Toronto 2012: 'West of Memphis' Damien Echols on Debt to Johnny Depp and Peter Jackson

The Commercial Appeal/Landov

The Amy Berg doc subject praised the Hollywood actor and director for helping propel his fight for exoneration after he left an Arkansas prison cell last year.

TORONTO - Damien Echols, one-third of the West Memphis Three, on Saturday paid tribute to pals Johnny Depp and Peter Jackson for campaigning to get him off Death Row so he could painfully navigate new-found freedom.

“If it wasn’t for Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh and Johnny (Depp), really we would have nowhere to go and nothing to do when I got out. We left Arkansas like refugees, just running,” Echols said as he recalled being freed in August 2011 after being wrongfully convicted and jailed along with Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley for being torturers and killers of three cub scouts.

Sundance Review: West of Memphis

Addressing a press conference for Amy Berg’s West of Memphis documentary in Toronto, Echols said Depp and Jackson offered an essential safety net for three young men ill-prepared for life on the outside.

“It’s not like they stopped when we got out of prison… If it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t have had absolutely nothing, not a change of clothes, not a place to sleep, nothing,” he added of his life on the outside with wife Lorri Davis.

The flawed-justice film follows a fresh investigation around the West Memphis Three that led eventually to their freedom 18 years after they were convicted in 1994 for the murders of three boys in West Memphis, Arkansas.

The husband-and-wife team of Walsh and Jackson share the producer credits on West of Memphis, along with Echols and Davis.

For his part, Depp told the West of Memphis presser that he was in Toronto as a friend looking to clear the three mens’ names after changed their pleas from not guilty to guilty as part of an awkward legal deal to secure their freedom.

“I don’t think of myself as a celebrity. I’m here, as Peter (Jackson) said, as a friend. If there are people out there who will take a minute to listen to what I have to say, or what these guys have to say, they will learn a lot more about this case,” Depp insisted.

The Pirates of the Caribbean star will also walk the red carpet in Toronto for West of Memphis to publicize the documentary and the continuing legal fight for justice.

Jackson, who appeared at the press conference from New Zealand via Skype, recalled joining the legal fight to free the West Memphis Three after he and his wife viewed the original HBO documentary on the case.

“We were obviously shocked to find they were still in jail and nothing much had advanced with the case,” the Lord of the Rings director said.

As a measure of his slow road to freedom, Echols said he had to run a gauntlet of customs bureaucracy to fly to Toronto and attend the prestigious festival.

“The U.S. still shows I have three counts of murder on my record. I had to go through extraordinary measures that others don’t,” Echols said Saturday.

The Toronto International Film Festival continues to September 16.