Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley Jr and Jason Baldwin were teenagers when they were convicted in 1993 of the murder of three eight-year-old cub scouts in the Arkansas town. Known in the States as the West Memphis Three, film makers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, had previously made two movies in an attempt to prove their innocence. Echols had been sentenced to death and Misskelley and Baldwin were ordered to spend the rest of their lives in prison. But last Friday a judge decided to release them with the three already having served their time, although he did not decide to overturn the original verdict.
It was believed that the three 8 year old boys were killed as part of a satanic ritual, but subsequent investigations threw doubt on the original enquiry. Now that the West Memphis Three have been released, Berlinger told the press, “We’ve made the decision to let the film play as is in Toronto. We worked on it for a long time and it didn’t seem right to rush a new ending. We’ll tack on one more scene that changes the ending from a question mark to a joyous triumphant moment, but we’ll aim for the New York film festival or for HBO.”
Despite the happy ending, the three men still have murder convictions hanging over them which means that they will not have the opportunity to appeal their wrongful convictions. Echols was on death row for 17 years and did not see the outdoors for over seven years. None of the men will be able to seek compensation for wrongful convictions. In fact he would have been executed by now if it were not for the fund raising effects by an internet campaign.
The two previous films used songs by the rock band Metallica as all three men had been fans of their music. It was rumoured that their lifestyle and dress sense that contributed to their guilty verdict, more than actual evidence. As well as the Paradise Lost film, Armenian-Canadian director Egoyan is currently working on a drama piece which will reveal the human aspect behind the convictions. He commented, “It’s a contemporary Salem witch-hunt. The screenplay beautifully examines the ebb and flow of grief, disbelief and anger that flowed through the community in the wake of this catastrophe. It’s an amazing story of a community and the conflicting emotional needs of seeking and finding justice, but also the complexities of jumping to conclusions. In this case, it was very clear to me that there was a miscarriage of justice. I think the documentaries have done a really amazing job of showing that. But there’s a human drama behind it all as well. I think this script has been able to capture that.” It seems a pretty clear cut case for abolishing the death penalty to me.