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Peter Jackson
Peter Jackson, producer of West of Memphis

I’ll start off this missive by saying I love Peter Jackson’s work. His Lord of the Rings movies made cinematic history, and King Kong was an entertaining take on an old classic. Can’t wait for The Adventures of Tintin and the upcoming Hobbit movies.

But when I heard that Jackson and Fran Walsh had produced a documentary called West of Memphis, I had to wonder why. According to a recent press release from Rubenstein Communications, the film tells “the untold story” of the “West Memphis Three” — Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley, Jr. — who spent 18 years and 17 days in prison after being wrongfully accused of murdering three eight-year-old boys in the small town of West Memphis, Arkansas in 1993.

But there are already three HBO documentaries about the case directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky — Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, Paradise Lost 2: Revelations, and Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, which screened at the New York Film Festival this fall and won a Best Documentary award from the National Board of Review.

Melanie Votaw, who covered the New York Film Festival for Reel Life With Jane, had this to say about the Jackson/Walsh documentary: “Damien Echols has said that he believes he would have been executed a long time ago had the HBO documentaries not been made, so I’m surprised that the information released about the new Jackson/Walsh documentary sounds as though this is the first film about the West Memphis Three.”

She adds, “Perhaps more information will be presented, but calling the new film ‘the untold story’ does sound like a bit of a stretch. After all, for those people who don’t know the story, there will have to be a lot of repetition to bring them up to speed, and so many years have passed during the course of this case that they could easily make a six-hour film and not include everything.”

West Memphis 3
Jason Baldwin, Bruce Sinofsky, Joe Berlinger, and Damien Echols of Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, along with Richard Pena, selection committee chair and program director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center | Melanie Votaw Photo

Jackson and Walsh became involved in the case in 2005 and helped to fund a new investigation. According to the press release, West of Memphis reveals the research that uncovered new findings pointing to the innocence of Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley Jr. and includes new forensic evidence that points to other suspects that the West Memphis police chose to overlook. This new evidence, highlighted in the documentary, ultimately prompted the Arkansas Supreme Court to overturn previous denials of appeals and allowed for a new evidentiary hearing to proceed.

West Memphis ThreeFaced with the prospect of a new trial being granted and in order to avoid potentially large compensation claims for wrongful imprisonment, the State of Arkansas struck a deal with Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley Jr., whereby the men agreed to enter an Alford plea — an unusual and rarely used legal maneuver through which the defendant is able to assert their innocence while accepting that it’s in their best interest to allow a guilty plea to be entered against them, in exchange for their freedom.

West of Memphis follows these events and examines how the State Prosecutor’s declaration that the case is now closed leaves three innocent men convicted of a crime they didn’t commit and a triple child murderer still at large.

Perhaps the best argument for the making of West of Memphis comes from Echols himself, who served as a producer on the film with his wife Lorri Davis. “It is our hope that this film will help educate people about how badly the justice system can fail us all,” he said last month. “But beyond that, we want to show that in the face of such horror, in the face of resounding grief and pain, you cannot give up … you must never give up.”

In addition to never-before-seen footage about the case and the trial, West of Memphis includes interviews with Echols, Davis, Baldwin, Misskelley Jr. and Jackson, as well as interviews with friends and families of the victims, defense lawyers, state prosecutors, local law enforcement, judges, forensic experts, journalists, surprise witnesses and prominent supporters, including Eddie Vedder, Henry Rollins and Natalie Maines.

West of Memphis, Amy Berg
Amy Berg, director of West of Memphis | WingNut Films

“September 2008 was one of my lowest points,” Echols has said. “Judge David Burnett had refused to hear any new evidence – this included new DNA testing … as if proof of our innocence was somehow irrelevant. I thought we had come to the end of the line, that there was nowhere else to go.  It was at this point that Fran and Peter suggested that maybe there was another way of fighting back … that if the evidence was not going to be allowed to be heard in a court of law, it would be heard in another forum.  That was when they said to me and Lorri, ‘We should make a film’.”

Says Jackson, “Seven years ago, Fran and I began this journey with Damien and Lorri, having no idea where it would lead.  We now realize that journey is not over, that even though these men have been released from prison, they are not free. Our hope is that continuing evidence testing and further investigation will lead to the unmasking of the killer of these children and that one day Damien, Jason and Jessie will be exonerated.”

Written and directed by Amy Berg, West of Memphis will be shown at the Sundance Film Festival 2012 in January.

10 COMMENTS

  1. At the New York Film Festival, Jason Baldwin said that he didn’t want to take the Alford plea and have to “admit guilt.” He did it because he was afraid the Arkansas authorities might still execute Damien Echols.

    • Thanks for the insight, Melanie. The whole situation is just heartbreaking, and then to have to take a guilty plea on top of everything else – it’s just not right. Hopefully, the Jackson documentary will help shed some light on these types of travesties.

  2. I have watched this trial since the beginning, as I lived in Memphis at the time. The whole story reeks of the worst our justice system has to offer.

    The Alford plea offers one important caveat as well… They can’t sue for wrongful imprisonment. Again…the whole story is a horrible study of the American judicial system if you happen to be poor or remotely different from the majority.

  3. Yes, in the third HBO documentary, there is footage of the official in Arkansas admitting to opting for the Alford plea in order to avoid costing the state a civil suit brought by the defendants. It did get them out of jail, but without being exonerated, it’s cold comfort, I’m sure. There are those who still believe the three men are guilty despite the DNA evidence to the contrary. I think it’s hard in this kind of mass hysteria to deal with such issues reasonably, but by jumping to conclusions (such as the whole Satan worship thing), the real killer of those poor little boys has been allowed to go free for nearly 20 years.

    • Yeah, it’s screening at Sundance in January. That means maybe it’ll make its way to our Traverse City Film Festival in the summer. Looking forward to seeing it. And I just read where they’re now working on a feature film about the West Memphis Three. They’re really mining the heck out of it, but all good to shine a light on it.

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