'West of Memphis' full of real-life twists and turns

One might assume that a story already covered by a trilogy of documentaries, numerous books, countless articles and with a trail of celebrity supporters including Johnny Depp, Eddie Vedder and Natalie Maines had already earned enough attention. The young men known as the West Memphis Three — Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley — became modern-day folk heroes as the story of their imprisonment over the graphic, sensational 1993 murders of three 8-year-old boys in West Memphis, Ark., spread during their nearly two decades in jail.

For many of their supporters, it seemed their only real crime was being outsiders in a small town. The men were freed from prison in 2011 in a surprising twist that used the legally obscure Alford plea for them to plead guilty while maintaining their innocence. This set the stage for them to be released while also absolving the state from any admission of wrongdoing or misconduct.

When shooting on director Amy Berg's documentary "West of Memphis," which opens Tuesday, initially began the situation was much different. Damien Echols, alone among the three because of his age at the time of the crime, had his life hanging in the balance on death row.

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"We had no idea I was going to be out by the time everything was finished," said Echols in Beverly Hills. At the time the documentary project was undertaken, "We were sort of dead in the water, there was really nothing happening, no sort of momentum being generated at all."

When the premiere of "West of Memphis" was first announced for the Sundance Film Festival this year, the participation of Oscar-winning "The Lord of the Rings" filmmaker Peter Jackson was something of a surprise, not only as a producer on the film but also as an active participant in the defense. His behind-the-scenes role had been almost entirely unknown.

"You could say that I was hired to help get them out of prison, and I'm OK with that," said Berg near her offices in Venice. "That was really the directive that was given to me. I was totally an activist and advocate first."

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"West of Memphis" has its origins in Jackson and partner Fran Walsh watching the 1996 documentary "Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills" at their home in New Zealand more than seven years ago. They then looked up the case online and were surprised to find the West Memphis Three were still in jail. After making a donation to the defense fund, Walsh struck up a correspondence and friendship with Lorri Davis, who became Echols' wife in 1999.

"It very quickly became personal," said Jackson recently from New York, juggling duties promoting "The Hobbit" and "West of Memphis." "It very quickly stopped being about Arkansas or a miscarriage of justice, and it became about us trying to help Lorri save her husband's life. We got emotionally entangled with it; it really became something we weren't expecting it to become."

Jackson and Walsh then began financing an investigation and DNA testing to exonerate the three men, becoming a core part of Echols' defense team. When the original trial judge declined to hear the new evidence in court, the idea of a documentary entered the picture. In late 2008 Jackson and Walsh reached out to Berg, an Academy Award nominee for her documentary on sex abuse within the Catholic clergy, "Deliver Us From Evil."

"The film came out of necessity of getting the new evidence to the public," said Lorri Davis of the impulse to undertake the film project at the time that they did.

Berg initially had only a passing knowledge of the case, and after many months of her own research — watching the two then-existing "Paradise Lost" films, reading the nonfiction book "Devil's Knot," examining court materials and making her own trips to Arkansas — she agreed to undertake the project. In some ways rather than deterring her from pursuing the story, that the West Memphis Three were already well known only charged her interest.

"I really do migrate toward things that have had a lot of coverage that need the gray explored," said Berg. "You think you know everything, but there's so much more to the story."

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Berg spent more than two years traveling back and forth to Arkansas, interviewing numerous subjects who had not spoken publicly about the case before, at times even beating the defense lawyers in getting someone to talk.

"Sometimes I know that people were responding to me because there was no legal apparatus to it," she said of her role. "But the truth is after a certain point the film became part of the investigation for the case."

As for Echols and Davis, the couple recently purchased a house in, of all places, Salem, Mass. ("They learned their lesson a long time ago," Echols noted), but they have barely been there between promoting Echols' book "Life After Death" and then "West of Memphis." Echols looks forward to the day he can truly put the experience behind him and live a life not defined by being part of the West Memphis Three.

"People see you and they only see the case," he said. "They don't even want you to be a single person, they want you to be you and Jason and Jessie. It's like you're the Three Stooges or something and I'm permanently Moe for the rest of my life. And that's not what I want to be."

Legally speaking, the guilty-while-innocent twist of the Alford plea essentially shuts the door on the case. Yet Jackson holds out hope that some higher justice will prevail, with full exoneration for the West Memphis Three and the real killer found.

"We're continuing the investigation, we are uncovering new evidence all the time," said Jackson. "The story is far from finished yet. The movie is finished, but it's not about a movie anymore. And it never really was for us."

mark.olsen@latimes.com

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