Aug 20, 2011

Thank God for Hollywood

Crossposted from Reflections Journal.

And, um, Montclair, New Jersey. I say that because Bruce Sinofsky, one of the filmmakers responsible for putting the West Memphis Three in the spotlight, is from the lovely town I used to call home.

Montclair filmmaker Bruce Sinofsky was home in New Jersey when he heard about a surprise hearing today for three convicted killers in Arkansas, whose story he’s been chronicling since 1993.

Sinofsky and co-director, Joe Berlinger have made three documentaries about the crime. Their Emmy-winning first film, "Paradise Lost: the Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills" examined the initial 1994 trial, in which the prosecution built a case around the theory that teenagers killed three 8-year-old boys in a supposed Satanic ritual.

. . .

The movie did spark a grassroots movement called "Free the West Memphis Three." Celebrities including Johnny Depp, Natalie Maines and Metallica took up the cause. Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam was in Arkansas for the release today.

In the trailer for their upcoming third documentary in the Paradise Lost series, Damien Echols tells the filmmakers that he would be dead were it not for their involvement. Sadly, he's right. Had the strange case not been preserved in film and broadcast on HBO, the West Memphis Three would be just three more inadequately represented poor people run over by the wheels of an aggressive justice system. And Damien Echols would have been executed years ago for a crime he didn't commit. That's a hard and painful truth and it reflects poorly on American jurisprudence.

Last night on CNN David Mattingly described Damien Echols to Anderson Cooper:

Well he is very intellectual. He seems very smart, very articulate. And a lot of people argue that he has a certain charisma that's really elevated the profile of this case. If he was just a typical poor kid from Arkansas with no personality, he might have disappeared on death row and so would these two, other two young men. But instead there was something about him that fascinated people. They kept coming back, kept talking to him. This case stayed alive and now he and those other two are free men.

It's an irony I've considered before. The very uniqueness that put Echols in the sights of the West Memphis police, after the gruesome discovery of three dead children, has saved him from the executioner. There's no arguing that he has a larger than life quality. He wasn't the kind of kid who could disappear in a crowd, even if he wanted to. For many of us who grew up feeling like fish out of water in small towns, Echols's persecution struck a chord. As did his youthful hostility to the town in which he was always destined to be an outsider.

Having lived a large chunk of my life in the aforementioned Montclair and having worked for years in Manhattan, it's been easy to forget how damaging that small town mindset can be. Shortly after moving to Montclair, someone I met at a party said to me, "You don't seem like someone from Ohio."

"They've been telling me that all my life," I said.

Now that I'm living amidst Southern religiosity, thanks to my darling husband's Marine Corps career, I've been forced to consider the small town phenomenon once again and not in an entirely academic sense. I was even accused of witchery in a court of law, recently. Fortunately, I wasn't the one on trial, but it was a stunning reminder that such ignorance and insanity still exists. (True story. Maybe I'll tell it some time.)

I know when I first became aware of the West Memphis Three -- I saw the second documentary first -- I was very affected by Damien Echols. The piercing, intelligent eyes, the intense spirituality and interest in non-traditional religions, the struggle to figure out who he was amongst people he couldn't relate to at all... It all just felt so familiar. "There but for the grace of God..." thought I. 

There's no question that some of us belong in big cities, preferably on coasts. So it's not that surprising that it was actors, writers, musicians, and filmmakers who championed the West Memphis Three. Many of them have no doubt been marginalized at various points in their lives for the very sense of difference that gives them their star quality. Creative types, you know... They're always a little strange.

Johnny Depp said as much. When the usually reclusive star spearheaded coverage of the case on CBS, he explained that he was also "a freak" in small-town Kentucky.

That people with the money and star power to actually do something found so much to relate to in the brooding teenager who made his dark debut in Paradise Lost - The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, has made all the difference. The sad truth is that innocent, poor people without proper legal representation are convicted, jailed, and even executed, all the time. The West Memphis Three would undoubtedly be among those statistics but for the cameras of Bruce Sinofsky and Joe Berlinger and the fans their documentaries found among people who also have millions of fans.

Among the "Hollywood Elite" who've put their money and their mojo behind the West Memphis Three, are filmmaker Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, it was revealed Thursday.

