I've met people who have spent some amount of time in prison over the years, but I'm fairly certain I've never met anyone who was on Death Row before. But in 1993, Damien Echols and two friends were arrested for crimes they did not commit. Three young boys were brutally murdered in West Memphis, Arkansas, and while the real killer remained free, the local justice system put up a flimsy case at best that got these three kids essentially locked up for liking heavy metal music and dressing the wrong way.
The three young men, collectively known as the West Memphis 3 became the center of a series of three documentaries PARADISE LOST, the most recent of which PARADISE LOST: PURGATORY was released in 2011, just as a long-running private investigation (chronicled in the new documentary WEST OF MEMPHIS) generated enough new evidence (including an alternative suspect) and debunked much of the old evidence and testimony to get the West Memphis 3 released from jail without having to overturn their convictions after 18 years in prison.
What's remarkable about the case is the level of high-profile celebrities and legal minds it was able to get behind its cause of freeing these three men. Among the financial backers of the new investigation were filmmakers Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, who put forth a plan of action in 2005. Even if you've seen the three PARADISE LOST films, WEST OF MEMPHIS is absolutely gripping stuff, especially when it comes to presenting the new evidence and massive inconsistencies and falsehoods that were contained in the original trial.
Just after the new got out that the three men were being released (a little over a year ago), our Quint happened to be in New Zealand when Echols and his wife Lorri Davis (both of whom are producers on the film, directed by Amy Berg) were visiting Jackson and Walsh while shooting THE HOBBIT films. Davis was an architect who heard about the case in 1996 and became romantically involved with Echols over a two-year period. The film premiered at Sundance 2012, and it is now just being released on a wider scale after unfathomably being left off Oscar's short list for Best Documentary Feature. But late last year, I got a chance to sit down with Echols and Davis who had been relentlessly touring with the film at festivals and in advance of its qualifying run.
I honestly don't know what I expected Echols to be like. You immediately notice the tattoos on his arms (including some that apparently he and friend Johnny Depp got that match), he's let his hair get longer again, but there's no getting around that he's a sweet, sensitive man who still feels the pain of those lost years, which were preceded by years of feeling like an outsider to begin with. At one point during our talk, he began to tear up, more out of frustration than sadness.
Echols is still adjusting to the world around him, one that is so different than the one he left nearly 20 years ago, that he sometimes finds it tough to leave the house he shares with Davis in Massachusetts (I'll let him tell you exactly where). Sometimes you conduct an interview, and sometimes you get pulled into it. Them having met and liking Quint in 2011 most definitely helped break the ice, and I'm grateful for that. So forget what the Academy Awards tells you--WEST OF MEMPHIS is a documentary like few others I've seen, and that includes the PARADISE LOST films. Enjoy my talk with Damien Echols and Lorri Davis.
Damien Echols: Hi.
Capone: I’s good to meet you. I’m Steve. It’s good to meet you, Lorri.
Lorri Davis: Hi. It’s nice to meet you.
Capone: Since the film premiered at Sundance, what have you guys been doing for the last year year?
DE: We’ve been on the road a lot. We’ve been on the road for really like two-and-a-half months straight now, and it’s probably going to be that way all the way up until the end of December. The book came out, so we were doing the book tour and book signings. We’ve started doing speaking engagements now at college campuses and things like that, and now we're also moving directly into the WEST OF MEMPHIS promotion.
LD: And then we were in New Zealand for a couple of months.
DE: We spent three months in New Zealand.
LD: Three, yeah.
DE: Working on the movie.
LD: Yeah, and we went down for the premiere in Wellington and Auckland.
DE: We did the film festival there.
LD: Lot’s of traveling, and then also trying to actually build a life and get a home.
DE: We finally got a house about two months ago, and we don’t really get to stay there. (Laughs)
Capone: Can I ask where?
DE: Salem, Massachusetts.
Capone: Oaky, so about as far away from where you were as possible? I was watching online the other day THE HOBBIT premiere in New Zealand, and I thought, “That’s too bad you guys didn’t get to go to that.”
