In the early 1990s, in the town of West Memphis, Arkansas, teenagers Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley were convicted of the murders of three eight-year-old boys, killed – the prosecution claimed – during a satanic ritual. Labelled the West Memphis Three, Baldwin and Misskelley were given life imprisonment, and Echols was sentenced to death.
Although new evidence subsequently threw significant doubt over their guilt, the trial judge repeatedly denied calls for a retrial. An HBO documentary broadcast in 1996, Paradise Lost, initially raised the profile of this miscarriage of justice, and aroused the interest of filmmaker Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings trilogy) and his partner Fran Walsh.
Directed by Amy Berg, a Los Angeles-born filmmaker best-known for her Academy Award-nominated Deliver Us from Evil (2006), the resulting documentary is co-produced by the wrongly accused Damien Echols and his wife Lorri Davis, a campaigner for his acquittal.
Raking back over the evidence, and finding new witnesses to shed some light on the events of 1993, Berg’s film was in production when the Arkansas court finally bowed to public pressure and freed the prisoners.
Turning up some disturbing truths about the fallibility of the American legal system, West of Memphis bears comparison with Errol Morris’s classic The Thin Blue Line (1988) as an example of film as an intervention in cases of injustice.
When did you first get involved in this project?
I came onto the scene pretty late in the mix. There had been so many people involved in this case. I was approached by the producers, Peter Jackson and his partner Fran Walsh, after they had spent a few years funding an investigation. They brought all this new information [to light]. There was some DNA that was tested which matched one of the stepfathers [of the murdered children], and top experts had analysed the autopsy and photos.
There was compelling evidence to give these guys a new trial. They brought it to the judge and he just slammed the door: “No, no, no.” So they were frustrated and didn’t know what to do. [At this point] they called me.
Did your investigations contribute to the case being reopened?
A lot of things led to that. But I found some new witnesses, who had never gone on the record before that would’ve completely thrown the trial on its head. The witnesses that the original trial rested on had admitted that they lied on the stand, and they were using drugs at the time. If you string it all together, it’s this big deal and I think there was fear that when this came out it would make them look pretty bad. So there was this groundswell of support which was growing: public opinion was visibly shifting over this period that I was down there.
How did Peter Jackson first get interested in this case?
There was a documentary that came out in 1996 [Paradise Lost] that he saw sometime after that. He felt connected with Damien. Just like everybody else who got behind him [he thought]: “Wow, that could have been me.”
Because the case was closed after the original trial, all the documents became public record, so people started travelling down there to the police station, xeroxing things and putting them on the internet. An investigation started online that was really interesting: people were looking at the case with a fine-tooth comb and pointing out discrepancies in statements, doing timelines and autopsy reports, alternative theories – the internet was a really powerful thing in this case.
Why did you make your film for the cinema rather than the television?
I really like film. I think it’s a great medium [for documentary]. People get so distracted at home. What’s so important about the documentary is being completely invested in the entire story for about two hours. It’s harder to do that in increments, because everything is leading to something else.
Did you face any resistance during your investigations?
There was an inherent issue in that people in law enforcement do not like to admit that they’ve made a mistake. So you have this whole case proving that they made not just one mistake but many mistakes. It was difficult because they just don’t want to come clean.
I feel it’s such a great opportunity to admit that you’re in it for justice. That’s what they’re supposed to be in it for. But no, they were like: “They are guilty – I know they did it – Look at them – You weren’t here at the time.” But none of these are real reasons for not taking it up again.
It’s unfortunate because you want to believe that the justice system is working based on the concept of finding the truth, but it seems like it’s driven by winning and convictions and money instead. In the UK you don’t have political elections in the justice system, but our judges are elected, our prosecutors are elected.
That sets a very strange tone because they’re worried about their constituents and raising money. It’s wrong. And then there’s the death penalty. You guys got rid of it here after you made a mistake, and then you admitted that you made a mistake. That doesn’t happen in America.