The Lord Of The Rings trilogy helmer with Walsh have "played a leading role" financially and legally behind seven years of efforts to get justice for Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley Jr.... This has included financing extensive private investigators over a number of years and the uncovering of crucial new DNA evidence. Jackson and Walsh also have been instrumental in hiring some of the country’s leading forensic experts to reevaluate the case and uncover new witnesses, all of which contributed to the Arkansas Supreme Court’s decision to reopen the case.

Jackson also wrote an impassioned statement on his Facebook page. In it he fleshes out some of the background on the tortured deal that finally set the three men free.

The last two weeks have been very tense, because the State told the three defense teams that they would consider an "Alford Plea" - but it had to be "all or nothing". All three men had to accept the conditions of the plea - if one refused, they would all stay in prison, probably for another 2 to 3 years, until their inevitable retrial, which would have almost certainly found them innocent. When he received the plea offer, Jason Baldwin refused to accept it. And why the hell should he? He's an innocent man, who has had the last 18 years - half his life - robbed by the State of Arkansas. This was a brave and noble stand by Jason, but it created a very tough time for Damien, and his loved ones.

You see, Damien Echols had to get out of prison, Alford Plea or not. Unlike Jason, Damien has spent the full 18 years on death row. He has not seen sky for over 10 years. He has not had sun on his skin for over 10 years. He is shackled hand and foot whenever he leaves his cell. His eyesight has deteriorated. Look at this morning's press conference - see how Damien has his hand over his mouth? It's because he has severe continual dental pain, and has had for years. On Arkansas death row, the only serious dental care they offer is extraction. No point killing men with nice new crowns. Everyone who knows Damien, has been fearful for his health. He's very weak, and frail - and has limited ability to fight off any infection. Up there in the Varner Unit death row, they don't tend to be as interested in basic medical care as your family doctor.

For several nerve-wracking days, Jason was saying no to the "Alford Plea", but he has been confined in a different, much less severe prison environment and had no contact with Damien. Damien's lawyer wrote to Jason, several friends talked with him. They explained Damien's situation to Jason, and he immediately agreed to change his mind. Jason is a decent guy, and did the right thing for his friend, just as he did many years ago when he was offered a much reduced sentence if he testified against Damien. He refused then - because he knows Damien is innocent, as he is - and he wasn't going to take the bait and sell out his friend. He's been in prison ever since as a result.

The people of West Memphis bridled from the beginning against outsider interest and the continuing media attention that put them under a microscope. After the 48 Hours Mystery devoted to the case aired, Police Chief Bob Paudert decried the lack of exonerating evidence that Hollywood provided. It seemed an ironic statement considering that West Memphis police had never produced a single stick of physical evidence in the original case that put three teenagers behind bars. But more than that, it has been thanks to Hollywood figures like Peter Jackson that extensive DNA testing and forensic research was made available to so thoroughly discredit the convictions -- something Judge Laser acknowledged in yesterday's hearing.

There is always a dynamic tension between the communal desire for safety and stability and the need for change and growth. And those who work against the status quo, whether it's through conscious action or just being their own strange selves, push communities out of their comfort zone. There are inevitable social penalties for going against the grain.

Art at its finest challenges assumptions, reflects the foibles of society, and can even change the path of history. And sometimes it saves lives. Bruce Sinofsky and Joe Berlinger have arguably saved at least one life with their documentaries. But their work should serve as a wake-up call to an even greater social transformation.

"This case is about the power of film and a main protagonist,” says Nancy Snow, professor of communications at California State University in Fullerton. “Without the 'Paradise Lost' series, you simply would not have the same level of celebrity cheerleading for justice. The main wrongly accused character, Damien Echols [the one defendant who had received a death sentence], has himself become a celebrity author and poet.”

Other observers say there’s a lesson here for investigative writers and broadcasters.

“I think this is actually the media at their best, shining a light on a situation in which the machinery of government apparently failed to do its job,” says Fordham University communications professor Paul Levinson, author of “New New Media.” “It asks the question – 'What other failures of the criminal system are out there?' – and provides the impetus that journalists should get on those cases and investigate them more fully.”

I uploaded the movie trailer to YouTube because I couldn't get the original to play properly but it can be viewed here.

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