Peter Jackson Targets Arkansas Politician With 'West Memphis Three' Screenings
This story first appeared in the Sept. 28 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Can Peter Jackson stop an obscure Arkansas prosecutor from being elected to Congress?
The New Zealand-based filmmaker and his producing partner wife, Fran Walsh, are bankrolling a campaign to turn up the heat on Scott Ellington, who is running as a Democrat to represent the state's first congressional district in the House of Representatives. Ellington also is the prosecuting attorney in charge of the notorious West Memphis Three triple child-murder case of 1993. In 2011, he allowed an unusual deal in which the trio of men sent to prison under suspicious pretenses was released after 17 years as long as they agreed to so-called Alford pleas, wherein defendants assert their innocence but admit evidence exists that theoretically could find them guilty.
That didn't sit well with Jackson and Walsh, who have spent years and millions of dollars in personal funds on private-investigation work, DNA testing and now a documentary on the case, West of Memphis, which screened Sept. 8 at the Toronto International Film Festival ahead of its Dec. 25 theatrical release by Sony Pictures Classics. They, along with Hollywood backers including Johnny Depp and Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder, hope to fully exonerate Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley Jr. and Jason Baldwin. And they want to pressure Ellington -- who admits in the movie that he sought such a plea in part so that the men could not file a multimillion-dollar civil suit against the state for unjust incarceration -- to rethink his position.
So Jackson and Walsh decided to finance a slew of free screenings of the movie in and just outside the district that began Sept. 12 and will run through the November election. "So many elected officials within the Arkansas justice system have put their political career aspirations ahead of their duty to deliver justice … especially [with] the families of the victims in the West Memphis Three case," says Jackson in a statement first provided to Arkansas media. (Controversial original trial judge David Burnett, now serving as a Democratic state senator, is running unopposed for re-election this cycle as well.)
Ellington, up against a well-funded Republican in a solidly conservative district, is a long shot to win anyway, according to Arkansas State Poll director Janine Parry. But West of Memphis director Amy Berg notes that Ellington wasn't happy when the filmmakers showed him a cut of the film in the winter. "He was pretty disturbed and made some promises to us that he was going to further look at the evidence [toward complete exoneration], but then he decided to run for Congress instead," she says. Ellington would only tell THR: "I've not made this a political issue and don't intend to start now."