For me, being a fan of Johnny Depp has nothing to do with his movies.
Depp creates a sensation every time he makes a picture in New Mexico. He was in the state last year for "The Lone Ranger" and he is returning in July for a science fiction feature called "Transcendence."
But nothing Depp does in the movies can match what he did in real life for the West Memphis Three.
He advocated for young men wrongly convicted in one of the country's most atrocious murder investigations. Depp was relentless in pursuing the truth, knowing his celebrity could put pressure on the government of Arkansas.
If the story of what happened in West Memphis has taught us anything, it is that bad cops can still trump good science.
In a nutshell, here is what happened: Searchers found the bodies of three 8-year-old Cub Scouts in a waterway in May 1993. The boys had vanished the night before. They were naked and hogtied with their own shoelaces.
West Memphis police did not take a hard look at some of the parents or the victims' adult acquaintances. They were baffled bumpkins, rubes trying to solve the worst crime ever in West Memphis, a city of about 30,000.
Ultimately, detectives focused on three teenagers, Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr. Echols supposedly believed in satanism, and the killings of the little boys seemed like a human sacrifice to the befuddled police.
Misskelley, mildly retarded and low functioning, passed a polygraph test administered by police. But detectives lied to him, saying he had failed. They kept on the pressure until Misskelley, then 17, confessed to the murders.
He implicated Echols and Baldwin.
Misskelley's confession was full of factual holes, but the bad police detectives did not care. They rehabiliated it as best they could and told prosecutors they had pinpointed the killers.
Lazy prosecutors accepted the police version, ignoring the lack of physical evidence by pushing the theory that devil worshippers were sophisticated killers.
Juries convicted Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley in 1994. Echols, supposedly the mastermind of the murders, went to Arkansas' death row. The other two received life sentences.
Over the years, the government's case crumbled bit by bit until it fell apart in 2011.
The state, egg covering the face of its police and prosecutors, freed the three defendants from prison. The defendants signed Alford pleas, maintaining their innocence but admitting the state had sufficient evidence to convict them.
In truth, Arkansas prosecutors realized they lacked any such evidence, so they let the West Memphis Three go free. Imagine, three alleged killers of 8-year-old boys being set free. The state feared a retrial.
In striking the deal with Alford pleas, the state assured itself of not facing lawsuits for wrongful convictions.
The West Memphis Three are in their middle 30s now, lucky to be alive. They spent 18 years in prison.
Belated DNA investigations helped the trio more than Depp. The samples revealed no physical evidence linking the West Memphis Three to the murders.
But a hair found on a shoelace used to tie up one of the murdered children could be that of another victim's stepfather. That man's name is Terry Wayne Hobbs. He has a significant criminal history, but West Memphis police ignored him during their initial investigation.
A 1996 HBO documentary called "Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills" probably saved the lives of the West Memphis Three.
The movie cast doubt on the state's case and stirred enormous interest in the defendants. Celebrities such as Depp and singers Eddie Vedder and Natalie Maines rallied behind the three convicts after watching the documentary.
Depp's role was not cursory. He immersed himself in the case. He understood the government's intransigence in righting a wrong. Depp played a role in helping Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley go free.
In one way, the West Memphis Three were lucky. Without the groundbreaking HBO documentary and two more that followed, they would still be in prison. Echols probably would have been executed a decade ago.
How many other shabby cases of police work go unnoticed, leaving innocent people with no chance to overcome the power of the government? This alone should make all of us wary of death sentences.
The New Mexico Legislature in 2009 outlawed the death penalty. Critics say the decision was wrongheaded, but the West Memphis case shows how wise it was.
New Mexico in the 1970s wrongly put four bikers on death row. Those who favor the death penalty say police work is so much better now that such cases no longer happen.
The West Memphis Three say otherwise.And no matter how many movies Johnny Depp makes, his performance in the case of the West Memphis Three will always be his finest.