West of Memphis doco premieres

FREED: Damien Echols.
FREED: Damien Echols.

Kiwi director Sir Peter Jackson backed a film about their dodgy murder convictions, and now one of the West Memphis Three has spoken of his desire to live in New Zealand.

"I wouldn't be adverse to it at all," Damien Echols said at the first New Zealand screening of the feature length documentary West of Memphis, at a packed Embassy Theatre in Wellington last night.

"Right when I first got out, this is one of the first places I came. I stayed here for two months, and it was an incredibly healing place for me. Even when I hear the New Zealand accent now it gives the feeling of home, because it took me in when I didn't have anywhere else to go."

Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley were teenagers when accused of killing three 8-year-old boys - Stevie Edward Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore - in West Memphis, Arkansas, in 1993.

The boys' bodies were found naked and hogtied with shoelaces in a drainage ditch.

Misskelley, then 18, initially confessed to the murders and implicated the other two men, also teenagers at the time. He later took back his confession but the trio were convicted on what their supporters say was flimsy evidence, including their predilection for dark clothing, angsty poetry and Stephen King novels.

Misskelley and Baldwin were given life sentences. Echols was sentenced to death.

Following new DNA tests in 2007, which did not link the trio to the crime scene, the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled there were grounds for a hearing into whether a retrial should go ahead.

However, the men were instead freed after accepting a rare bargain known as an "Alford plea", in order to get Echols off death row.

The plea allowed them to publicly proclaim their innocence in exchange for pleading guilty in court and giving up their right to seek compensation for a miscarriage of justice.

Echols and Jackson spoke at last night's screening, as part of the New Zealand International Film Festival.

Dressed head to toe in black, Echols told the audience he had no choice but to take the plea deal if he wanted to live.

"My physical health was deteriorating very rapidly. I had started losing eyesight. You heard the prosecutor say that one of his considerations was that the three of us together could have sued the state for about $60 million.

"And I knew they could have had me stabbed to death for $50 any day of the week. It happens in prison all the time.

"So I knew this deal was the only chance I was going to get to ever see the outside of those walls again."

Jackson told the audience he and Fran Walsh first got involved with the defence on the case in 2005.

Vital evidence was uncovered, but a local judge wasn't interested, he said.

"We thought a hopeless scenario was unfolding where the state was suppressing any information at all which would lead to the truth in this case."

The pair brought in director Amy Berg to make the film.

"We thought a documentary was the most potent way to get the evidence before the public," Jackson said.

Echols said he was still traumatised by his prison experience, but trying to stay positive.

"I don't want anyone to leave here tonight heavy hearted or depressed. I'm here, we're out and I'm happy."

Fairfax Media