LD: I know. It would have been great, yeah.
Capone: But duty calls, I understand. Why do you think this particular case initially got so much attention? Why did the PARADISE LOST filmmakers want to make their movie about this case?
DE: Originally, it was the sensationalism. They said that the way they found out about the case was a tiny article in The New York Times that said something like “Teenage Satanists Commit Human Sacrifice” or something like that. So they actually loaded up their cameras and headed to Arkansas thinking that’s what they were going to catch on film, that that was the trial they were going to get. Once the trial started, and they saw what was going on, they realized "That’s not what we’ve got here at all." But originally, the very first thing that drew their attention to it was the sensationalism that the prosecutors themselves were stirring up the whole time when we would go to trial.
It kind of backfired on them in a way. We were in jail for almost a whole year before we would go to trial, and the whole time you’ve got the big newspaper in the area, The Commercial Appeal, constantly putting out stories about human sacrifices and satanic orgies and all of this sort of stuff. So by the time we finally walked into the court room the public viewed our trial as nothing more than a formality they had to get through in order to sentence me to death and the other two guys to life in prison.
Capone: I know you’ve said before that Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky with the PARADISE LOST films pretty much saved everybody’s lives in the end. With WEST OF MEMPHIS, what were you both trying to accomplish with this film that maybe the other three films had not?
LD: At the time we started making this, they hadn’t even started on three yet. They had made two, but it had been like 10 or 11 years since it came out, and nothing was going on with the case. There were no documentaries being made, there were no TV shows. We were sort of dead in the water. Nothing was going on. Peter and Fran worked on this case every single day. The film was sort of a side effect of what happened. Every single day, they were saying, “Somebody needs to go talk to this witness. We need to gather this evidence and take it to this expert to look at and get their opinion on it.” They were elbow deep in it every day.
So then when we finally did come up with the DNA evidence and the new eyewitnesses and everything else, Burnet, the judge that sentenced me to death, refused to hear it. He said, “It doesn’t matter. This case is closed. It’s over. I’m not even going to hear this.” So Peter said, “If he refuses to hear it in court, then let’s get it out to the public. Let’s let the public see what it is he is covering up. Let’s make a documentary.” So that’s what we started doing. So now when you sit down and watch this documentary, basically what you are watching is the case we would have presented had we went to court.
Capone: The emphasis is pretty much on everything that happened once Peter and that group got involved. But I’m curious in terms of timelines, when did the third PARADISE LOST jump into production, and why did they jump back in?
DE: What happened was first they came up with this idea. They said, “Let’s do a 30-minute update show. It'll be on HBO. It will just be a really short segment showing where the case is right now.” A “Where are they now?” sort of thing, and it’d last for half an hour. Then when we started on WEST OF MEMPHIS, that’s when part three went into full swing…
Capone: I was about to say, “I know it’s not half an hour.”
DE: Yeah. I think it’s the weakest by far of the series, just when I think of part three. It seems to me what it is is parts one and two stitched together.
Capone: It’s a lot of rehash, you're right.
DE: I think maybe in a way they felt kind of threatened by this or like we were…
Capone I can imagine they might, yeah. But your film nicely boils down the beginnings of this.
DE: They sort of looked at it like this was their project, whereas I look at it as “This is my life. This is my story." You’ve got the documentaries, you’ve got other people’s books, other people’s magazine articles, other people’s newspaper articles, other people’s TV shows, and that’s exactly what it is: “Other people’s projects.” This is the very first time that we’ve ever gotten a chance to have input into our own story.
LD: And I think the important thing is that the PARADISE LOST films played a huge roll in getting the story out and essentially became a part of the story and even a part of our film.
DE: Because it became so interwoven into the whole tapestry of the case.
LD: It’s just their style of filmmaking wouldn’t have served what we wanted to do with this film, because they're not really investigative journalists.
LD: So when it came down to figuring out who we were going to work with, that’s what we were looking for, and Amy Berg… When we saw DELVIER US FROM EVIL, we were just like “Wow.” Her style and her background was working for CNN and CBS News, and so it was just a different type of filmmaking.
