The harrowing new documentary ‘West of Memphis,’ premiered at Florence Gould Hall in New York on Friday night. Written and directed by Amy Berg, the film sheds light on the conviction and release of Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley, who served 18 years in prison for the 1993 murder of three eight-year-old boys — Stevie Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore — in West Memphis, Arkansas.
The case was made famous by the 1996 HBO documentary “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills,’ which showed that the men were convicted based on little evidence.
Following the film’s release, Johnny Depp, Eddie Vedder, Peter Jackson, and numerous high profile figures began advocating for the release of the three men, known as the West Memphis Three.
In 2011, the men were released as part of the Alford plea deal–which allowed them to plead guilty but maintain their innocence.
Jackson, along with wife Fran Walsh, produced ‘West of Memphis’ and was on hand to discuss whether not the involvement of celebrities led to the men being released.
“They got freed because of the investigative work. It wasn’t because of celebrities. It was because of the actual evidence that we uncovered. When we got involved, we wanted our names to be kept under the radar because we didn’t think that was going to help,” Jackson told Shockya. “The celebrity advocacy was very important because it drew people’s attention to it and the way to shine a spotlight on this case is to get the politicians to do the right thing but ultimately that alone is not going to be enough to get the case overturned. It has to be based on evidence and so it was forensic expertise, it was DNA results, it was those things more than anything that really got these guys out.”
Echols, along with wife Lorri Davis, was also in attendance and shared what he wanted audiences to take away from ‘West of Memphis.’
“This was more of an investigative piece versus the earlier films (about the case). Those were almost like reality TV were you set the camera up and capture what’s in front of it. This was an actual arm of the investigation while we were going forward. So when you’re watching the movie, you’re basically watching what we would have presented in court had we been through another hearing.
“A lot of it is just the things we couldn’t get out in court,” he continued. “At least we can get them out to the public now and they can see that.”
Davis, who met and married Echols while he was in jail, said that the film presents a message about the human spirit.
“The legal aspects are important but we also want people to walk away feeling inspired,” Davis said. “There’s an element of trying to get through hardship and if someone’s going through something, we want them to feel like they can overcome it because that’s a big part of our story.”
The upcoming feature ‘The Devil’s Knot,’ starring Reese Witherspoon and Colin Firth, is the first feature film that centers on the case.
Those who wish to get involved in the re-opening of the case, which will allow the men to be exonerated of the crime are encouraged to call prosecutor Scott Ellington at 870 932 1513.
‘West of Memphis’ opens on Dec. 25.