Peter Jackson, Amy Berg speak on “West of Memphis”

20 Dec

Director Amy Berg and producer Peter Jackson discuss "West of Memphis" at the Sundance Film Festival

Director Amy Berg and producer Peter Jackson discuss “West of Memphis” at the Sundance Film Festival

Damien Echols and Lorri Davis.

Damien Echols and Lorri Davis.

Listening to Academy Award-nominated director Amy Berg tell the story of “West of Memphis,” it’s easy to see why she says, “I have no faith in the justice system.” After all, Berg spent the better part of two years working on a documentary film about the so-called Memphis Three—three teenage boys sentenced to prison, one to a death sentence, for the murders of three young boys in Arkansas.
Berg, along with two of those men, sat down at the Sundance Film Festival last January, along with Academy Award- winning director team Peter Jackson and partner Fran Walsh, first-time filmmaker Lorri Davis and a team of their supporters, answering questions about the documentary. It has aired on HBO and will be released on video on Christmas Day.
In a nutshell, here’s the backstory. In 1993, three 8-year-old boys were found murdered in West Memphis, Arkansas. Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelly Jr. were arrested and charged with the crimes. They were portrayed by prosecutors as devil-worshipping metalheads, and later convicted. Echols, 18 at the time, was sentenced to death, while the other two, both under 18, received life sentences. A documentary made in 1996 labeled the trial a sham, and it outraged a number of celebrity supporters of the three—-including Jackson and Walsh. In 2004, they began quietly financing investigations to get the men released.
That happened in August 2011, when after 18 years in prison, the three men were finally freed—-but not exonerated. In exchange for their release, they took what’s called the “Alford plea,” which allows them to proclaim their innocence but also allows the state of Arkansas to proclaim their guilt. Now, Jackson, Walsh, Davis, Berg and the three men themselves are working on that next step-—exoneration.
“Our fight has been to exonerate these three guys,” Jackson said. “When we first saw [Paradise Lost—the 1996 documentary], we just assumed the case was finished. But when we learned it was carrying on, we contacted Lorri (Damien’s wife) and began emailing back and forth. And we became friends.”
Echols learned of the correspondence between Davis and Jackson/Walsh, but “she tried to isolate herself from me in what she was doing. She truly did this all on her own—working with Peter and Fran and Amy,” he said.
One of the men’s attorneys, Stephen Braga, was also present at Sundance for this interview, and he said, quite accurately, “We had a secret weapon working for us-—Amy Berg.”
She joined the effort, and wrote the script for the documentary, which tells the story of the fight these three men had to bring the truth to light.
“You have to know that 90 percent of the time, the courts get things right,” Braga said. “Obviously, it’s a shame for the many others who are in the same place where Damien, Jason and Jessie were.” And Echols stated that a fellow inmate he befriended is fighting the same battle for this life right now—sitting on death row for a murder Echols believes the guy didn’t commit.
“In the beginning, I was shocked,” Echols said when he learned of Jackson’s involvement, “That stuff doesn’t happen in the world I came from. It’s weird when I see one of the “Lord of the Rings” movies now, that the guy who made it is the guy you had dinner with.”
For her part, Berg, who came on after Jackson and Walsh contacted her about the story, said her goal is forcing Arkansas to deal with the case properly.
“Right now, the families of the murdered children have no justice, and the three guys who were wrongly convicted have no justice.”

Post and photos by Tom Haraldsen

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