DE: Plus we also had a different type of relationship with her.
LD: Yeah, and with Fran and Pete, too.
DE: That’s what made us trust in her. We had never opened ourselves up before and let somebody into our personal lives that way, like with our letters and our phone calls and everything else, just because there was nobody we trusted that much, whoever it was. The PARADISE LOST filmmakers or anybody else, we were always very protective of that, because it could so easily be turned into some sort of sensationalistic thing, and we didn’t want that. We didn’t want our relationship and our life together subjected to something like that. So we trusted Fran and Peter. They had already been with us for years by that point. We had already grown to love them. Amy, once we met her, she grew on us in the same way, and we just opened up in a way that we never would have with anybody else.
Capone: There’s one thing I wanted to ask you, Damien, for years now. After seeing all of these films over the years, I think there's an identical shot in this film as there was in the first PARADISE LOST of you in the back of, I assume, police car looking out the back and smiling… How old were you then?
DE: Eighteen or nineteen.
Capone: Okay, so you were still basically a kid, and there’s a part of me that always thought that at the time you never thought it would go as far as it did, and it hadn’t phased you how serious what was about to happen.
DE: Oh, I didn't. And so much of it is taken out of context. Do you know what that scene actually is? Me looking back at my family. I’m smiling at my family trying to reassure them that I’m okay. That’s who I was looking at. That’s why I’m smiling.
Capone: In both films, they almost make it seem like it’s this creepy kid who’s laughing at everybody. That’s kind of what it looks like and I was wondering if there was a part of you at that time in your life that was playing into this identity that had been assigned to you by the police and the media.
DE: That’s probably what it looks like to most people from the outside, but in actuality what is was more of is…[long pause] you know, I had my entire world destroyed, my entire life ripped apart. By the time you see me in trial, I’ve already been in jail for a year. It devastates you to go through this on every level of your being, physical, mental, emotional, spiritual. It’s like being torn apart inside. Doing something like that is almost like a defense mechanism in a way. You’re so in shock and you’re so in trauma that you’re just acting defensively trying to do whatever you can do to get through it, trying to almost like put on a suit of armor in order to survive it.
Capone: Was it about keeping people at a distance? Was it about being a little off-putting just to keep people from seeing how scared you were?
DE: That’s exactly what it is. It’s like no matter how bad they hurt you, no matter what they do to you, you’re still going to look at them and say, “Fuck you.” [laughs] That’s really what it comes down to.
Capone: Once you got out, like in these last couple of years, what has been the toughest thing to get used to?
DE: Everything. Really for the first two to three months that I was out, I was in a state of complete and utter shock. I couldn’t do anything for myself, couldn’t do anything by myself. I needed someone with me at all times. It was having to learn everything again. In other interviews, I've talked about how you basically have to learn to walk again, because I hadn’t walked for almost 20 years without chains on my feet. Anywhere I went, I had chains on my feet, so you have to learn to walk without tripping down stairs or tripping over your own feet. You don’t eat with silverware in prison, that would be considered a weapon, so you’re having to learn all of that stuff again.
But it’s the other things that people out here seem to take for granted that really, really screw you up, like filling out paperwork at the bank. You’re standing in this line, and there’s 20 people behind you, and you’re looking at this thing and you can’t make heads or tails out of what’s on this thing, and all of these people are waiting for you to hurry up and get the hell out of their way. There were times where I was actually in that situation, and I would just quit and give up and leave and go home, because I couldn’t take it.
There’s that and there’s also navigating. It’s so hard to describe, because I tell people, “You're terrified. When you first get out, you are absolutely terrified.” And people say, “What are you scared of?” The answer is,“I don’t know.” It’s like this free-floating terror that just seems to attach itself to everything. But a lot of it too was navigating. I hadn’t been anywhere in 20 years. I had been in a cell for 20 years. So when it comes time when I’ve got to go to a doctor’s appointment, you’re petrified. Or I remember when I first got an ATM card and I hadn’t used it yet, and you’re going to the grocery store. I see these things attached to the side of the conveyer belt that you’re supposed to put a card through, and to me it looks like the most fucking complicated thing I've ever seen in my life. There’s all of these different colored buttons and numbers, and which way do you slide the card through, and how do you know when to do it through. Stuff like that was really, really hard.
