Long Road to Freedom

‘West of Memphis’ contends that emotion trumped justice in a notorious murder case


Rocker Henry Rollins, left, who worked to free the West Memphis Three, chats with Amy Berg, director of “West of Memphis.”

 

“I was 100 percent driven by emotion,” director Amy Berg says of her new documentary, “West of Memphis,” which opens Friday. “Art should be driven by emotion. But when you’re talking about the law, that’s a whole different thing.”

 

The film is about the freeing of the West Memphis Three, three men convicted in a triple-murder case that garnered national attention, first when the bodies of 8-year-olds Michael Moore, Christopher Byers and Steve Branch were found in an Arkansas swamp in 1993, and again when celebrities such as Henry Rollins and Johnny Depp used their star power to highlight mistakes in the trials of Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley Jr. and Jason Baldwin. In 1994,

Baldwin was sentenced to life without parole, Misskelley to life plus 40 years and Echols to death by lethal injection.

The three were released in 2011 on Alford pleas, in which they maintained their innocence while technically pleading guilty and acknowledging that the state had enough evidence to convict them. (This allowed the three to walk free while preserving the prosecution’s victories.)

The case was famously examined in HBO’s 1996 documentary “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills” and two sequels. While that trilogy focused on the legal missteps, “West of Memphis” takes a more personal look, both at Damien Echols and his wife, Lorri Davis (who worked full time to free him), and at the shaken community.

Prosecutors succeeded in their manipulation, the film argues, not only by trampling evidence but by playing to the deeply religious community’s fear of the supernatural and turning three odd teens into symbols of evil.

“The thing that was most interesting to me was the idea that we can judge people based on our emotions, rather than based on evidence and fact,” Berg says.

The suggestion that the boys were killed in a satanic ritual sent the Arkansas town into a tailspin.

“Everyone was afraid,” she says. “I can’t think of anything more unjust than traumatizing an entire community that needed to heal over brutal murders that were not satanic. That the law was able to pull this off takes the injustice to a whole other level.”

Landmark E Street Cinema, 555 11th St. NW; opens Fri.; 202-452-7672. (Metro Center)
Kristen Page-Kirby covers film for The Washington Post Express.
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Kristen Page-Kirby · January 23, 2013