When Amy Berg got a call in 2008 from Peter Jackson—the Academy Award-winning director of Lord of the Rings and the upcoming The Hobbit—she had never heard of the West Memphis Three case. But it isn’t every day you get a call from Peter Jackson, so Berg listened as Jackson explained the story and made his pitch for her to direct a documentary about it. The resulting film, West of Memphis, which opens in theaters next week, explains the entire history, context, and significance of the West Memphis Three case, including presentation of never before seen evidence.
The story begins in 1994, when three teenagers, Damien Echols, Jesse Misskelley, Jr., and Jason Baldwin, were convicted of the murder of three boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. The prosecution concluded that their actions were motivated by "satanic worship rites," as evidenced by bizarre marks found on the victim’s bodies, which seemed to indicate sexual abuse. But there were some problems with the prosecution’s case: Echols, Misskelley Jr., and Baldwin had never previously met the boys, for example. One of them had a verified alibi for the night of the murder. The murdered boys’ parents were never seriously interviewed and considered suspects.
After Baldwin and Misskelley Jr. were sentenced to life in prison and Echols to death row, citizens around the country began looking into the publicly available information about the case, in effect crowdsourcing the investigation. As that process went on and new evidence arose, many were convinced that the West Memphis Three were innocent. The case was also embraced by celebrities including Eddie Vedder, Johnny Depp, and Henry Rollins as an instance of justice gone horribly wrong. In 2005, the case caught the attention of Jackson and his wife and collaborator Fran Walsh. They reached out to Echols’ team, and offered support and financial assistance, including funding new DNA testing, which came back with no valid DNA evidence for any of the three. As the years went on, the case continued to generate publicity and new evidence, but the three remained in jail.
So Jackson and Walsh approached Berg, an Academy Award nominee for her 2006 film Deliver us From Evil about sexual abuse within the Catholic Church, to make a documentary about the case that could reach new audiences and help bring about a new evidentiary hearing and in turn a new trial. Berg spent several months learning about the case and agreed to direct it after she became convinced that the three were innocent. "There was a man on death row and the only way to help in a death row case is media attention," she says about her reasons for taking the project on. "Because we knew they were innocent, we knew this was an injustice. That meant we could look at the whole justice system and how it has really failed."
One key decision Berg made from the outset was to work closely with Damien Echols and his wife Lorri Davis, who served as producers on the film. They were married in 1999 while Echols was still in prison. "If they didn’t like where I went, they could have told me to take something out, but that didn’t happen. That could have backfired. It was a real relationship of trust on both sides," Berg says. "Ultimately this is a love story that is unfortunately handcuffed by the injustice of the system."
Many people, including Jackson and Walsh, first learned about the case through the trilogy of HBO documentaries from Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky that were made over the last two decades about the case: Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996), Paradise Lost 2: Revelations (2000), and Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, which debuted earlier this year. Despite the awareness the HBO films gave the case, Echols couldn’t sit through any of the films because it was too traumatic. All three films were made without the direct involvement of the West Memphis Three. However, West of Memphis marked "The first time that Lorri and I were actually going to have any say in the way our story was told," says Echols. We would have never done the things we did with Amy with anyone else; letting her listen to our phone calls or read our letters. We were always afraid that other people might make that sensational."
Berg lived in Arkansas on and off for at least a year and a half while working on the film. She began by knocking on the doors of anyone and everyone who might be of interest to the case. One of the most striking new pieces of evidence the film brings to light is the fact that the "genital mutilation" of the young boys bodies that led to the "satanic" conclusion turned out to be identifiable by the nation’s leading medical examiners as turtle bites, which presumably took place after the boys had been dead for some time. Snapping turtles are common in the area, and, simple as this explanation has proven to be, it was not considered at the time of their original conviction. Berg presents this information at length, including interviews with some of the medical examiners, but to hammer the point home, she chose to dramatize it by shooting turtles biting flesh (all supervised by The Humane Society) and then showing the bite marks to see how unmistakable a snapping turtle bite is. She says, "That scene alone is worthy of making the film, because it disputes the entire basis for the conviction. That was the state’s thesis that it was satanic. Turtles are not satanic." The film also shows several interviews with family members of one of the murdered boys, Stevie Branch, in which they comment that Branch’s stepfather, Terry Hobbs, had told people that he had killed the boys. The initial plan was to make and release the film as soon as possible to help push for the release of the Three, but the filmmaking process kept bringing new information to light, so they kept going. "In a way the movie became the evidentiary hearing that never happened," says Peter Jackson.
After nearly three years of shooting and editing, Berg had finished the film and was getting it ready to send to the Toronto Film Festival in 2011. But that same day, a deal was put on the table for Echols, Misskelley Jr., and Baldwin to enter an Alford plea, also known as the "I’m guilty but I didn’t do it plea." The maneuver allows someone who has been convicted to be released from jail without being legally exonerated. After much discussion, all three agreed to take the deal. Berg and her team flew to Arkansas and filmed the days immediately before and after their release, and then went back to the edit bay to give the film a new ending. Although Echols, Misskelley Jr., and Baldwin are free, the filmmakers hope that those who see the film, will kept pushing for a new trial and full exoneration. In the long term, they also hope the awareness around this case will help address the wrongful incarceration crisis in America.
For someone who has spent the majority of his life in prison, Echols has very little anger about the past, and is moving boldly forward. He released a book this fall, and has written poetry and music extensively. He is also planning an art exhibit for next year. Now Echols and Davis live in Salem, Massachusetts, the site of the famous 17th century witch trials. The irony is not lost on them. Davis recalled Damien’s observation after a historic tour of the town: "Salem made their mistakes long ago and they know better now. So what better place for us to be."