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Sir Arthur Conan Doyle once wrote that it is every man’s business to see justice done. That idea lives on in “West of Memphis,” a film funded and produced by Oscar winners Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh to showcase the miscarriage of justice in the case of the West Memphis Three.
Filled with legal twists and turns, the documentary, spearheaded by the “Lord of the Rings” filmmakers and director Amy Berg, chronicles the 18-year fight to free the West Memphis Three, a trio of poor Arkansas teens who were wrongfully imprisoned in 1994 for the murders of three eight-year-old Cub Scouts.
“This was a crime that was heinous on all counts. It robbed three families of their loved ones. It robbed three poor teenagers of real justice. It rocked a community and shocked the country,” Berg told WWD at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival.
In 1993, the bodies of Michael Moore, Christopher Byers and Stevie Branch were found in a drainage ditch in the poor rural community of West Memphis, Ark. Prosecutors were convinced the crime was part of a satanic ritual. Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr. were found guilty of the crime. Yet even as they were shuffled off to prison, people began to have doubts about the evidence gathered by the West Memphis police.
“The prosecution’s case relied on a false confession forced out of Jessie Misskelley, who was mentally deficient, and on testimony that had been largely recanted in the years since the trial,” said Berg. “But the officials behind this conviction were unwilling to admit they had made a mistake. That was the real source of all the trouble behind this witch hunt.”
That belief was certainly nothing new.
Directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky relayed that message, as well as a long litany of courtroom discrepancies, in the 1996 film “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills,” the first of three HBO films on the case. According to these filmmakers, officials zeroed in on these teenagers because they listened to strange music and dressed in black from head to toe.
Jackson and Walsh were outraged after seeing “Paradise Lost” in 2005 and reached out to Lorri Davis, who had met and married Echols while he was on death row and was leading the fight to free these men.
Jackson and Walsh then went on to contribute substantial funds to find new DNA evidence to exonerate the men. That evidence is spotlighted by Berg with a cool, critical hand.
“Even if you knew nothing about this story, people will feel angry, emotional and satisfied when all the facts are laid out,” said Berg.
Best known for her 2006 Oscar-nominated documentary “Deliver Us from Evil,” Berg was first contacted by Jackson and Walsh in 2008, but was hesitant to sign on.
“I thought I’d spend a couple of months in Arkansas doing some research. That turned into two-and-a-half years,” said Berg.
As she dug into the records, she, too, noted disturbing discrepancies. “Whatever was presented in court just didn’t hold up. It didn’t prove anything about the killings,” she said.
Meeting Echols on death row cemented Berg’s commitment to the project.
“When the state finally allowed for DNA testing in the case evidence, Damien was the first person in line to give his hair. To me, that was a testament of his innocence. That’s when I committed,” said Berg.
In 2011, Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley were released from prison after accepting the state’s offer of an “Alford Plea,” a legal maneuver that allowed the men to maintain their innocence while accepting a guilty plea. That moment is captured on film, as are the men’s first steps to acclimate to life outside of prison.
“West of Memphis” also points a finger at Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of victim Stevie Branch, who it alleges was the real killer. The 54-year-old man emerged as a possible suspect in 2007 when Echols’ lawyers announced they had found two hairs at the crime scene that could be linked to Hobbs.
In one riveting scene, three friends of Hobbs’ nephew admit they knew about “the Hobbs family secret.” Hobbs has since denied any involvement. He refused to cooperate on the making of this movie.
Today, the West Memphis Three say they would still be in prison had it not been for Walsh, Jackson and Berg.
“Wrongful imprisonment should not happen in the United States of America. But I have hope for change,” said Berg.