A Special Day at New York Law School
After months of hard work, patience, and perseverance, everything came together seamlessly: New York Law School played host to an advance screening of West of Memphis, the new documentary about the West Memphis 3, as well as the story’s focus, the amazing Damien Echols.
But unlike the last time Mr. Echols visited New York Law School, this time around Mr. Echols brought company: his wife and chief advocate, Lorri Davis, who also served as a producer for the film; director, Amy Berg; and his mighty legal team, Steve Braga, Dennis Riordan, and Barry Scheck.
The NYLS Program in Law and Journalism event, “Justice Lost: The Fight to Free Damien Echols”, began in the early afternoon with a special screening of the film, which premiered in January at the Sundance Film Festival to great reviews. Before the film screened, a surprise: a video message to our audience from Oscar-winning filmmaker and producer, Peter Jackson, about why he reached out to Ms. Davis and asked how he could help Mr. Echols. (The reason is simple: he saw an injustice and wanted to right it).
Next came a conversation with Mr. Braga, Mr. Riordan, and Mr. Scheck, who each fielded questions from their moderator (that was me), and then from the room, about their experience on the case.
As Mr. Braga so eloquently put it, the three lawyers together were like architects on a building project, only they were were working to free their client from death row.
Mr. Scheck laid a strong foundation by focusing on the utter lack of DNA evidence recovered from the crime scene that matched the DNA of the West Memphis Three. Mr. Riordan then worked on the body of the structure with his successful challenge in Arkansas Supreme Court that called for a new trial. And Mr. Braga came next, with plans, he said, of finishing things off with a perfectly crafted roof – something beautiful, like a complete exoneration is what he had in mind. In the end, he had to settle for a crooked contraption in the form of an Alford Plea – inelegant, at best, because in order to go free, Mr. Echols had to plead guilty.
Our take: given the number of setbacks in the case and the number of years Mr. Echols was on death row and in solitary confinement, any legal maneuver that resulted in Mr. Echols’ release should be considered nothing less than a victory. Even if there is some remodeling and reworking of the case left to be done.
It was now early evening, and when Mr. Echols, Ms. Davis, and Ms. Berg filed into the room for their panel, the rapt and invested audience stood as one for a heartfelt, and heartwarming, standing ovation.
All three panelists deserved the admiration of the audience. Ms. Berg, for having directed an extraordinarily moving film, that acts as a piece of journalism, and advocacy. Ms. Davis for the 14 years she spent battling the unjust justice system, for galvanizing the media (through Lonnie Soury), and putting together the crack legal team. And for setting a condition before working with these lawyers: that they wouldn’t seek a reduced term for Mr. Echols, but would work from the premise that Mr. Echols was innocent — something, Mr. Riordan told us, is all but unheard of on death row cases. Ms. Davis is a true southern belle but is nothing short of a warrior.
And there was Mr. Echols, in his standard blue-lensed sunglasses. He wears those glasses, by the way, due to his poor eyesight caused by lack of sunlight in all those years in prison; the glasses have strong prescription lenses, and are not an attempt by Mr. Echols to resemble his friend Johnny Depp any more than he does already. Mr. Echols spoke candidly and intelligently about his experiences, and the room listened in a hushed silence.
There was also a mischievous sense of humor in some of what he said. At one point, for example, he confided to his audience that, “Peter Jackson is crazy!”. Apparently, it was Mr. Jackson’s plan upon Mr. Echols’ release to squeeze into Mr. Echols’ one month visit to New Zealand all of the experiences that the prisoner had missed during his nearly two decades in a concrete box. One day Mr. Jackson arranged for them to go paragliding. The next, they helicoptered into an active volcano. Where, Mr. Echols told us, they had lunch. “Not the best idea for a guy suffering from PTSD”, Mr. Echols added wryly, and fondly.
Wrongful convictions happen more often than any legal advocate likes to admit or believe. And while there may not be a fast or easy way to rectify that systemic problem, it is a comfort to know that Mr. Echols can today enjoy some simple pleasures of life that anyone who isn’t incarcerated frequently take for granted: eating with silverware, walking without shackles, seeing the moonlight – freedom.
Mr. Echols and his attorneys are working to have his name cleared and the film will, they hope, bring pressure on D.A. Scott Ellington to reopen the case. But he’s not interested, he told the audience, in working on changing the system. “It took 18 years and goodness knows how much money to get me out of prison,” said Mr. Echols. “Just think how much it would take to change the system.”
We are thinking about it. We, the next generation of lawyers who will surely see this film, have the energy and the years ahead of us to work on that change. It’s not Mr. Echols’ job to do that. It’s ours.
It was indeed a special day at the law school, but it was even more than that. It was an eye-opening, perspective changing, memorable experience for all who were lucky enough to attend.
I am proud to have been a part of it.