Despite the fact that three well-received documentaries have already been made about the case (“Paradise Lost 1-3”, directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky), the press release for a new film produced by Peter Jackson and his wife/creative partner Fran Walsh entitled “West of Memphis” nevertheless announces it as one that “chronicl[es] the untold story behind one of the most infamous miscarriages of justice in American history; the story of an extraordinary and desperate fight to stop the State of Arkansas from killing an innocent man.”
While not a completely accurate statement by any stretch, the new film – which was just completed – nevertheless does appear to cover the long eleven-year stretch between “Paradise Lost 2: Revelations” (2000) and “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory”, the latter of which screened at this year’s Toronto and New York Film Festivals. In particular, it focuses on the long fight of Damien Echols – the only one of the men known as the “West Memphis Three” to receive a death sentence after being convicted of killing three young boys in Arkansas in the mid-1990s – to save his own life by clearing his name through a new investigation.
Along with co-defendants Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr., 1994 Echols was convicted of brutally murdering second-graders Stevie Branch, Michael Moore, and Christopher Byers in the small town of West Memphis, Arkansas in 1994 (Baldwin and Misskelley were both sentenced to life in prison). However, the investigation by the local police department became the subject of widespread criticism, and many believed the three men – only teenagers at the time of their arrest and conviction – to be innocent of the crime.
It was in 2005 that Jackson and Walsh became involved in the case by funding a new investigation, and in 2007 DNA evidence previously collected at the crime scene was tested using updated technologies – with the tests revealing no evidence linking Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley to the murders. However, the presiding judge disallowed the presentation of this evidence in court and upheld the convictions of the three men.
“September 2008 was one of my lowest points,” Echols has stated. “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”.”
Helmed by Amy Berg, director of the Oscar-nominated 2005 documentary “Deliver Us From Evil”, “West of Memphis” details the investigation bankrolled by Jackson and Walsh, an investigation which ultimately pointed to other suspects not duly considered by the West Memphis police department. It was this new evidence, including the DNA tests, which earlier this year finally led to the State of Arkansas allowing Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley to enter an Alford plea – a rare move that allowed the men to essentially plead guilty while simultaneously maintaining their innocence. While the plea deal secured the trio’s release from prison, in the eyes of the law they’re still technically considered as being guilty of the crime.
“Seven years ago, Fran and I began this journey with Damien and Lorri, having no idea where it would lead,” said Jackson in a statement. “We now realise, 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.”
The film, which does not yet have a distributor, was produced by Echols and his wife Lorri Davis along with Jackson and Walsh. It includes an examination of the original case and interviews with several individuals involved with the case including the defendants, local police officers, prosecutors and defense lawyers, forensic experts and celebrity supporters of the men including Jackson, Eddie Vedder, Henry Rollins and Natalie Maines. The film also features music by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis.
Weigh in with your thoughts on “West of Memphis” in the comments! Particularly interested in getting the perspective of those who have seen one or more of the “Paradise Lost” films…