The Hobbit Filmmaker Turns To Crime Documentary

The new documentary, West of Memphis, delves into the controversial case of three Arkansas teens who were convicted of murder in 1994. Host Michel Martin speaks with Oscar-winning filmmaker Peter Jackson and Damien Echols, one of men convicted in the case.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, we will hear from an artist who admits she hit it big by listening to her mom, who steered her to the harp. We'll hear Rashida Jolley and her harp from our performance studio. That's in just a few minutes. But first, we want to turn to the story of a terrible crime, the tragedy that followed and the mystery that remains. This might be a good place to say that the details of this might not be for everyone. Three boys, neighborhood friends, all eight years old, were murdered in West Memphis, Arkansas. Very soon thereafter, three teenagers were arrested for the crime. They became known as the West Memphis Three. Two were sentenced to long terms in prison, and Damien Echols, the reputed ringleader, to death row. Prosecutors insisted that Echols instigated the crime as part of a satanic ritual. The verdicts brought relief to the public and the families of the victims. But from the beginning many observers had doubts about the case, citing testimony that made no sense, ambiguous physical evidence, alibis that weren't explored, professionals without proper credentials. Slowly, the West Memphis Three became the focus of a campaign to establish their innocence and free them from prison. That eventually happened in 2011, but not before all three teenagers - now grown men - had all spent 18 years in prison. Their long, painful and complicated path to freedom is the focus of a new documentary. It's called "West of Memphis." A major creative force behind the film is the Oscar-winning director Peter Jackson of "Lord of the Rings" fame. Damien Echols, the member of the three who was sentenced to death, also helped to produce the film. And they are both with us now from New York. Welcome to you both. Thank you for joining us.

PETER JACKSON: Thank you for having us.

DAMIEN ECHOLS: Thank you.

MARTIN: Damien Echols, you know, it sounds like such a mundane and ridiculous question after all that you have experienced, but I think many people would like to know just how are you?

ECHOLS: I'm OK. For the first - well, actually, I'm doing much better than OK - but for the first two to three months that I was out, I was in a state of extreme shock and trauma and it took me quite a while to come out of that. You know, it's been a gradual process just adapting to life on the outside again. I've been out about a year now. And every day that goes by gets a little easier.

MARTIN: When you wake up in the morning, do you still believe that you are free?

ECHOLS: You have really odd moments sometimes. Sometimes it seems like those years when I was in prison - that's the bad dream. But then other days, you know, I'm sitting somewhere. One day, I was having lunch for a friend and all of the sudden it just hit me like a tidal wave, sitting at this restaurant. It was like, my God, I'm actually sitting at a restaurant in New York. I'm not in a prison cell anymore. So, on times like that it almost seems like being out here is the dream.

MARTIN: Peter Jackson, I think most people know that you're from New Zealand. You're certainly not from West Memphis, Arkansas. How did you become so engaged with this story?

JACKSON: Fran Walsh, my partner, and I, we watched a documentary called "Paradise Lost" about eight or nine years ago. And even at that point, it was, you know, eight or nine year had passed since the original convictions. And it's a documentary that was shot at the time of the trial. You just watch that and you get very angry and you feel that you're watching, you know, justice derailing before your eyes. And so we went on the Internet. We assumed the case would have been resolved and the guys would be out of prison and, you know, we were just interested in how it actually ended. And we were horrified to find that it wasn't. So, we got involved first by sending a donation to Damien's defense fund and then we got sort of more personally involved, funding investigative work and DNA, forensics, pathology expertise. We kind of felt that this way we could help by funding the expertise and the science that had been denied to them at the time of the trial.

MARTIN: How did this documentary come about?

JACKSON: Fran and I were involved probably three or four years without an intention of doing a film. I mean, we are obviously filmmakers but that wasn't our purpose here. It was after three or four years that we presented all the evidence that we had uncovered, which we thought was very compelling. And we had a lot of interviews with eyewitnesses and with people, a lot of sworn affidavits. And so at that point we thought, well, we have all this information. It's complex and it's detailed and who on earth is going to pay any attention to it? And we thought that idea of doing a documentary was the most compelling way we can think of to actually get this out in front of the public. And Damien was in jail. The other two guys were in jail - Jessie and Jason - and we know at some point in the future there would be a moment in time where if we got this documentary made and finished it would helpful to their case. I mean, they are out of jail, but exoneration is what we're fighting for now and, obviously, for Arkansas to reopen the case and to investigate the murder of these three little boys and convict the right person.

MARTIN: I'm going to talk about that in a minute. I just want to - exactly what it is you're talking about here, the fact is that they have not been fully exonerated. That's a complicated issue. But let me just play here a clip from the film. This is an interview with Martin Hill. He's a researcher who was involved in reexamining the case.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "WEST OF MEMPHIS")

MARTIN HILL: I think that it was essentially poisoned from the very beginning. The most basic things about the investigations - talking to the family members, getting statements from the police that evening, you know, whether they had these alibis or not - wasn't done. And it's why the case went bad.

