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Vindication: Sundance documentary clears men after 17 years in prison

January 30th, 2012 Posted in Arts and Life

Story & Photos by Ben Hansen
Special to the HNC

PARK CITY—Designed on the principle of innocent-unless-proven-guilty, the U.S. justice system is supposed to prosecute the guilty and protect the innocent. Usually, the system does this job as intended. Unfortunately, there are also times—as in the case of the West Memphis 3—when justice was not served, and the innocent are sent to prison.

The West Memphis 3—Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr.—were teenagers convicted of first-degree murder in 1994 for the killing of three 8-year-old boys: Stevie Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore. After a brief trial that raised significantly more questions than answers, Echols was convicted and sentenced to death, with the other two sentenced to life or greater sentences.

We live in a time when the legal system is under the microscope and public interest in justice is at a high point. The immense popularity of legal shows such as CSI and Bones have helped this generation understand the need for hard forensic evidence to link accused defendants to murder cases.

This evidence, however, was noticeably absent from the case of the WM3. For more than a decade, tons of supporters of the WM3 have led efforts to re-examine the details of this case to prove the innocence of the three convicted murderers. Legions of supporters, from Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder to Henry Rollins, have voiced strong opinions about the way that the case was handled. HBO has aired three separate documentaries on this case, titled Paradise Lost (1996), which generated a significant amount of public outcry. This public awareness is part of what prompted the involvement of Lord of the Rings filmmaker Peter Jackson, who invested significant time and money into investigations to prove the innocence of Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley.

“We saw Paradise Lost, which was the catalyst, in 2004 and got involved,” said Jackson at Sundance on Friday. “By the end of 2008, we had helped the defense team get into DNA testing, various forensic testing, and bringing in the experts that they never had in the original trial.”

“What experts can we bring in and what science can we bring in, just to cut through all of the nonsense that had been generated about this case?” Jackson said at a press conference on the launch of a new documentary on the case. “If you look at Paradise Lost and the footage of the original trial, you’ve got prosecutors and the judges and police that are getting paid to prosecute these guys. The defense has got hardly anything—no resources. In fact, when the few experts in the defense come on the stand, they are getting grilled about, ‘Are you getting paid to appear here,’ as if it’s a crime.

“We just saw that this is not the way that justice should work. We thought that steering it towards the science and the expertise that the case never had would be something that we could do to help.”

West of Memphis, the new documentary about the West Memphis 3, was directed by Amy Berg with Jackson’s support. It chronicles the history and missteps of the trial and the years that followed, examining vital evidence that was overlooked. Once DNA testing and additional forensic research was completed, it became very clear that there was not sufficient evidence to have convicted the trio, and that in all likelihood they were indeed innocent.

The film was released at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, after the three accused killers were pardoned and released from prison in August. With the new DNA evidence available, presiding Judge David Laser accepted their motion to vacate the conviction and sentenced the three to their time already served, releasing them immediately.

Jackson, Berg and the recently freed Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin were all present with legal counsel at the Sundance press conference for the film last week. The group covered multiple subjects—from additional evidence not included in the film, the future and forgiveness.

One question is how the WM3’s vindication will now affect the search for the actual murderer. One of the lawyers at the press conference said, “Every time there is a story about this case our tipline lights up…the case is building and building. The significance of the new evidence for right now is it gives us a hook to go back to [prosecutor] Scott Ellington and say, ‘Will you please take a look at this?’

“There is other new evidence in Amy’s film besides these kids, besides these declarations,” the attorney said. “We have some other evidence, some other witnesses that you need to talk to. Can we work with you now, instead of against you, and try to help solve this case? [Ellington] has indicated that he will consider that in good faith and hopefully he will.”

So how do you move forward after spending 17 years—the WM3’s entire adult life—behind bars? “I would like to dedicate my life to art in various form, whether it is through visual art or literary art,” Echols, now in his mid 30s. “I have a book coming out in September, and I’m working on doing an art show at home and in New York right now.

“I would just like to continue doing things along that line, and I would like to do things that stand on their own merits,” Echols said. “I don’t want to be known forever as … when you hear my name, you say, ‘Oh, that’s that guy that used to be on death row.’ I want to do things in my life that speak for themselves outside of the trial.”

One of the major pieces of evidence that convicted the three boys in 1994 was the testimony of Vicki Hutchison, who has now said she was told what to say by the West Memphis police department. But Jason Baldwin doesn’t blame Hutchinson.

“Those were people put into situations that they normally wouldn’t have been put in,” Baldwin said. “They were put into a situation to save themselves by throwing someone else under a bus. They didn’t make the right choice by doing that, but then again, who was putting them in that position? It was the West Memphis Police Department.

“They are the ones that should be held to a higher standard,” he said. “They are the ones that took the oath to protect and serve the innocent.

“They violated that oath, they violated the trust of the people, and they violated us. They are the ones that I don’t have forgiveness for.”

Click here for more information on the West Memphis 3 or to help these men start over.


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