Crusade for justice
Crusade for justice

For more than a decade Johnny Depp helped in the campaign to release the wrongfully convicted Damien Echols and his two friends Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, the so-called Memphis Three, from prison.

When, shortly after they met, Depp and Echols sat next to each other at the Toronto International Film Festival promoting West of Memphis, Amy Berg's documentary about the boys' experiences and their subsequent trial, Depp admitted "there was an instant connection" from the moment he'd met Echols.

They now share what Depp calls "a brotherly love".

"Having been in close contact with Lorri (Echols' campaigner and now wife) over a dozen years and to finally see Damien arrive on my doorstep was quite moving," Depp recalls.

"It was a celebration, it was beau," he chuckles, raising his eye over his antique-tinted spectacles. "We had Tater Tots and tacos and then a natural course of events took place and we went straight to the tattoo parlour."

The Gothic-looking Echols may sport dark sunglasses and those tattoos, which branch out of his sleeves and reprise themselves on his fingers, yet there is a reason for the dark specs.

After being wrongfully convicted, at the age of 18, of the 1993 murders of three eight-year- old Arkansas Cub Scouts at the age of 18, he spent the next 18 years in a high-security cell, including eight years on Death Row. Now his eyesight is failing due to the lack of light he endured. Baldwin and Misskelley received life sentences.

So what does one do in such a situation?

"I meditated five to seven hours a day," Echols replies. "It blots everything out so I tried not to think of it."

Depp had not been the only celebrity to rally to the cause. Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder has been a tireless campaigner as has the Dixie Chicks' Natalie Maines.

Though it was famed Kiwi producers Fran Walsh and Peter Jackson who truly did the hard yards and put millions of dollars into the case, which ultimately saw the Memphis Three set free - even if they are yet to be exonerated. Berg says that would have cost too much, and in terms of Echols' health it would have been dangerous if he'd stayed in prison any longer.

What had spurred Jackson and Walsh into action was seeing Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky's1996 HBO documentary Paradise Lost: The Murders at Robin Hood Hills in 2005.

"Paradise Lost was a film that made us very angry and very sad," Jackson told the 2012 Sundance opening night crowd at the film's world premiere.

"When we looked into the case we were astounded by how little had been done. It made us feel like there wasn't justice being served to a lot of the people involved, so we called Lorri and asked if there was anything we could do. That led to where we are today."

Jackson and Walsh hired top forensic experts and lawyers to prove the innocence of the men, whose convictions were based on false testimonies about satanic rituals, sloppy forensics and shoddy police work accepted as fact by an ambitious judge.

So how was the division of labour back at home in New Zealand? "Fran was on emails to Lorri all night long and I was making movies so we could pay for the defence," a grinning Jackson recalls, after holding his partner's hand in front of the crowd.

"We first met Lorri in New York when we went there for the promotion of King Kong, though we'd already been working with her probably for a year-and-a-half before that. So it's been a long time. But Fran's been the person who's poured in hours and hours and hours every day, sending tens of thousands of emails."

To direct the film they hired Berg, memorable for her 2006 priest-molestation documentary, Deliver Us from Evil, which earned an Academy Award nomination. She's done a mighty fine job and continues to campaign for the exoneration of the Memphis Three, as do Walsh and Jackson.

"When Damien came to New Zealand for a visit it was not an easy thing," recalls Berg.

"He has a criminal record now; he has a triple child murderer charge on his record."

"Obviously you hope the film is going to have lessons for the justice system," Jackson notes.

"It shows how fragile the justice system is and how it doesn't need much to derail it."

'You hope the film is going to have lessons . . . it shows how fragile the justice system is and how it doesn't need much to derail it.'


The West Australian

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