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NZ 'second home' to film's convicted star

Monday 30 Jul 2012 6:56 a.m.

Damien Echols (Reuters)

Damien Echols (Reuters)

By Laura McQuillan

A convicted US killer, set free through the help of Sir Peter Jackson, says New Zealand is now like a second home - and one where he might like to live permanently.

West of Memphis, directed by American filmmaker Amy Berg and produced by Sir Peter, had its international premiere in Wellington on Sunday night as part of the New Zealand Film Festival.

The film centres on Damien Echols, one of the West Memphis Three convicted of the 1993 murders of three eight-year-old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas.

His co-accused, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, were both sentenced to life imprisonment for the crimes; Echols was sentenced to death.

But as evidence mounted to show they were wrongfully convicted, the trio were freed from prison last year under a rare plea bargain - which means they can never be exonerated, unless the real killer is brought to justice.

As the film's closing credits rolled, the 800 audience members at the sold-out Embassy Theatre screening gave a standing ovation, ahead of a question and answer session with Sir Peter, Echols and his wife and number one campaigner, Lorri Davis.

Echols thanked the audience for attending, and the trio's supporters who spent 18 years fighting to free them.

While he would like to see the real killer brought to justice - with the film pointing toward a potential suspect - his concerns about the Arkansas justice system, which time and again rejected appeals and new evidence in the case, leaves him without much hope.

Without the killer being caught, the West Memphis Three cannot be exonerated.

"If they were to arrest the person who did it, it would mean they were admitting to making a mistake when they put us in prison, and if they do that, it once again opens them up to a lawsuit, and their number one priority will always be protecting themselves, protecting the state," Echols said.

"If that means letting a murderer go free in order to keep from having to face a lawsuit, then that's what they'll do, so my hopes aren't very high at all."

Echols said while he has no faith in the justice system, he does have faith in ordinary people who have supported him.

"Without them," he says, "the state would have got away with murdering me.

"That's what kept me from dying in there, that's what kept me from giving up and it's the reason I'm standing here now. Not the system, but just average everyday people who cared and didn't give up."

Sir Peter, who with wife Fran Walsh has bankrolled Echols' defence in recent years, says the film was borne out of frustration at how authorities were dealing with the case.

"We do think that Arkansas would prefer not to investigate the murder of these three little boys if they could get away with it, and so we are holding them to task and saying: 'Here's a possible person; you guys do your job properly and go figure it out'."

Sir Peter only met Echols for the first time following his release from prison, and last year hosted him and Davis in New Zealand for two months, and again during their current visit.

Echols says New Zealand has been an incredibly healing place for him.

"Even when I hear the New Zealand accent now, it gives me that feeling of home, just because it took me in when I didn't have anywhere else to go, and it gave me time just to rest."

Echols added that he's not adverse to the idea of living in New Zealand - and perhaps working with Sir Peter more - in future.

In the meantime, he is hoping West of Memphis will be a catalyst for systemic change in the United States justice system.

"This case is nothing out of the ordinary - stuff like this happens all the time. You've got people in Arkansas right now, innocent people, still waiting to be executed, so what I would hope would happen is people would see this and just become a little more aware of what's going on."

NZN

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