Sundance 2012: Will 'West of Memphis' lead to new look at case?
When the West Memphis 3 were freed from prison in August after being imprisoned for 18 years, it was described by many as a bittersweet victory.
While Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelly were released after a years-long legal battle, they were never fully exonerated in the 1993 murders of three young boys in Arkansas in 1993. To attain freedom, they were forced to enter Alford pleas -- a unique situation in which defendants do not admit guilt, but admit that the prosecution could likely prove the charges. It's regarded in court as a guilty plea.
But "West of Memphis," a new documentary produced by Peter Jackson and his wife Fran Walsh, could prompt the Arkansas legal system to reinvestigate who is truly responsible for the 1993 killings. The film, which premiered at Sundance on Friday, largely points the finger at Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of Stevie Branch, one of the boys who was murdered. Throughout the movie, Hobbs is depicted as an aggressive man who beat his former love interests and children. Through private investigator work financed by Jackson and Walsh, Hobbs' DNA was also found to be at the crime scene. But the most damning evidence implicating Hobbs came only weeks ago, when three new witnesses called a private hotline with a tip about Hobbs' involvement.
Photos: The scene at Sundance 2012
The three witnesses were friends of Hobbs’ nephew, Michael Hobbs Jr., who supposedly told his buddies that his uncle was responsible for the murders of the three young boys.
"According to Michael, his dad called this ‘The Hobbs Family Secret’ and he asked us to keep it a secret and not tell anyone," one witness revealed.
But could the new evidence actually spur the Arkansas justice system to take a closer look at Hobbs? In the film, prosecuting attorney Scott Ellington reiterates numerous times that because the West Memphis 3 technically declared they were guilty, the case is pretty much closed.
In a question-and-answer session after Friday's screening, Echols' attorney Stephen Braga said that Ellington is not actually as stubborn as he appears in the documentary.
"Despite what you saw in the film, Ellington said he would investigate any new evidence and has agreed to review [the witnesses' testimony]" Braga said. "It's still possible to do the right thing. The Alford plea is just a stumbling block -- a speed bump."
Jackson said he hopes the documentary, directed by Amy Berg, will serve as a "lesson for the justice system."
"This shows how fragile it is," the filmmaker said. "Is the system wrong, or are people wrong within the system?"
Photo: Director Amy Berg, left, Damien Echols, Lorri Davis and producer Peter Jackson at the premiere of "West of Memphis." Photo: Chris Pizzello / Associated Press