Capone: So it’s the more mundane things, it’s not even like the more complicated things.
Capone: I can’t even imagine.
DE: Or flying and dealing with airport security. It’s like prison guard flashbacks.
Capone: Are there things you can’t do because of the conviction? Are there things that you're still getting hung up on?
DE: We tried to go to Toronto for the film festival there, and at first they denied me, so I couldn’t come in. We had to go through hell. I think I got packed and unpacked four times the day before we went, because they are saying, “There’s a good chance you’re going. No, you’ve been denied. Okay, we think they are going to reopen the case. No, you’re not going” We had to jump through hoops. It’s just insane.
Capone: You did get to go, right?
DE: We did. Finally, the judge in the case--not the judge who sentenced me to death--but the one who let us out, he called the immigration or whatever the hell they are, the people who control that stuff, and told them “He’s not a threat. You should probably let him in,” and that’s why they let me in in the end.
Capone: Lorri, if this had been a feature film, if someone had written this, they would have had moments where you were in doubt about his innocence or that he would ever get out. But what’s interesting about this case is that the deeper into it we get and the longer it went on, the more evident it was that they were innocent. That’s not as cinematically as interesting I think, but that's life, and it’s fascinating that it progresses that way. Unlike the first PARADISE LOST, where we think that they're guilty for the first half of the movie, Amy structured a very different style of film. It doesn't seem that you were interested in telling that kind of story.
LD: We actually kind of were. I think WEST OF MEMPHIS, if you think about the first 30 minutes of that film, up until the point where you get the shot of Damien looking out of the back of the car, I think what we had in mind was to show what the community was looking at and seeing. It’s not so much we wanted them to seem guilty, we wanted everyone to see what was being fed to everyone. Then after that, it’s taking everything apart, which is what we were going to do in the hearing, take it all apart. So we did it in the form of a film.
Capone: With all of these famous names attached in terms of giving money to the investigation and doing tribute concerts and putting out tribute albums, how do you even process that?
DE: Now or back then?
Capone: Then especially.
DE: Back then, you don’t really. It’s one of those things where I would call home, and Lorri would tell me, “This person is doing this” or “This person is doing that” or “This TV show is going to do this.” You think, “Okay, that’s great.” As soon as you hang the phone up, you’re going right back to just trying to survive another day in prison. So it’s almost like something that’s going on in in another world or a million miles away. It doesn’t have a huge affect on your daily life.
LD: But it was interesting the way that it did transpire over the years, because Johnny [Depp] just called me up one day at work. I was working, and my phone rang and, “It’s Johnny Depp.” But that’s how quietly it kind of all happened, even with Eddie [Vedder] and Henry [Rollins]. Everyone contacted me. They asked, “What can we do? What’s the best thing?” And we all just started corresponding. Even Natalie [Maines of The Dixie Chicks] just emailed me one day with “What can we do?” So there was just this kind of quiet correspondence going on. It was just all the time. They would check in every week. Johnny would take a vacation, and he’d be in the hotel room calling to see what was going on--that's dedication, and then they all became friends after so long.
Capone: Even at the time when watching the footage in the courtroom when they were being let go, seeing Eddie Vedder sitting there in a gallery I was just thinking, “What world are we living in where this is what it takes to make something like this happen?”
DE: When we were in New Zealand, we all went on this big field trip this one time, and Andy Serkis who plays Gollum in [THE HOBBIT], he asked me, “Would you be interested in getting involved in some sort of organization to change the system?” I said, “No. Think about this. It took almost 20 years of my life. It took Lorri giving up her job and working full time on this case. It took Peter Jackson. It took Johnny Depp. It took Eddie Vedder. Henry Rollins. Margaret Cho. It took god knows how much money and man hours. All of this to change one case. Imagine what it would take to change the system.”
