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JACKSON, PETER – WEST OF MEMPHIS

AN ARKANSORE
Why did Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh spend millions of their own money on the defence of a stranger halfway across the world in Arkansas and $2 million more on the documentary - West of Memphis - about the case? And what does Satan have to do with it? Andrew L. Urban put the questions to Jackson on the eve of the film’s Australian release (February 14, 2013).


It’s lunchtime for busy Peter Jackson, one of the world’s most talented and successful filmmakers, and the only time he can spare 20 minutes for a phone interview about a film that’s finished but a matter that is far from over. It all began in 2005 while Jackson and his partner Fran Walsh were watching a 1996 documentary on TV, called Paradise Lost (by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky). The film was an exploration of the three teenagers found guilty of the horrific 1993 murder of three 8 year old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas.

"it was watching a miscarriage of justice"

“We were intrigued and horrified,” says Jackson, “it was watching a miscarriage of justice.” And at stake was the life of one of three convicted, who faced the death sentence: Damien Echols. He, along with Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley were to become known as the West Memphis 3 – WM3 – in the protracted fight to have their innocence recognised. That fight continues, despite all three being free men. The irony is that they are free only because after 18 years in jail they pleaded guilty, a legal trickery referred to as the Alford plea, in which the State of Arkansas records a guilty plea but allows the defendants to claim their innocence.

Nonsense? Not if you see it from the State’s point of view. First there is the money: three men wrongly convicted spending 18 years in jail could sue the State (short of cash as it is) for as much as $60 million between them. Second, there are careers and reputations, from judges to lawyers to police officers … and the State’s own reputation for irresponsibility in their justice system. So, Alford is the name of the bitter tasting compromise.

But that’s the story at the end of 2012 when West of Memphis was finished and edited. In the seven years from the time Jackson and Walsh jumped off their couch and onto the internet to find out more, they were drawn deeper and deeper into the fight. “We expected by then to read that they’d been freed since the doco was made.” Not so.

"We just wanted to help"

“On their website we found they were asking for donations to help fight the case, and we sent a donation. We just wanted to help. Then Damien’s wife, Lorri Davis, who was leading the campaign, wrote to thank us and we quickly struck up a friendship. It became personal; there was a life in jeopardy. She’d talk to him every day, visit him once a week … and we got more and more actively involved, especially bringing more organisation to the project. But we didn’t want our names attached at that stage, and we didn’t want to draw attention to us funding the investigation.”

The investigation had to be more sophisticated than the original probe carried out by a hamfisted small town police force. Jackson and Walsh took the attitude that “it was God who put them in jail and science was going to get them out.” What he means by God putting them there is that a key part of the prosecution case relied on linking the murders to Satanic practices. That was 1993 and there was a world wide panic about Satanic cults, almost like a black fashion, that infected hundred if not thousands of murder probes. In Arkansas, a deeply religious State where superstition and Satan linked arms, such things had enormous impact. And before you scoff, remember Lindy Chamberlain …

Damien Echols’ defence team now had serious muscle, with Jackson and Walsh hiring five of the top forensic pathologists plus a reluctant John Douglas, a highly respected FBI profiler who had to be persuaded to join a defence team; he was used to “putting bad people behind bars, not working to get them released”. 

“We wanted John Douglas to profile the actual killer,” says Jackson. And finally he agreed – and he also pointed out that in his 20 years with the FBI he had never found a single murder case in which there was any evidence to implicate a Satanic cult, although many a case had been presented that way.

"The conversation is damning"

One of the most extraordinary scenes in West of Memphis is a phone call between Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of one of the murdered boys, and his good friend Derek Jacoby. By this stage, Hobbs has been identified as a suspect (not by police, mind you, but the DNA evidence dismissed by Judge Burnett); the camera is on Jacoby as we hear the actual conversation. Jacoby had been coached by Douglas. “If Hobbs is the perpetrator, he’ll try to confuse you,” Douglas told Jacoby. “He’ll try to confuse you about the time and everything else, and to implicate you to scare you and get you on his side…” The conversation is damning, if not in any direct confessional sense, in its contextual impact.

All this investigative was taking time – 4 years by then – and it meant working with Damien’s legal team (they were working exclusively with Echols’ team - the other two defendants had their own legal teams.), who had to be convinced that “we didn’t want to exploit the situation, that we weren’t there to make a movie.” And at the time, they weren’t. 

That came when they hit the brick wall of Arkansas justice. “It was late in 2008 when Damien had his last real chance in the Arkansas court to get an evidentiary hearing so we could present the new evidence we had gathered, including the DNA material which was critical and the evidence that negated the prosecution’s emotive but nonsensical argument about Satan’s role. It was to have been the last step before a retrial.”

The hearing was back before Judge Burnett, the same judge who tried the case and who again showed less than judicial fairness. “We felt he’d want to preserve his own judgement …” and sure enough, Burnett dismissed everything put forward with an irritable wave of his judicial hand as if to say why are you wasting my time. “He was trying to get Damien killed,” says Jackson, “and it made us angry. It was a helpless situation and that’s when we thought we should make a documentary where we can present all this evidence.”

Echols’ legal team reluctantly agreed – subject to strict guidelines, including the timing of the film’s release. 

"We now needed a filmmaker who could devote the time and had the ability to make the film"

“We now needed a filmmaker who could devote the time and had the ability to make the film,” says Jackson, and they thought of Amy Berg, who made Deliver Us From Evil (2006), exploring priestly abuse of children. “We felt she wouldn’t be intimidated… so we rang her and she flew to New Zealand and it took a while before she felt confident she could do it. It was after she got people to talk who had never spoken to investigators before that the legal team gave her their full confidence.”

Berg was in final stages of post production, editing together her own footage with archival material, when the office got a call “about the possibility of Damien’s release,” Jackson recalls. This was when his team recommended the unusual Alford plea. “Amy jumped on a plane and got a crew to shoot what became the last 20 minutes of the film.”

Damien’s life had been saved, “but the result made nobody happy,” says Jackson. And he’s still pursuing the goal of having Damien Echols proclaimed innocent. “We’ve got private investigators working on it continuously.”

Published February 14, 2013



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