Long road to freedom in ‘West of Memphis’

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Damien Echols, right, and two teenage friends were accused and convicted in the 1993 murders of three children in West Memphis, Ark. Echols, freed from prison in 2011, is shown with his wife, Lorri Davis, in West of Memphis, the new documentary film they helped produce.

DALLAS — Movie stars with entourages, big-shot directors and overly talkative screenwriters routinely pass through the Dallas area to promote their films. Their answers usually seem rote and canned — rehearsed responses with minimal thought geared to support their projects.

That’s why it’s refreshing and near revelatory to hear from Lorri Davis and Damien Wayne Echols, two of the 11 credited producers of the documentary West of Memphis. But unlike the other nine producers — who include filmmakers Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh — Echols and Davis have more of a personal stake in the film.

West of Memphis relates the long and sad story of Damien Echols and his childhood friends Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr., known collectively as the West Mem­phis Three. As teenagers, they were accused and convicted in the 1993 murders of three 8-year-old boys in West Mem­phis, Ark. Echols was sentenced to death, while the other two received life sentences.

The documentary goes into great detail as to how the original case was botched and how the state of Arkansas committed a series of mistakes it would never admit to, keeping the three men behind bars while their story became the subject of three Paradise Lost documentaries on HBO and the cause celebre for a cadre of celebrities.

Director Amy Berg’s new 147-minute documentary, West of Memphis, opened Friday at several regional theaters.

Now, Davis and Echols admit they are content to be touring, communicating their side of the story and publicly expounding on the inequities of the Arkansas justice system.

But on being at the center of attention, Echols says: “Ima­gine the worst thing that ever happened to you in your life and then you had to talk about it all day. But if we don’t, the state of Arkansas will never have to face up to what they did.”

Echols’ 18 years in prison — much of that time in solitary confinement — had grave effects on him. He was finally released only by making a guilty plea, even though he knew he was not guilty. It was the only way the three men would be freed, he says.

“Over time, I was getting sicker and sicker. I knew I wasn’t going to see the outside of the walls without taking the [plea] deal,” says Echols, now 38. “I’d never heard of the deal, but it’s just a way for them to get out of what they did.”

The unusual legal maneuver in August 2011 allowed Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley to go free but still maintain their claims of innocence.

Echols, who now looks like an average 30-something, says he was in bad shape when he was released in 2011. He has gained 60 pounds since then.

“I hadn’t walked in almost 20 years without chains on my feet,” he says.

For her part, Lorri Davis seems happy to share Echols’ crusade in spreading the story of the three men’s incarceration and Arkansas’ inept handling of the case. Davis married Echols while he was in prison, after striking up a correspondence with him.

When her husband was finally released from prison, Davis said the hard part was over, making their transition less daunting.

“Actually, it was an easy transition because we had been through so much,” she said. “It was almost seamless when he came out. He wouldn’t just come out and say it, but he was suffering. He was struggling, but I didn’t know it at the time.”

Echols is asked about the many tattoos he has on his forearms and whether they have greater significance.

“Every one of them was painful, but they are physically and psychologically smoothing. It feels like I’m wearing something, a suit of armor. This one,” he says, pointing, “I got with Johnny Depp. And this one is a talisman for the archangel Michael.”

The world had changed considerably since Echols first entered prison. On release, he says, “I had to figure out how to get from point A to point B.” After nearly two decades behind bars, he had to navigate his first confrontations with ATMs, cellphones, modern computers and the Internet.

He’s also been able to catch up on many recent films — thanks mainly to his wife.

In prison, he said, his movie choices were limited. Often, the inmates would be shown specific films regardless of whether they wanted to see them.

Echols recalled one holiday showing that particularly irked him, enough so that he complained aloud at the time: “I am a grown-ass man. Why are you showing me Julie and Julia?”

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