MARTIN: Damien, I wanted to ask you, did you have a sense right away that things were going to go bad for you in this or did you feel, well, it's all going to work out?

ECHOLS: It was an odd mixture of both. You know, in the beginning, I was only 18 years old - a little more than a kid myself. My experience with the judicial system was mostly from television. And on TV, you're always innocent until proven guilty. So, part of me was still believing that, hoping for that, and it just never happened. I mean, by the time we get to trial, I had already been in jail for almost a year. So, part of you is so beaten down by that point that you've almost lost all hope and you swing wildly back and forth between those two poles the entire time you're going through this.

MARTIN: Throughout the trial, you were continually described as just evil. And I just want to play a clip of prosecutor John Fogleman talking about you. Here it is:

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "WEST OF MEMPHIS")

JOHN FOGLEMAN: You begin to see inside Damien Echols. And you look inside there and there's not a soul in there.

MARTIN: Can you describe what that was like, I mean, hearing yourself described in this way?

ECHOLS: You know, they sentenced me to death three times for something I didn't do. And the only thing I can describe it as, is if you've ever been beaten, you know, if you've been punched in the head, you don't always register it as pain immediately. A lot of times, it's just a bright flash of light, a loud noise, and you're so disoriented, you can't keep your feet up under you, you don't know even where you are from that. And that's what going through that trial was like. It was like being repeatedly beaten in the head.

MARTIN: Did you...

JACKSON: Can I - sorry...

MARTIN: Go ahead, Peter.

JACKSON: ...can I just say that it's interesting when you hear that clip from Fogleman because it's a piece of theater. The prosecutor's creating - they've written a script, and the script involves Satan. They've got a jury in front of them that's from a very religious part of the country, where there's a church on every corner. Their so-called idea of solving this murder is to basically create a satanic panic to upset the community. Today, it sounds like a ludicrous thing. You can barely believe it.

MARTIN: Looking at this film - and for people who are familiar with this case - I mean, this dragged on for a long, long time. And many, many people got interested in this and they just couldn't understand it, particularly when you point out that - for example, Jessie Misskelley was kind of the person who was sort of the key. He was convicted first. But he had a credible alibi. He wasn't anywhere near this, according to the...

JACKSON: He was in a different town 29 miles away with 14 friends watching a sports game. And he even signed a book at that sports game. He wasn't even in the same town. But, you see, that piece of evidence didn't work with the script that they were trying to sell to the jury. So, it was kept quiet at the time.

MARTIN: You look at this, you know, years later. It's just infuriating. And, of course, as you say in the film fairly, that their DNA evidence was not - was it not available or wasn't used?

JACKSON: Well, it was in the very early days of DNA. You know, this was 1993, '94, so it was sort of - DNA evidence was reasonably primitive. But, however, I have a lot of anger towards Damien's original defense team. It was not hard at that time to present evidence that would have either pointed to somebody else and certainly proven the innocence of these guys. You know, it was much more difficult 10 or 12 years down the track when the guys had been sentenced and there's been appeals - four of the appeals lost. It was much more difficult to overturn this when there's a distance and the evidence has gone away and the witnesses have died, some of them. So, that was a much harder job.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about the new documentary "West of Memphis." It's about the case of the West Memphis Three. They were three young men who were accused of killing three young boys in their community. They were finally released from prison after each of them had served 18 years. Our guests are producer Peter Jackson, the Oscar-winning filmmaker, who is one of the creative forces behind the film - also helped fund the defense, a new look at the circumstances of the case. Damien Echols is also with us, one of the subjects of the film. Damien, you know, at one point in the film you kind of offer an explanation about why you think this is happening. We have heard a number of stories like this in the course of American history. There's often race involved. You know, it's, like, a black defendant accused of killing a white person and everybody else involved in the system is white, you know, prosecutor, law enforcement, so forth. That's not the case here. Race is not a factor here.

ECHOLS: I think a lot of times we can mistake race struggle for class struggle. I think a lot of times they can come down to the same thing. We were considered bottom of the barrel white trash, throwaways. So, they thought that if they did put this on us no one would ever question it. No one would ever even look at it twice. Another factor was just that we didn't fit in in this community. We did not fit what they considered normal. This was an extreme fundamentalist, hard-core fundamentalist place, where anyone who dressed differently or had different musical tastes or anything else automatically had a bull's-eye on their back.

JACKSON: Even going a little wider than that. You know, you've got a community in terror because three little boys have been savagely killed. And talk of the devil and Satan starts to enter into it. And there's an enormous amount of pressure on the police to solve the crime. They picked three perpetrators who looked like the right guys, who dressed like the right sort of guys, and they just went for the most obvious and pushed it through to the conviction.

