For ‘West of Memphis’ subject Damien Echols, battle for justice still rages on

Damien Echols has captivating audiences as the star of four motion pictures, but he’s not someone you’d call a Hollywood insider. In fact, he’s rarely even seen himself on screen.

Echols came to his fame the hard way: As an unjustly accused murderer who became the subject of three documentaries — Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996), Paradise Lost 2: Revelations (2002) and Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, which was nominated for a best documentary Oscar last year.

In each of those films — made over the course of the nearly 20 years that Echols, and two other young men sentenced for their crimes, spent in prison trying to prove their innocence — audiences could agree on one thing: Like them or not, Echols and Company were railroaded by narrow-minded and corrupt prosecutors, judges and investigators who branded them as sex perverts and devil worshippers who sexually molested and murdered several boys in West Memphis, Ark., in the early 1990s. They were accused of all kinds of occult motives (the charges read like something from the Salem Witch Trials), even though there was precious little evidence against them. Indeed, it was their outsider status that seemed to doom them.

“The problem was perception — everyone knew from the beginning we didn’t do this, but they didn’t care, so they railroaded three white trash kids,” Echols said. “We were easy targets.”

Now, though, Echols tells the whole story from his own perspective. West of Memphis, which opens Friday at the Angelika Mockingbird Station Film Center, is the two-and-a-half hour summation of Echols’ incomparable ordeal, from death row to freedom. And it all became possible because of some unlikely champions: Filmmakers Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, best know for the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones