Johnny Depp waved to the crowd at the Toronto International Film Festival yesterday. He was there supporting West of Memphis, which examines the case of three men later named the “West Memphis Three,”
In August, 2011 Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelly were released from prison after 18 years for the 1993 murders of three 8-year-old boys in Arkansas but only after agreeing to an Alford plea — allowing them to maintain their innocence while pleading guilty.
West of Memphis, a new documentary on the case — which premiered at TIFF — details compelling evidence that demolishes the case against them while pointing to Terry Hobbes, the stepfather of one of the victims, Stevie Branch, as the actual killer.
“We’re out of prison physically but having to take this deal . . . makes sure that we’re still not completely free,” said Damien Echols, the only defendant who had faced a death sentence.
Echols noted he and his wife, Lorri Davis, had to fight hard to persuade Canadian officials for a visa to enter the country.
“We had to go through hell just to come here for the film festival today because the U.S. still shows that I have three counts of murder on my criminal record. So even though I’m out, this case has a huge impact on my life,” Echols said.
As the documentary — which opens in general release on Dec. 25 — notes, Echols and his co-defendants would still be behind bars if not for the support the case attracted from ordinary citizens and celebrities, including actor Johnny Depp, who flew to Toronto for the film’s premiere on Saturday and Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson, who participated in the press conference via Skype.
Depp said watching a previous documentary entitled Paradise Lost more than a decade ago persuaded him the conviction of the West Memphis Three was “an obvious grave injustice.”
“In terms of the investigation, it was ‘let’s get whatever we can define as the predator off the streets to calm this community down,’ and so it became a witch hunt, I think. It was clear from the first second that I saw the Paradise Lost film . . . that this was a horrific lie and these boys were innocent so I wanted to help in any way I could,” Depp said.
Jackson, by Skype link from his New Zealand home, was also scathing in his assessment of the case and the continuing role of Arkansas justice officials in refusing to reopen the case.
“It became very, very important to us just sort of on the human level to try to get Damien out of jail, to get these guys out of jail,” said Jackson, who produced the film with partner, Fran Walsh, and director Amy Berg.
“It’s not about the exoneration; it’s about finding who killed these little boys. It’s something that Arkansas doesn’t seem to be particularly interested in. The justice system in Arkansas doesn’t have any desire to bring justice in this case to the families of the three little boys,” Jackson said.
“I’ve never been to Arkansas in my life and I never will now,” he added.
Echols noted that while Depp, Jackson and Walsh helped to fund the defence team’s investigation — which uncovered new evidence while shredding the prosecution’s case — they also provided crucial financial support upon his release.
“If it wasn’t for Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh and Johnny, really we would have nowhere to go. We were essentially homeless. We left Arkansas like refugees. If it wasn’t for them, we would have absolutely nothing, not a change of clothes, not a place to sleep,” Echols said.
Berg noted that because of the plea deal, Echols — who has written a book entitled Life After Death, to be released later this month — has no other means to earn a living after prison.
“It’s really important that we remember that the deal they (defendants) took offered them no financial compensation. Had they not taken that deal, they would each have been entitled to $18 million. That’s the going rate for wrongful conviction, $1 million a year,” Berg said.
Berg said there will be free public screenings of the film throughout Arkansas in coming weeks to maintain pressure on justice officials in the state facing re-election in November.
Among them, Berg noted, is Judge David Burnett, who presided at the original trial and refused in a hearing more than a decade later to consider new evidence, including DNA that pointed to Terry Hobbes.
Echols also spoke eloquently of his time struggling to maintain hope while in prison and the difficulty of adjusting to life outside.
“By the time I had got out, I had really started to get scared because I was reaching a point where I couldn’t remember what it was like to be out anymore,” Echols said.
“For the first few years, it’s like you try to feed yourself on memories. You try to survive, you try to live on just what you already knew, the experiences you already had,” he said.
“It gets to a point when I had literally spent half my life in this concrete box and I couldn’t remember the simplest things anymore. I knew that at one time, pizza had been my favourite food but I could no longer even remember what it tasted like,” Echols said.
“It’s still not easy, it’s incredibly, incredibly hard, more than I could ever even describe. I was in such a deep state of shock and trauma when I first got out and it’s taken a while for it to start wearing off,” he added.
Depp ended the press conference on a humorous note, detailing the first time he welcomed Echols and his wife into his home.
“We had dinner at the house — tatter tots and tacos — and then, the natural course of events took place and we went straight to the tattoo parlour,” Depp said.
“They’re wonderful people, wonderful friends. I feel very lucky to have been involved on whatever tiny level I’ve been involved,” he added.
Recently, Depp has claimed part Cherokee and Creek Indian ancestry and will next be seen in “The Lone Ranger” as Tonto, the Native American sidekick to the titular hero. In May, the Oscar-nominated actor was invited to officially join New Mexico’s Comanche Nation tribe, to which his character belongs, despite the outcry after the first photos emerged from the “Lone Ranger” set that showed Depp’s black-and-white painted characterization of Tonto.