Do you remember when this happened? They took all of our licenses, and turned them into the Arkansas state police, and said we could never come back into the prison. It was this crazy moment. They had no markings anywhere. We didn’t know we broke any laws. It was the same guy, the assistant warden, that had actually beat you up…
Damien: She’s talking about a guy that had started out as a prison guard in another unit, and beat an inmate so bad that he lost and eye. Whenever news reporters wrote a few stories on it , the prison system said :We gotta 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. That’s who she’s talking about.
Amy: There were some other interesting stories. When we did film Damien the first time one of the prison guards went to the kitchen and he got the biggest plate of food that I’ve ever seen in my life, and he just parked himself. It was literally, like, dumplings, and sauce, and biscuits and gravy, and meat, and he was just sitting there, watching us do this interview, just eating off this plate. Behind Damien, the other guards are trying to get into this shot, so their making all of this loud noise, and saying they’re going to be discovered by Hollywood. It was just this crazy juxtaposition. Those are just, kind of, ancillary tales while filming.
Were there any scenes that were shot that were not included in the final film?
Amy: I shot, I think this will be on the DVD, a series of scenes that were reenactment scenes from Damien’s journals, that I really enjoyed doing. I was just trying to capture his perspective of life at the time. There was a really great scene that was just too long to put in the film… Vicki Hutcheson’s son Aaron was friends with the boys who were murdered, and the police interrogation, and the prosecutor interrogation of Aaron Hutcheson was unbelievable footage, where they were trying to get him to tell them what happened. He wasn’t there. He clearly wasn’t there. They do this over a series of months, and we’re going to put that on the DVD as well. It’s kind of an amazing scene showing just how far the police would go to get what they wanted.
If you’d like to believe that it (the film) can bring about change… sometimes it’s the (type of) change that might take a generation… Have you ever given any thought to, if you decided to have a family, how you will explain to them, someday, what you went through, and what happened? I know you’ll have this film, and the other documentaries to look at, but this is their parents that went through it. How can you get another generation to understand that you have to change things?
Damien: I have no idea. (Laughs) I’m not even thinking down the road though, to future generations, I think right here, right now, to us… I think one of the things we keep in mind is that 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 same thing doesn’t happen to someone else in the future. it’s not even generations down the road, it’s right here and now that people can make a difference. It all depends on how many people it reaches.
Lorri: Well, and I think the style of documentary we decided to make also… I mean, it was one of the reasons that Damien and I felt comfortable participating in this documentary, is it was the investigation. It’s not a documentary that the cameras just run, and captures what happens. This is a different style. We wanted to film our investigation. I think we captured just about everything that can go wrong in a case. In a way it’s textbook, but more people would be apt to watch a film to read the textbook about how everything goes wrong. So, I think that’s what our film does.
Amy: It ultimately did become more of a vérité style film just as the investigation was developing over time. Things that we just started as an interview, ended up becoming things that we were chasing. I think we kind of mixed the two.
Did the state of Arkansas even look at anyone else that could have done this, or was this solely on Damien and the other two?
Damien: They focused on us from the very beginning. The guy you see in the film, Steve Jones, the cop that’s leading Amy around and telling her stuff, he was actually at the crime scene whenever they pulled the bodies from the water, and his very first words were “Damien Echols finally killed someone.” Before they had even gotten the bodies out of the water, he’s already bringing my name up. Terry Hobbs was not even interviewed until years, and years after the murders happened. You know, that’s sort of common knowledge. The first thing you look at is the families. Those are the first people you question. They didn’t even talk to him for over a decade after these kids have been dead.
It’s apparent that West Memphis didn’t handle things in a correct manner, especially as the case progressed. As your story has become public… has it even put in dent on how they handle things? Has it affected West Memphis?
Damien: At the time we were arrested, the West Memphis police department was under investigation by the FBI. They have a long history of abuse and corruption, and nothing has changed there, whatsoever.
Lorri: A lot of the same people still work there. Even while we were filming, a child was shot by the cops. It made world-wide news. That also was never… they never have to account for anything they do.
Damien: They shot a 12-year-old kid that was carrying a bag of chips. They said they thought he had a gun.
Amy, what went into your decision to have Nick Cave and Warren Ellis compose the scoring of the film, and did they have previous familiarity with the case?
Amy: I have had a relationship with the two of them for years, and we actually tried to collaborate on a film before this. I think that they are, just, the best at what they do. They felt extremely close to the story, and they saw dailies, and they were involved in the conceptualizing of the music from very early on in the filmmaking process. It’s a really great collaboration.
There have been three documentaries, and the third PARADISE LOST kind of overlapped with your documentary. How did Joe (Berlinger) and Bruce Sinofsky feel about you making a documentary about the West Memphis Three? What was your working relationship with them on this subject?
Amy: We didn’t really have a working relationship. When I started going down there, it was before they had really gotten into PARADISE LOST 3 : PURGATORY, and I only saw them two times when I was down there. We were doing something very different, and I spoke to Joe early on, and they weren’t even sure if they were going to make a film at the time. So, it just happened that events started picking up, and, of course, if you’re documenting this story there would be a bit of overlap. I’ve seen their film, and I think our film is a very different film.
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