The Idea That Led to Justice

AP Photograph/Danny Johnson

HBO's Sheila Nevins thought an obscure case might be a good movie and eventually freed the West Memphis Three.

Sheila Nevins, the longtime HBO documentary chief, was reading The New York Times 18 years ago when she was struck by a little item about cult murders in Arkansas. "I thought, 'Why would three teenage boys kill three little children?' " she recalls. So she called Joe Berlinger, whose resulting doc with Bruce Sinofsky, Paradise Lost, began a three-film crusade that captivated Hollywood (Peter Jackson helped fund the defense) and culminated with the stunning Aug. 19 release of the West Memphis Three.

What's the first thing you did when you heard about the release?

You burst into tears. Then you say: "Shit, we better get this story. Get down there, fast!" [She sent Berlinger to the court hearing.] Yet there's still an irony: Under the law, they're "innocent but guilty." Guilty but innocent? What the hell is that? Don't tell Joe, but I think we're ready for Paradise Lost 4.

Have you thought what a fourth movie would look like?

If you're guilty, how can you be innocent? Something's wrong with the system. They have to be free because they are innocent. We have to prove that, and I don't know how we do that.

Did Hollywood advocates like Peter Jackson ever approach you for support?

No. We were just telling the story. The facts spoke for themselves. As we got in deeper and deeper, it became so obvious -- these kids weren't even at the scene.

Heard from them since the release?

No. Joe has filmed them, and we can't wait to see the footage.

You're going to release it in theaters for Oscars. What would it mean to win?

The truth is, the guys are free. We did something for neither the right nor the wrong reasons in the beginning -- simply because it was of interest. It turned out to be innocence. Damien [Echols] said if not for these films, he would be dead. You can't get an award for that. 

It's not often that the end of the documentary gets to be rewritten.

I keep splashing water on my face. How many sad stories have I told in my many years at HBO? It's like pulling up the Titanic or undoing the Hindenberg.

There's at least one feature in development. What do you make of that?

Why not? Mississippi Burning reignited interest in the civil rights workers. But in my business, you can't beat the true story.