"It's a living, breathing thing," says director Amy Berg of Sundance doc "West of Memphis," backed by producer-financeers Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh. The film, which Sony Pictures Classics opens in NY and LA on December 25, revisits the 18-year imprisonment of the innocent “West Memphis 3”: Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr. The documentary presents new witnesses and forensic evidence that exonerates the three men and points to others as responsible for the murder of Stevie Branch, Chris Byers and Michael Moore. It reveals a gross miscarriage of justice by the Arkansas justice system.
Over the past few months a number of free screenings of "West of Memphis" in Arkansas and Tennessee have helped to focus attention on the film and the ongoing investigation. There is a confidential tip line and a $200,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of anyone responsible for the murders: 501.556.1775. The filmmakers are still trying to get the film in front of former Arkansas governor and president Bill Clinton, says Amy Berg, who sat down with me after a Sneak Previews screening (Q & A is below).
An Arkansas judge recently ruled on reopening the case of the released West Memphis Three. New evidence has been unearthed by investigators hired by Jackson and Walsh during the filming of "West of Memphis." Crittenden County Circuit Court Judge Victor L. Hill ruled that state prosecutor Scott Ellington’s ongoing investigation should continue.
According to the decision by Judge Hill, "The prosecutor has the right and obligation to ascertain whether a miscarriage of justice might have occurred…That is his prerogative and he might even be said to derelict in that duty if he failed to conduct such an investigation."
The hearing was in response to a suit seeking access to police evidence in the West Memphis Three murder case filed by Pam Hicks and John Mark Byers (two of the parents of the three West Memphis children murdered in 1993). Hicks stated that she wants closure: “I am asking for everything! Everything I can get, use and know so that an investigation allows for the right person to pay for this crime.”
Anne Thompson: When were you enlisted for the film?
Amy Berg: Three and a half years ago.
AT: And when did Peter Jackson get actively involved in trying to free the West Memphis Three, who were in prison from 1993 until they were freed in 2011?
AB: He got involved about 8 years ago. He was privately involved until they were released from prison. He just did not think that having his name affiliated with this would help the case, because it's Arkansas and it's seen as a Hollywood influence rather than common sense.
AT: So he spent money to make this happen. What did he and Fran do to advance the case?
AB: Well they spent millions of dollars. His first expense was hiring all of the forensics experts. And once there was this opinion that this was post-mortem activity it just went from there. But they spent so much money investigating the case.
AT: And he literally saved this trio's lives. Would they have been freed otherwise?
AB: There's no way. I think it's all in the film, but there's just no way anything would have happened if he wasn't involved.
AT: When you took this on there was already a movement that had grown over the years, Johnny Depp and a whole lot of people just fighting for this cause.
AB: There was this great movement behind the scenes, but when I came onto this project, nobody was public about it because it was so negative to have a celebrity behind you in Arkansas. They just discredited everything, so about a year and a half after I started this project there was the event, which we documented in the film and you could feel public opinion had shifted at that point. From then on, until they got out, it was obvious they would get out, but it was just the State continuing to delay and it's still going on today. There was an (October 24) hearing in Arkansas. The prosecutor watched the film and has now interviewed witnesses that are in the film, that was actually edited in a week before Sundance. And they're now investigating Terry Hobbs in Arkansas, but this is just happening… It's like a living breathing thing.