The West Memphis director talks innocence, justice and 'Satanism in suburbia'.
West of Memphis, the latest documentary feature by Amy Berg, tackles the famous West Memphis Three case that saw three innocent teenagers accused and then convicted of triple homicide. Following on from the 1996 HBO film, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills and subsequent trilogy, Berg's film leaves no stone unturned. LWLies sat down with the filmmaker to find out more.
LWLies: What was your aim for West of Memphis, in comparison to the Paradise Lost trilogy?
Berg: I can’t speak for them but I was approached by Fran [Walsh] and Peter [Jackson] after they’d presented evidence to Judge [David] Burnett – new DNA and forensic evidence. They felt [after] being denied a new trial and hearing the only method to get the information out was a documentary investigation. My vantage point was obviously different from anybody else because I was coming in much later and things had simmered.
How far back does your own personal interest in the case go?
It was new. I didn’t know about the case. I’d heard about the West Memphis Three but I didn’t know the details and I had to start from scratch, which I think gave me breathing room to know that something went wrong and every single bit of information from the case I’d read showed these guys didn’t do it. I was coming from a place where I wasn’t caught up in the frenzy. I was just in my office in Los Angeles reading.
Had you made up your mind pretty early on they were definitely innocent?
I had to make that decision before I could sign on to do the film. I really did my due diligence. I spent six months just doing research and reading information.
Given it’s been so extensively covered, how much new footage did you shoot?
A lot of the footage we shot was investigation work. It was never going to be in the film but we had to have the camera rolling. With archive, we had about eight hundred hours of footage – which is insane. We were running two cameras, so it was a lot.
You completed interviews as recent as January this year, is that correct?
We were doing those over Skype as we were getting ready to go to Sundance. But that’s how this case is. The fact this information was so vastly misconstrued and people had such a different idea of what happened, when the actual evidence started coming out… Terry Hobbs saying he hadn’t seen the kids at all that day, then people.
What are individuals motives for coming forward now? Why hadn’t they spoken up before?
Because nobody had ever looked at Terry and they had never been questioned. We had this police log that was like chicken scratch – like a 7th grader – and I had to go through and make a chart about who had been interviewed and nobody had spoken to them. They never talked to Terry Hobbs, so when his DNA was found then there was a news report that 'DNA was found at the scene' and his response was, 'I never saw Stevie [Branch] that day' and then these women, who remember that day very well, because they have children themselves, said, 'What do you mean you didn’t see him?' Why lie about that?
Regarding your case against Terry Hobbs… it’s like a suspect hiding in plain sight the whole time.
Absolutely. He’d sold his truck, took off out of town, had an alibi supposedly that was a lie and so … the question is 'Why not take a look and ask him a few questions'?
So you’re convinced he murdered Stevie Branch, Michael Moore and Christopher Byers?
I’m not privy to every bit of information if it’s not in the public record, but every door I’ve walked through lead to Terry Hobbs and my thought was, ‘Why isn’t somebody investigating him?’ Why does he have the prosecutor’s cell phone number in his cell phone? Why is he chummy with all these people still… I don’t get it.
The DNA evidence against Hobbs is compelling but complicated. In Paradise Lost: Purgatory, it’s mentioned although found on a shoelace of one of the boys, it wouldn’t be enough to convict him as it could be DNA shared to around one per cent of the entire population of the USA. Yet in your film you drop this vital last piece of info.
It’s not a home run but you have so little tangible evidence. That it’s in the binding of – not his son but one of the other kids – it’s questionable, you know. It’s that coupled with so much information. So we’re asking as filmmakers, 'Wouldn’t you want to know a little bit more?' I’d want to know. I think they [the West Memphis authorities] owe it to their constituents and taxpayers to investigate.
'Satanism in suburbia' appears to have been a massive factor in the convictions of Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley. They were picked out for dressing in black, listening to heavy metal and then tagged devil worshippers.
People believed it, for sure. One of the most important things in the case, for me, was emotion versus science. You can’t run an investigation based on emotion. This idea that 'You have a child and this [case] reminds you that you have an eight year old child at home and you need to protect your child from the Devil', it’s just so outlandish and ludicrous. Every single law enforcement official said [puts on southern drawl], 'Well, I had small children at home'. You see those crime scene pictures… you’re supposed to go on courses and training to be unbiased and unemotional in response.
Did you do conduct interviews yourself... with the cops and prosecutors?
How do you feel sitting there when officials are pretty lying through their teeth to save their own careers. The lead detective in the original case, Gary …
Gitchell? Those are deposition interviews. They had the timecode in the corner.
As a viewer, it’s pretty clear you present the footage as a case of them covering their own asses. When there’s an innocent man on death row and two others incarcerated with no chance of parole, it’s pretty callous and cold.
What are the three like in person now?
Jason would like to be a lawyer but can’t be a lawyer because he’s got a triple child murder conviction. Damien is touring with his book and having a great time. He’s having fun. Jessie is in West Memphis.
He comes across as the most fragile one of the trio.
He is. He’s been offered a lot of situations to get out of there but his father is ill. The fear with Jessie is the police, who are known for planting drugs on people and that kind of thing, they’ll pull him over… something like that. We just have to hope nothing does [happen].
Will you do an updated documentary if they’re ever fully exonerated?
I hope they get exonerated but my film stands on its own. I was asked to do an update on Deliver Us From Evil and I feel like... you put as much as you can into something and if you do an update you become part of it.
You don’t want to become part of the case’s history and be personally involved?
Absolutely. That’s my way of doing it.