While The Hobbit, Peter Jackson's prequel to his Tolkien-inspired Lord of the Rings series, leads the box office charts, the New Zealand director was in town last week for its premiere, but that was not the only film he has opening. The next night, he introduced his film of passion, West of Memphis, the documentary he and partner Fran Walsh produced and funded themselves, a cause célèbre in the United States revisiting the murder of three 8-year-olds in 1993, and the three teens, Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley, who went to jail for the crime.
Amy Berg directs the documentary feature, focusing on the case of the only West Memphis Three (WM3) on death row, Damien Echols, who with his wife Lorri Davis, also produced West of Memphis. While Damien Echols acknowledged Peter Jackson for saving his life, all agree, this film and Echols' story would not be known if not for the decades-in-the-making trilogy, that covered the case as it was evolving, Paradise Lost, produced for HBO by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky.
Here is how it all began: In 1993, a newspaper item about the murder of three 8-year-olds in West Memphis and the three teenaged boys arrested for the crime piqued the interest of HBO's Sheila Nevins. She called the filmmaking team of Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, sending them south to document the case. The filmmakers thought they were going to tell a tale about guilty teens and Satanic rituals in the heartland. Finding the evidence overwhelming that the men were innocent, instead they made a movie that pointed toward a miscarriage of justice.
Paradise Lost 1: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills and 2: Revelations Galvanized Support for the Convicted Young Men. A website was set up. A Brooklyn based architect, Lorri Davis, left her job to work on the release of Damien Echols, ending up married to him. A celebrity following: Eddie Vedder, Johnny Depp, Patti Smith, and Peter Jackson came on board, giving the case further visibility
After 18 years in prison, the men were released in August, 2011, a bittersweet ending. The West Memphis Three had to plead guilty to the crime under a legal catch-22 called the Alford Plea. Innocent, they also had to sign documents saying they would not prosecute the state of Arkansas for wrongfully imprisoning them. Jason Baldwin did not want to comply, but then realizing that Damien Echols could be executed before the case could be retried with new DNA evidence, he saw the importance of essentially playing along with an untruth. Many say that Jason Baldwin's decision saved his friend's life.
In the celebration of their release, one truth is overlooked: the case of three little boys murdered in West Memphis in 1993 remains cold, even though by the end of the Paradise Lost Trilogy: Purgatory, and in West of Memphis, to open on Christmas day, a glaring light shines on Terry Hobbes, a murdered boy's stepfather.
After West of Memphis screened at the French Institute, actors Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan, and an artist who inks Echols, gathered around him, congratulating this freed man on the film and his new book, Life After Death, optioned by Johnny Depp. Echols lives with his wife in Salem, Massachusetts when they are not traveling. He does not see Jason or Jesse, as they did not have contact over the 18 years they were wrongly jailed and did not stay in touch.
Peter Jackson says West of Memphis doesn't have much to do with the other boys because Jackson "was always on Damien's defense team. They all have different defense teams." As a New Zealander looking at the American system of justice, he noted that American officials are elected. "They want to keep their jobs so their sense of justice is biased." On this case, "It is unlikely that someone will do the right thing and pursue the truth of the murders. It is in no one's interest to do so."
In addition to the documentaries, a fiction film by Atom Egoyan is in the works. Alessandro Nivola, so fine as Elle Fanning's father in Sally Potter's gem, Ginger and Rosa, plays Terry Hobbes. The real Terry Hobbes is laying low, working in a hardware store, even though, as Lorri Davis put it, "No one is interested in dealing with 'the Hobbes family secret.'"
Says Joe Berlinger on the occasion of the release of the Paradise Lost boxed set, the WM3's ultimate lesson is the utter immorality of the death penalty, but not from the old debate centered on, does the state have the right to kill? "The justice system is run by human beings who may allow self-interest to get in the way of the truth. There is never a justification for killing an innocent person."
A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.