It sounded, under the circumstances, almost comically naive. For years, the faces of three men who had been found guilty of an appalling crime stared down from a roadside billboard upon the good citizens of West Memphis, Ark. The ad, a call for anonymous tips, was placed there by TheLord of the Rings filmmaker Peter Jackson, who had taken an interest in the notorious case. Two of the so-called West Memphis Three were serving life sentences; the other was on death row. On the billboard, next to the men’s photos, was the hopeful proclamation: “Information is freedom.”
But in June of 1993, when the teenage suspects had been taken into custody and charged with the horrific torture and murders of three eight-year-old boys in what authorities alleged was a satanic ritual, information did not equal freedom. West of Memphis, a damning documentary playing at the Toronto International Film Festival, makes it clear that information in the hands of an aggressive prosecution and a rabid media created a modern-day Deep South Crucible.
Journalists tell stories for a living; and as the twists and turns of the West Memphis case continue to illustrate, sometimes journalists can be a little too in thrall to the story to remember they’re supposed to be chasing the truth.
“The media helped convict these guys,” says Joe Berlinger, who with his partner, Bruce Sinofsky, directed and produced the HBO Paradise Lost documentary trilogy that first brought the case to the world’s attention.
Days after the teens were arrested, Memphis daily newspaper The Commercial Appeal published a confession by one of them that had been obtained under questionable circumstances. TV stations picked up the ball. Amid the frenzy that ensued, Oprah Winfrey and Geraldo Rivera hosted specials on the apparent trend of Satanism among teens. And for every supper-hour newscast, the local media “wanted to tell the Devil-worshipping story,” said Berlinger, in an interview this week. “The jury pool had seen hundreds of negative stories about these kids before the trial began.”
It was compelling, gothic stuff: teenagers, in thrall to a cult, knocking out their prey, hog-tying them each to a log, cutting off their genitals, sucking their blood in a ritual sacrifice, and then tossing them into a river. It hardly mattered that there was no physical evidence tying them to the crime. After all, Damien Echols, fingered as the ringleader, had filled notebooks with rambling writings about magic and sacrifice. His name was found around town in graffiti, next to spray-painted pentagrams. Witnesses stepped forward to put muscle on the prosecution’s case.
“The press was extremely lazy, initially,” says Berlinger. “They had to feed the nightly news and the morning headlines, and nobody did any deep investigatory work. It was much easier to sling out, basically, press releases from the prosecutor’s office.”
But like a stopped clock, even the media can get something right once in a while. So if the local newspapers and TV stations and syndicated afternoon programs and national cable shows were only too happy at first to be the Frankenstein that crushed the West Memphis Three, the media also eventually became the engine that saved them.
It started with the first instalment of Paradise Lost: Shortly after it came out in 1996, Johnny Depp reached out to the filmmakers. He became an advocate, lending his name to fundraisers and appeals. Though he is in West of Memphis for less than one minute, Depp will appear Saturday at a TIFF press conference, in support of the film. So will Natalie Maines, the Dixie Chicks lead singer who unintentionally helped blow the case wide open when she said something about the stepfather of one of the murdered boys who had come under suspicion for the crime: He sued her for defamation and got hit with blowback, finding himself in a cross-examination by her attorneys that proved very revealing. (He also lost the suit.)
In 2005, after Jackson and his wife, Fran Walsh, also caught Paradise Lost on TV, they were appalled, and immediately committed to get the trio exonerated. They paid for the collection and analysis of new DNA samples, for new interrogations of people who had flown under the radar during the original case, and for the opinions of experts who offered more credible theories than some of the crackpots who had appeared at the original trial.
Jackson and Walsh also hired Amy Berg, an award-winning filmmaker, to produce West of Memphis, a movie about their quest to see justice served.
Still, the West Memphis case hints at the limits of Hollywood power. Arkansas was determined that no outsiders were going to dictate how its courts would handle a case. Although it grudgingly released the West Memphis Three from prison in August, 2011, the state continues to resist calls to exonerate them.
And even when the media is on the side of the angels, as it now appears to be in the case of the West Memphis Three, there are troubling wrinkles. Last year, a dispute between the Paradise Lost and West of Memphis filmmakers spilled out into the open, revealing that each side had made remunerative deals for exclusive access to certain players in the case.
There is also a question of journalistic independence. Jackson hired Berg; as the producer of West of Memphis, he paid for and has ultimate control over the film. But he also appears onscreen at some length to explain his participation in the case. Similarly, Echols and his wife, Lorri Davis, are listed as producers, even as they are the film’s primary characters. Berg, in an interview Thursday afternoon, said those producer credits are more pro forma than material. “Damien wanted his story and his truth to be in this film,” she explained. “He didn’t even give me any notes.”
As for Jackson’s involvement, she makes a comparison to her earlier life in network TV. “When I worked for CBS News, I remember spending six months doing research on this story that was about the pharmaceutical industry, and my bosses didn’t let me go into production on that – because [the drug companies] advertised on the station.
“There’s always an interest, especially in the news today. It’s completely turned into a business.”
FILMS AND BOOKS ON THE WEST MEMPHIS CASE
Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996)The trial and conviction.
Paradise Lost 2: Revelations (2000)Suspicion falls on Mark Byers, the step-father of one of the victims.
Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (2011)The men are sprung from prison, and suspicion swivels to Terry Hobbs, another victim's step-father.
West of Memphis (2012)Takes in all the ruined lives left in the wake of the murders.
Devil’s Knot(2013): Atom Egoyan’s fictional take on the tale, starring Reese Witherspoon and Colin Firth.
Devil’s Knot (2002)In her book, journalist Mara Leveritt’s book is the first to raise the possibility that Terry Hobbs may be the murderer.
Life After Death (2012)Damien Echols’s own story.