WHEN Amy Berg was asked by Hobbit director Peter Jackson to make a documentary on the Memphis Three, no-one could have predicted it would coincide with the release of the convicted trio.
Most filmmakers would jump at the chance to work with Peter Jackson, especially if asked to direct a film on his dime with no time constraints. Amy Berg, however, kept her feet firmly on the ground for six months when The Hobbit director approached her to make the documentary West of Memphis. The delay in signing on was understandable, though. The film focuses on the West Memphis Three murder case, and in particular the notoriously shaky 1994 conviction of teenagers Damien Echols, 18, Jason Baldwin, 16, and Jessie Misskelly, 17, for the murder of three eight-year-old boys in Arkansas the previous year.
It took Berg six months to work through the case files, trial footage and subsequent exculpatory evidence in order to convince herself of what Jackson already believed: that Echols, Baldwin and Misskelly were innocent victims of a modern-day witch hunt – one replete with allegations of Satanic activity.
“I wasn’t as up-to-date on the case as they were,” says Berg of Jackson and his wife, Fran Walsh, both of whom had become obsessed with the so-called West Memphis Three since belatedly catching Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s 1996 HBO documentary Paradise Lost and its sequel Paradise Lost 2, both of which had first brought the case worldwide attention. “I had to see if it was something I believed in, but after reading through all the documents I ended up on Death Row, sitting in front of Damien and feeling like it was a miscarriage of justice and that he was wrongfully convicted.”
If this makes it sound as if Berg has come late to a story already well documented by Berlinger and Sinofsky across a total of three Paradise Lost films (not to mention Mara Levit’s non-fiction book Devil’s Knot, which has since been turned into a forthcoming film by Atom Egoyan starring Reese Witherspoon and Colin Firth), nothing could be further from the truth.
As Berg points out, the final Paradise Lost film, Purgatory (which aired on HBO in the US in January of this year and was subsequently nominated for an Oscar in February), only went into production a year after she began working on West of Memphis, meaning it had been 11 years since Berlinger and Sinofsky had made Paradise Lost 2. “Damien hadn’t talked to them in that long and he was on Death Row, so it just felt like a new perspective was welcome at that point. Which is where I came in.”
Berg, who got her investigative journalism training working for CNN and went on to pick up an Oscar nomination for her 2006 documentary Deliver Us From Evil, certainly had a lot of new ground to cover. Jackson and Walsh’s frustrations at what they saw as the ongoing injustice being perpetrated against a Death Row inmate (supposed ringleader Echols; Baldwin and Misskelly were serving consecutive life sentences) had already led them to work directly with Echols’ wife Lorri Davis and his defence team in order to fund new forensic investigations.
The latter resulted in the recovery of new DNA evidence that discounted all three teens from the scene of the crime, as well as more comprehensive analyses of the hitherto misdiagnosed autopsy reports into the deaths of the three little boys: Michael Moore, Stevie Branch and Christopher Byers.
All of this should have led to new evidentiary hearings, but to Jackson and the West Memphis Three’s collective dismay, these were denied once again, in 2008, by the original trial judge shortly before Berg came on board.
Hence Jackson’s desire for Berg to make the film: he wanted to get all this new information out there. For Berg, though, the film was, from the off, a chance to find out what really happened and explore “how the system failed these men so badly”. Holing up in Arkansas, she spent two years fielding obsessive calls from her tenacious backers from the set of The Hobbit while building up trust with the locals in order to find out as much as she could about the case and all the police failures.
“It wasn’t easy to convince anyone to speak,” recalls Berg, who sought out key people who had information on the case but had never talked about it on camera before. “It was more about finding the people and seeing what they knew and what they remembered.”
Her efforts paid off. Several interviewees in the film end up recanting testimony that had previously helped convict Echols, Baldwin and Misskelly, while others implicated the stepfather of one of the murdered eight-year-olds. After systematically and convincingly deconstructing the warped prosecution case, Berg’s decision to home in on the latter as person-of-interest gives the film’s second half a sickeningly compulsive edge.
It has also led to criticisms of the film, although Berg isn’t worried about pointing the finger. “We were very careful,” she says when I ask if she’s anticipating any legal ramifications. “There was a lot more information that we could have considered, like witness statements and hearsay or things that were just suspicious, but we didn’t put any of that stuff in. We stuck to scientific facts and affidavits.”
Whether this development will lead anywhere is unclear, but the case in general reflects a subtle shift that seems to have taken place over the last 18 years. Where once society’s fears were focused on archetypal outsiders like Echols and Baldwin (who seemed to be targeted by police in a large part because they dressed in black, listened to heavy metal and read Stephen King books), now it’s the authority figures that society has traditionally trusted that raise more suspicion. “You’re scratching a really interesting point because here we have someone in this film who was the least suspicious character of them all if you were looking at this from the 1990s perspective, right? The good dad who goes to work every day and is there to give his kids dinner – it all looks a certain way on the surface, but in reality it was not that at all. The stereotypes we’ve built as a culture are shifting.”
Sadly, the American legal system seems to be as frustratingly complex and rigged as ever. One of the most startling developments documented in the film is the sudden release of the convicted trio last August under the auspices of something known as an “Alford Plea” – a bizarre deal in which convicted felons can maintain their innocence while at the same time entering a guilty plea in return for a commuted sentence. “We didn’t see it coming at all,” says Berg. “It’s such a crazy thing to begin with: it seems designed to let the state save face.”
Indeed, by taking the deal, the West Memphis Three have effectively precluded themselves from suing the state for wrongful imprisonment. However, with Echols’ health failing as a consequence of being on Death Row (he hadn’t seen sunlight for seven years before his release), all three men – now well into their 30s – reluctantly agreed that it was in Damien’s best interests to accept the deal, even though it meant they wouldn’t be fully exonerated. What does Berg think that will take? “It kind of seems they have to convict someone else. And I think they have to solve this case once and for all.”
That might be a long time coming, but the fact that they can continue trying to clear their name outside of prison is something Berg never thought she’d see when she started West of Memphis – especially Echols. What was it like filming him as a free man? “Watching him was like watching someone experience life for the first time as an adult,” she beams. “He doesn’t have all the prejudices we build up in our 20s and 30s as part of the social norm. And to see him and Lorri together was beautiful. It just seems like things are getting better for those two.”
• West of Memphis is in cinemas from 21 December.
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