MARTIN: And you mentioned this earlier, Peter Jackson, that in fact Damien Echols and the two others were accused were released from prison but you were not exonerated. You took what's called an Alfred plea, which meant you could assert your innocence while pleading guilty. You essentially say that the state had enough information to convict you but you were still maintaining your innocence. And so you took the plea, and I assume that, you know, to get out. Here's a clip from the film of state judge David Laser accepting the plea. Here it is:

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "WEST OF MEMPHIS")

DAVID LASER: I'm aware of the controversy that's existed. I'm aware of the involvement of the people in this case. I don't think it'll make the pain go away to the victim families. I don't think it will take away a minute of the 18 years that these three young men served in the Arkansas Department of Corrections. What I've just described is tragedy on all sides. And I commend people in the case that have assisted towards the end of seeing that justice is served to the best that we can do.

MARTIN: Damien, how does that sit with you?

ECHOLS: It's not a sense of closure. It's still hanging over our heads. And we won't have that sense of closure until we're exonerated, the person who belongs in prison is in prison and the public officials who did this to us are held responsible.

MARTIN: Do you think that this was a matter of maliciousness or ignorance?

ECHOLS: I think in the end it comes to down to both. I mean, you had a huge, huge deal of ignorance in this case. But when I say maliciousness, I mean, I'm positive that many, if not all, of the characters that did this to us knew that we were innocent but I don't think they cared. I think they cared more about making this go away and securing their paychecks and political positions than they did that justice was served.

JACKSON: The scary thing, for me, just looking at this from the outside, is that you're waiting for the white knight who's going to at some point say, you know what, we've got this wrong. There's three little boys who got murdered. There's a killer out there. We're going to deal with that. That's our job. And nobody - there has never been a white knight in the Arkansas system. That person has never shown up. They don't exist. Somebody will do the right thing, you know, one day. I'm sure. I've got to believe that the exoneration will happen one day. But, you know, I'm cynical enough, unfortunately, to think it's going to be at the moment when it's going to benefit somebody's political career.

MARTIN: Damien, can I ask you this though: how do you come to grips with this for your own sake, for your own piece of mind to understand why this happened to you?

ECHOLS: I guess the way I come to grips with it is moving on. You know, they've already taken almost 20 years of my life from me. And I don't want to voluntarily give them any more of it. I'm in an entirely new world now where there are so many amazing things that I want to see and experience, and most of the time that completely overwhelms anything from the past, any angriness or bitterness. I just don't want to dwell there anymore.

MARTIN: But, you know, one of the things - it's in the production - that you told Amy Berg, the director, Amy Berg, was that you wouldn't give up a single day you spent on death row because that made you who you are. I mean, I find that extraordinary. Could you explain that a little bit more?

ECHOLS: Well, not only that but, I mean, there's also been a tremendous amount of blessings that have come out of this situation. You know, my relationship with my wife, Lorri, that I met while I was in prison. My relationship with Peter and Fran, who we've grown to love dearly and we met because of this situation. You know, the number one thing we want to avoid in life is pain. But at the same time, it's the number one thing that forces us to grow as human beings. It deepens our ability to feel empathy, turns knowledge into wisdom. And there was enough pain in this situation that I think in a lot of ways it can turn you into a better person.

MARTIN: Peter Jackson, what would you hope people would draw from this film?

JACKSON: It's just very good for people to see how justice can derail. It's supposed to be a solid system that serves everybody. But it's fragile and it's vulnerable. It's vulnerable to people with ill intent who can manipulate the system. And so just seeing something derail, I think is a way to try to prevent it happening in the future.

MARTIN: Of course, we want to acknowledge the three boys who were killed - I mean, Stevie Branch, Michael Moore and Christopher Byers. Peter Jackson, do you see yourself as having a role in bringing justice for them as well?

JACKSON: Yeah. I mean, sure. That's what we're trying to do, because really the two issues are walking hand-in-hand. You know, the innocence of Damien and Jason and Jessie and the fact that, you know, there can be no innocence for those three unless there is, you know, some attempt to catch the real killer of those boys. The two issues are totally walking hand-in-hand, yeah.

MARTIN: Damien, what's next for you?

ECHOLS: I mean, we moved to Salem, Massachusetts recently. So, I mean, my passion, the thing I love doing is meditation and energy work, you know, reiki and qigong. So, what I would like to eventually do is have a small meditation center somewhere in the town where we live where I could share the things that I had to learn in prison with other people who have an appreciation for them.

MARTIN: Damien Echols is known as one of the West Memphis Three. He's also a co-producer of the film "West of Memphis." Peter Jackson is the Oscar-winning filmmaker who produced the new documentary. The film is in theaters in Los Angeles and New York and opens nationwide later this month. Peter Jackson, Damien Echols, thank you both so much for speaking with us and my very wishes to you both.

ECHOLS: Thank you so much for having us.

JACKSON: It's been great. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Coming up, rare is the musician who says she discovered her passion by listening to her mother.

RASHIDA JOLLEY: I had studied different instruments - violin, piano, flute - and one day she just said harp is the one. So, I ended up falling in love with this instrument and never letting go of it.

MARTIN: Rashida Jolley is back with us for a special encore performance and conversation. We'll hear that next on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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