By Anne Thompson and Charles Lyons | Thompson on Hollywood January 22, 2012 at 2:43AM
Producers Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh participated in a Sundance press conference for Amy Berg's controversial doc "West of Memphis" Saturday. It's an unusual case of filmmakers funding an investigation and legal fight that wound up freeing three prisoners, including Death Row inmate Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin, after 18 years. The day they got out in August 2011, after years of fighting to prove their innocence, "was an unbelievable moment," said Walsh. "It’s taken a long time to sink in. It was more real that he was in box in Arkansas than he was out. It’s been an unbelievable situation. It’s quite unreal.”
A large number of people have been fighting for their release for years, including the likes of Henry Rollins, Eddie Vedder and Patti Smith. Echols and Baldwin were educated in prison. And the group that fought for the freedom of the West Memphis Three is now working to try the step-father of one of the three murdered boys the three innocent men were incarcerated for killing. Now considerable evidence points to Terry Ross as the killer. But the state of Arkansas only agreed to release the West Memphis Three if they accepted a guilty plea. As far as Arkansas is concerned, the case is closed. But even more new evidence has come in, the two defense attorneys indicated at the panel: "Stay tuned."
“Our fight has been for exoneration for these three guys,” said Jackson. "Full exoneration wouldn’t really come unless the killer is convicted."
Echols is worried about all the other innocent people on death row. “I’d like to ask everyone to look into a case of someone named Timothy Howard, who is on death row. If media doesn’t focus on it, it’s difficult to get someone off. A lot of times, the only thing that makes a difference is how much outside attention is focused on the case.”
"Death cases are not about innocence," said pro bono defense attorney Dennis Riordan. “There was not a single piece of credible evidence to prove these people’s guilt...This [case] is why you become a lawyer.” He added: “In most cases this system functions well." Added Riordan, "A lot of people on death row, are now asking for help. In most cases, can’t get it. These were unusual circumstances—support by Peter and Fran was massive." Riordan encouraged all articles by press to include: FreeWestMemphisThree.org.
What about distribution? “We’re talking to people," said Jackson. "What we hope is that the film is seen as widely as possible. The decision will be made not on dollars but on the exposure we can get to the case.”
Also at the press conference was producer Lorri Davis, who was an accomplished landscape architect living in New York City when she first learned about the West Memphis Three. She married Echols while he was in still in prison. “Fran is such a remarkable person," Davis started off. Walsh contacted her asking what she could do. “It began as an offer of help, but it really evolved into a friendship."
“We were curious about the case," said Walsh. "And were astounded that Damien and Jason were still in prison."
After three 'Paradise Lost' films, why another film? "We got involved in 2005," said Jackson. "We saw 'Paradise Lost' in 2004… By the end of 2008, we had helped the defense team… What Fran and I thought we could bring to this, was to figure out what experts, what science could we bring in? We thought steering it into the science direction was the most important thing...We felt there was a willfulness in the state not to allow the right evidence to get out there...We thought the best thing we could do is do what we could do best….make a movie...What I am incredibly proud of is the humanity in the film….. Every aspect of who we are as people is demonstrated on the screen.”
Documentary filmmaker Amy Berg was suggested by Davis: “We needed someone brave. This case and this story, there was just so much information to sift through….it became an investigation as much as it did a film. Berg admitted that “working on this film, I have no faith in the justice system… I personally feel so let down by the system...It was just as much a life experience as it is my work… It’s been an amazing experience.”
What was Lorri Davis's active role? Walsh, Jackson and Davis all worked on the defense together, said Jackson. "Davis handled every aspect of the case."
The movie shows how much Davis and Echols, who got married while he was in prison, packed into their weekly phone calls. “I was conscious of just about everything that was going on," Echols said, "but I couldn’t think about the case all the time.”
What does Echols want to do with the rest of his life? He's working on a book coming out in September and an art project through MoMA. “I want to work with art and not be known as the guy who was on death row," he said. “It never should have happened… I am focusing on the things I have now and could do now, not the past.” Echols got a weight set for Christmas; he’s getting fit. “This is the first time when we have ever gotten to have actively had input. And for us, that is a big sense of accomplishment.”
Baldwin, who arirved late to the conference, said he "was in a different situation than Damien… My skull was shattered, my color bone was broken…. For me, making the decision to keep fighting the good fight, wasn’t that hard….We were in New York….at the Natural History Museum… and every five minutes or so, I could see Damien and I knew he just couldn’t believe his freedom.”
The press corps broke into applause.