Prod: Peter Jackson & Damien Echols
Last night’s screening of West Of Memphis at The Civic was one of those evenings that will be remembered as one of the New Zealand Film Festival’s shining moments. In addition to the screening, the evening featured a Q&A session with producer Peter Jackson along with Damien Echols, who was released from prison last year after serving more than 18 years on death row for the murder of three eight-year-old boys. Also on hand was Lorri Davis, Echols’ long-time advocate and now-wife.
For those of you unfamiliar with the West Memphis Three saga…three children were found murdered in the small town of West Memphis, Arkansas in 1993. In what can easily be described as a witch hunt, three teenage boys were quickly rounded up, accused and convicted of the horrific crime. The three young men…Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley…were never physically connected to the murder scene, their only crime seemed to be dressing in black, listening to Metallica and reading Stephen King novels. Thanks to some prompting by the local police, the townspeople were convinced this was the work of a satanic cult and Baldwin and Misskelley were given life sentences while Echols was sent to death row to await execution.
As the 1996 HBO documentary Paradise Lost revealed, a huge miscarriage of justice had taken place. HBO followed their first film up with another…Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh watched the DVD in 2005…and when they found out the three were still in prison, decided to do what they could to help.
West Of Memphis is the result of that assistance. As the film reveals, Jackson and Walsh spent their time, money and resources to find new evidence to exonerate the three. This included rather convincing DNA results and statements from witnesses who had not been spoken to back in 93. The local authorities were unimpressed when confronted with the new evidence and Jackson felt the only way to save Echols from execution was to present his case to the court of public opinion.
For those who have seen the, now three, HBO documentaries, there is still plenty of new information contained in West Of Memphis to keep things interesting. Director Amy Berg does a fine job of presenting the facts of the original case while getting to the new material in good time (the film is over two hours long). What is surprising is how much actual detective work Jackson and Walsh apparently did to bring this new evidence to light.
In the course of their investigation they focus on Terry Hobbs, stepfather of one of the victims, as a possible alternate suspect. Their evidence and the footage of Hobbs testifying is quite damning. This was the only part of the film that left me with second thoughts. As suspicious as Hobbs seems to be, I couldn’t help but think the film was doing to Hobbs what had been done to Echols, trying him in public.
I don’t want to seem too critical. I would bet that the filmmakers felt this is what they had to do to save Echols’ life. And Jackson and Walsh are to be commended for spending so much time and money on such a worthy cause.
Jackson’s emotional investment in this case was on display during the Q&A session that followed the screening. He bristled when discussing the law enforcement officials and politicians that sent Echols and his friend to prison.
But it was Echols who the crowd really wanted to hear from. Free for just over a year, the aspiring writer and artist was gracious, articulate and honest. Still acclimating himself to life in the 21st century, he spoke candidly about his relationship with Baldwin and Misskelley, his own family and his debt of gratitude to Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh.
As I said, this was a night to remember. One of the audience members asking a question almost called Sir Peter Jackson “Saint” Peter. After what he and Fran Walsh did for the West Memphis Three, you could understand why.