A DISCUSSION OF LAW AND JOURNALISM

Tag: Damien Echols

A Special Day at New York Law School

West of Memphis Poster

By Meghan Lalonde

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).

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Life After Death for Damien Echols

Damien Echols

By Meghan Lalonde

Today’s New York Times ran a positive review for Damien Echols’ new memoir, Life After Death.  Mr. Echols served nearly two decades on death row, over half of them in solitary confinement, for murders he didn’t commit.

The Times’ review’s praise is well deserved, and follows stellar reviews from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, and more.

Before seeing Mr. Echols’ handwritten photocopies of  Mr. Echols’ diary entries from his time in prison (reproduced in the book), New York Times reporter Janet Maslin suspected that the book was ghostwritten.

Can’t say I blame her.

Life After Death is a beautiful, and powerful read.  Could a high school dropout like Mr. Echols have written it himself?

Indeed he could, and did.  I’ve had the opportunity of meeting Mr. Echols more than once, and he is a remarkably, even exceptionally, intelligent and thoughtful man.  Reading the book was like listening to Mr. Echols speak — his charm, wit, and soulfulness permeate throughout.

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LASIS Welcomes a Special Guest

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By LASIS Staff

On March 21 Damien Echols surprised the LASIS crew with a visit.

It was a moving experience for us, as we’d watched the HBO “Paradise Lost” documentaries, and researched the case that landed Mr. Echols in death row.

Our subsequent pieces about the West Memphis 3 tragedy can be found here, here, and here.

Mr. Echols was convicted and locked up for a triple murder he didn’t commit.  He spent a total of 18 years in prison; he didn’t see sunlight for ten of them.  The lack of sunlight and prison conditions took a toll on his health and his eyes. That’s Mr. Echols in the dark glasses in the photo. (Click photo to enlarge).

We will never forget the afternoon we spent with Mr. Echols, whom we found to be remarkable in every way: intelligent, soulful, honest, gracious, and somehow, despite everything he’s experienced, suffused with a healthy dose of zen.

LASIS Editor Michelle Zierler received emails from many of the reporters marveling at how the day turned out.

Reporter Drew Carroll sent a note at 12:50 a.m. this morning that included this:

“Ironically, I caught ‘Shawshank Redemption‘ on AMC when I got home tonight. It’s always my stock response to “what’s your favorite movie?” I can’t help getting drawn in every time. I always find it moving and especially so today after meeting someone who experienced every atrocity in the film and more. I liked Morgan Freeman’s quote near the end, “some birds are too bright to be caged.” Damien is certainly one bright bird, and we’re all better people for having gotten to know him.”

Mr. Echols was released in August, 2011 on an Alford Plea. We plan on working to help him get a full exoneration.

His memoir “Damien Echols:  Life After Death”  is due out in September, and the film “West of Memphis“, produced by Mr. Echols, his wife Lorri Davis, and Peter Jackson will be released by Sony Picture Classics.

I know I speak for all of the LASIS reporters when I say that our lives are richer after yesterday’s meeting.

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The West Memphis Three: An A-Z List of Justice Gone Wrong

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By Meghan Lalonde

West Memphis, 1993: Three eight-year-old boys brutally murdered in small-town Arkansas. Three satanic teenage “punks” to blame it on. When looking for suspects, these teenagers fit the bill – long hair, heavy metal fans, all dressed in black. There was even a confession. The story caught the attention of two HBO filmmakers, who decided to make a documentary about the horrible crime that traumatized the community.

The film that introduced the world to defendants Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley – the West Memphis Three (WM3) – wasn’t supposed to be about wrongful convictions. It wasn’t supposed to be a project that led to two additional films over the next 18 years. It just turned out that way.

Last month, HBO premiered the third and final chapter of the documentary, “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory.” I’d heard about it and thought it seemed interesting so on a rainy Friday afternoon I turned on the TV to give the first one a shot. Six hours, two sandwiches, and a full liter of Diet Coke later, I’d watched all three films, and I was reeling.

Searching for order in all the disorder, I’ve boiled it down to an A to Z list of some of the haunting and perplexing aspects about this terrible miscarriage of justice. There will be no “Spoiler Alert” here. Google the film and you’ll see that the three convicted murderers are free, released in August 2011 after entering into Alford Pleas (see “P” below). As with so many epic stories, knowing the ending doesn’t minimize the gripping nature of the journey.

Alternative suspects. One of the many critical shortcomings of the West Memphis Police Department was failing to search for leads on additional suspects. First, police never investigated Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of one victim with a history of violence. Mr. Hobbs claimed he hadn’t seen the children the day they went missing, but his neighbors are certain they saw him with the kids after school, around the time they were last seen. In 1993, these neighbors were never questioned. Police also botched the investigation of an unidentified black man who was seen at a local restaurant covered in mud and blood on the evening of the murders. They collected blood samples from inside the restaurant, then lost the evidence.

Blood. When the bodies of the three boys were discovered in a stream they were found naked, hogtied, stabbed, and mutilated. The prosecution argued that the murders occurred near where the bodies were found, but if that were true, wouldn’t there have been blood found at the scene? There wasn’t. Not even a drop. The use of a knife and ritual bloodletting thought to be part of satanic rituals were integral to the prosecution’s theory against the WM3 and yet there wasn’t any blood to be found. Recent forensic analysis has explained that the scratches and skin flaying of the victims were actually due to animal predation.

Celebrity support. Celebrities figured among thousands of supporters who learned about the WM3 from the first film. In 2010, Johnny Depp and Eddie Vedder hosted a benefit concert in their support. When the WM3 were released in August, Damien Echols, the defendant who had spent 18 years on death row, said he wanted to go to Disneyland. Mr. Depp made it happen.   (more…)

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