Capone: I was going to ask you something similar, if you were planning to devote your life to trying to get other people out who have been railroaded like you were.
DE: In a way, that’s how we view WEST OF MEMPHIS. It's not just about our case. Every single person who sits down and watches this movie is a potential jury member who can in the future make sure the same thing doesn’t happen to somebody else whenever they get called. For me personally, the way I look at it it's about changing people versus changing the system. Some of the people who had the biggest impact on my life while I was in prison were spiritual teachers who would come in and teach meditation, and in essence help you get ready to die when you’re on death row. They worked on us. They didn’t worry about the system; they worked on a one-on-one human basis.
Capone: You discovered Buddhism while you were in prison, correct?
DE: Over the years, I eventually received ordination in the Rinzai Zen Ordination of Japanese Buddhism. It’s the same tradition they used to train the samurai in ancient Japan, and it was one of those things that for the first two or three years of being in prison, I was pissed off. From the minute your eyes open in the morning, the only thing you’re thinking is "They have no right to do this to me. I’m not supposed to be here in the first place,” and it eats you up inside. Not only then are you in this external misery, but you’re also in an internal misery, because you’re hanging on to that stuff
There’s a quote in Buddhism that says holding on to anger like that is like drinking poison and hoping it’s going to kill the other person. It’s not going to hurt anybody but you, and I wanted to let go of that misery. I wanted to move into something else, to have at least as much comfort and peace of mind as I could, and that’s what led me to meditation in the first place.
Capone: Do you feel like at this point that you have finally achieved some sort of closure on this part of your life, or is that just never going to happen?
DE: In a vague way maybe, but also that’s the reason why we’re here doing this. For me, this is not fun. Having to talk about his case all of the time, to be honest it’s fucking misery, but we won't ever have that sense of closure if we don’t keep doing this, if we don’t let the state of Arkansas know “We’re not going anywhere until you do the right thing, until we're exonerated, the person who belongs in prison is in prison, and the people who did this to us are held responsible.” So really for us, it’s a necessary evil talking about this, asking people, “Please watch the documentary. Please read the book. Please do research on the case.” That’s what we hope will eventually bring about a sense of closer.
Capone: In the film right toward the end--I think it was around the time they were trying to see if they could get a new trial or introduce this new evidence--hat you were in a particularly bleak place, where if this didn’t work, you were just going to fall into this deep depression.
DE: It wasn’t so much a depression as it was a physical illness. They're not going to spend a lot of time and money and energy giving medical care to somebody they plan on killing. So over the years, my physical health was deteriorating very rapidly. I was losing my eye sight. I weigh 60 more pounds right now than I did when I got out of prison at this time last year. I was going downhill very quickly. I hadn’t seen sunlight in 10 years. There were times where I got so sick, I didn’t think I was going to make it through to the next morning. Whether it was due to that, due to me just laying down and never getting up the next day, or having some sort of violence against me in prison, I knew I was never going to see the outside of those walls if that deal fell through.
Capone: Not that this is a predominate concern, but is the film eligible for an Academy Award?
DE: Yeah, we’ve got our fingers crossed. It’d bring a hell of a lot more attention to it.
Capone: It would bring certainly the kind of attention you were talking about. Well good luck, and thank you for walking me through your hell. I hope it wasn't too terrible.
DE: No, not at all. Do you know Eric Vespe?
Capone: Of course. I’m going to see him next week down in Austin actually.
DE: He was in New Zealand with us.
Capone: I know, and he interviewed you. Was that in New Zealand that he interviewed you?
LD: That was in New Zealand. We like Eric.
Capone: I know that he saw the film at Sundance.
DE: We were actually in Peter’s trailer doing that interview.
Capone: Is that where it was? I actually was re-reading the interview last night, so I didn’t ask all of the same questions. But yeah I’m going down to Austin next week, so I’ll see him then.
DE: Excellent. Thank you very much.
Capone: Of course. It was great to meet you, really. Thanks.