updated 09/12/2012 AT 1:00 PM ET
•originally published 09/12/2012 AT 5:20 PM ET
It could have been just another premiere – another work obligation, another red carpet – for the actor, except he wasn’t promoting himself or even a movie he worked on.
By his side: someone who is not a celebrity, but has been thrust into the spotlight nonetheless. In the same week PEOPLE printed a first-look at his new memoir, Life After Death, Damien Echols, one third of the so-called West Memphis Three, stood beside Depp at the Canadian premiere of the Amy Berg-directed documentary, West of Memphis, which Echols produced with his wife, Lorri Davis, about the the 1993 murder case.
“We sat next to each other and watched the whole thing because he wanted to watch it from beginning to end just to see what the crowd’s reaction was going to be and what parts they reacted to the most,” Echols, 37, who was released from death row last August after 18 years of incarceration, told PEOPLE after the screening. “It was pretty amazing.”
When the prosecutor would talk about their guilt in the documentary, he said, “There were people sitting behind us saying, ‘F— you’ to the screen. It was just what we were hoping.”
Adds Echols: “Everybody loves Johnny, so he just thought if he could come and bring more attention to the movie by being there, then that’s what he would do.”
But Echols himself almost didn’t make it to the event – entering Canada with a murder record proved to be a challenge. “I had to go through extraordinary measures that others don’t,” he told The Hollywood Reporter.
A Permanent Mark
Depp’s dedication to Echols’s cause began in the years following the 1994 conviction of Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley in the brutal murders of three 8-year-old Cub Scouts. (The West Memphis Three were released from jail following a sticky “Alford” plea bargain that allowed them to maintain their innocence while pleading guilty.)
Now, Echols and Depp have another permanent reminder of their bond.
After they finished the second day on the media circuit, a Toronto tattoo artist was called to Depp’s hotel room to ink matching black crows on the back of the duo’s right hands; it’s the fourth tattoo they’ve gotten together. (Also inked: songwriter Bill Carter, who wrote a score for the documentary.)
The art is a nod to the 1994 movie The Crow about a man who is murdered, but comes back to life. It’s a theme Echols says he explores in his book, where the story of his life after death row unravels.
“[In the movie], they talk about the mythology of how [the crow] is considered to be something that transports souls from the realm of the dead to the realm of the living,” Echols tells PEOPLE. “When somebody comes back to life, it’s the crow that brings them back to the living.”