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SYDNEY — In the midst of filming The Hobbit, Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh have co-produced a new documentary, West of Memphis, on the campaign to exonerate the West Memphis Three, with recently freed member Damien Echols and his wife, Lorri Davis, producing.
Jackson and Walsh have been working to get what they call “one of the most infamous miscarriages of justice in American history” overturned since 2005, when they helped fund new investigations into the convictions of Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr. for the 1993 murders of three 8-year-old boys — Christopher Byers, Steven Branch and Michael Moore — in the small town of West Memphis, Ark.
The so-called West Memphis Three were released in August after 18 years, but a condition of their release was that they agreed to enter into an “Alford plea,” which allows them to continue to maintain their innocence but has a guilty plea entered against them, in exchange for their freedom.
Following his release, Echols traveled to New Zealand to finish work on West of Memphis. Jackson first revealed that he was working on a project with Echols at a press call for The Hobbit in October.
“He’s come here to work with us on a couple of things,” Jackson said. “We’re doing investigative work, we’re doing forensic work … with the purpose of getting a complete pardon.”
The idea of the film was originally suggested by Jackson and Walsh, after realizing they had a raft of new evidence that the Arkansas authorities would not originally consider.
“In 2008 … Fran and Peter suggested that maybe there was another way of fighting back … that if the evidence was not going to be allowed to be heard in a court of law, it would be heard in another forum. That was when they said to me and Lorri: ‘We should make a film,’” Echols said.
West of Memphis takes a detailed look at the police investigation and includes new forensic evidence that points to other suspects that the West Memphis police chose to overlook. It was this new evidence, as highlighted in the documentary, that ultimately prompted the Arkansas Supreme Court to overturn previous denials of appeals and allowed for a new evidentiary hearing to proceed.
In addition to never-before-seen footage about the case and the trial, West of Memphis includes interviews with Echols, Davis, Baldwin, Misskelley and Jackson as well as interviews with friends and families of the victims, defense lawyers, state prosecutors, local law enforcement, judges, forensic experts, journalists, surprise witnesses and prominent supporters including Eddie Vedder, Henry Rollins and Natalie Maines.
It’s an entirely separate project to HBO’s three-part documentary series for HBO, Paradise Lost, by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky. Part 3, Paradise Lost: Purgatory, will screen in January on HBO and is among 15 films shortlisted for the best documentary Oscar for 2012.
With West of Memphis now completed, “it is our hope that this film will help educate people about how badly the justice system can fail us all – but beyond that, we want to show that in the face of such horror, in the face of resounding grief and pain, you cannot give up … you must never give up,” Echols said.
Added Jackson: “Seven years ago, Fran and I began this journey with Damien and Lorri, having no idea where it would lead. We now realize that journey is not over, that even though these men have been released from prison — they are not free. Our hope is that continuing evidence testing and further investigation will lead to the unmasking of the killer of these children and that one day Damien, Jason and Jessie will be exonerated.”
West of Memphis was written and directed by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Amy Berg (Deliver Us From Evil) and executive produced by Ken Kamins through Jackson and Wals’s production shingle WingNut Films. An original score has been written by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis.
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