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Sundance 2012: Tears and Anger as Peter Jackson's 'West of Memphis' Premieres

Damien Echols, Pam Hobbs and John Mark Byers attend the first screening of Amy Berg's documentary about the West Memphis 3 case.

West of Memphis
Olivia Fougeirol

When it was over, Peter Jackson had tears in his eyes.

The premiere of West of Memphis, Amy Berg’s new documentary about the controversial Arkansas case of the West Memphis 3, brought a full Sundance audience to the MARC Theatre Friday afternoon. Jackson and wife Fran Walsh, who produced the project, were on hand to introduce it, and several of the people involved in the case and the 1993 murders were there, as well. Victims’ parents John Mark Byers and Pam Hobbs were in the theater, as were Damien Echols and his wife Lorri Davis, who produced the film with Jackson and Walsh. Several of Echols’ lawyers were in attendance as well as a pair of juvenile legal defense workers who helped his case. Actors Justin Long, Cody Horn and Catherine Keener showed up, as well.

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It was when Echols was introduced after the screening and the audience rose to applaud him for surviving his ordeal and ultimate release that Jackson needed to use his handkerchief to wipe away the emotion of the moment. Speaking about the flaws in the justice system exposed by the movie, Jackson said, “It shows how fragile it is” and “how the justice system can derail.”

During the Q&A, Echols stated that he knew of at least two other men on death row who were innocent, one who he thought would eventually be executed and one who may yet have a chance for exoneration. What accounted for his own good fortune, Echols said, was that the media took an interest in their case, but that there were many innocent people incarcerated that never draw attention. He and Davis were clearly shell-shocked by having watched the film with an audience for the first time, an experience Echols described as “really overwhelming.”

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The film is fielding interest from buyers already, but the filmmakers are seeking a distribution deal that does the most to further their stated claim of achieving full exoneration for Echols, Jesse Miskelly and Jason Baldwin, who ultimately took a deal that allowed them to maintain their innocence while pleading guilty. Those negotiations could take time to develop a creative, comprehensive plan.

Meanwhile, the lawyers stated during the Q&A that the state of Arkansas claims that it will look into possibly opening another investigation based on new evidence put forth in the film that implicates Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of one of the murdered eight-year-old boys. Interviews with new witnesses included in the film were completed as recently as Jan. 12, according to a time stamp on screen, so the case could very well move into yet another phase.