Filmmakers take up cause of West Memphis Three
An interview with Amy Berg, director of “West of Memphis,” a documentary that tells the story of three teenage boys hastily convicted of killing three children in Arkansas in 1993 — and the subsequent fight to free them.
Seattle Times movie critic
‘West of Memphis’
Opens in Seattle March 15. Rated R, for disturbing, violent content and some language.
When Oscar-nominated director Amy Berg (“Deliver Us from Evil”) first heard from producers Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh six years ago, she wasn’t very familiar with the West Memphis Three. The story of three teenage boys convicted of killing three children in 1993 Arkansas had been explored in the “Paradise Lost” documentaries by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, but Berg at the time knew little about the case.
“I had to go and do my homework,” she said, in an interview at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall for her documentary “West of Memphis” (opening in Seattle March 15). “Before I signed on, I needed to be convinced that this guy was innocent.”
“This guy” was Damien Echols, one of the three accused youths, and the focal point for a movement to free them that gathered momentum for many years. Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley were found guilty in 1994, in two controversial trials that many saw as a rush to sentencing to calm a panicked community. “Joe and Bruce were down there when the trial was going on — a witch hunt was happening, and they were capturing that,” said Berg.
A former investigative journalist, Berg spent six months studying the case. “The more I read, I was becoming more and more outraged,” she said, describing the volume of conflicting evidence. “It’s an intoxicating case — you get pulled in.”
Jackson and Walsh, makers of the “Lord of the Rings” films, became intrigued in 2005 by the idea of making a new documentary about the West Memphis Three. “It wasn’t a question of, oh, this story’s been told,” Berg said, referring to the “Paradise Lost” documentaries (made in 1996 and 2000; a third was released on HBO in early 2012). “It was a whole new vantage point on the case, because so much information had been investigated between 1999 and 2008.”
Among the new developments: DNA evidence uncovered in 2007 found no connection between the three young men and the victims — but did identify a hair belonging to the stepfather of one of the children. (Though “West of Memphis” presents him as a more-than-plausible suspect, he was never investigated.)
Eventually, the story found an ending, if not exactly a fairy-tale one. In 2010, the Arkansas Supreme Court (after years of pressure) agreed to call a hearing to discuss a new trial. Before that could happen, in August of 2011, the three men were released under an Alford plea (in which they maintain their innocence but plead guilty, and were sentenced to time served). As Berg explained, they’re now free men, but won’t be cleared of the crimes unless they were granted an exoneration, or if a new investigation found somebody else responsible for the murders.
Though Berg has moved on to other projects (her feature-film debut, “Every Secret Thing,” is about to begin production), the story of the West Memphis Three still haunts her.
“I don’t even know if you can let go of it, at this point,” she said. “I feel so responsible to help them, to use the film as a tool to get them exonerated. It’s unfair that they have to live with that on their record.”
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org