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Murder of Arkansas Boys Given New Twist at Sundance: Interview

Amy Berg
Amy Berg directed the documentary "West of Memphis." Photographer: Olivia Fougeirol/Rubenstein Communications via Bloomberg

Amy Berg, the director of “West of Memphis,” said Saturday that she will present Arkansas authorities with new evidence in a notorious murder case.

The documentary, which has its premiere this week at the Sundance Festival, is the latest salvo in a years-long effort, first to free, then to exonerate Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley. They were convicted in the 1993 murder of three 8-year-old boys whose bodies were found in a drainage ditch outside the Arkansas town of West Memphis.

As with other investigations into the crime -- notably HBO’s “Paradise Lost” -- “West of Memphis” points a finger at Terry Hobbs, stepfather of victim Stevie Branch, as the real killer. In the new film, three friends of Hobbs’s nephew say they were told about “the Hobbs Family Secret.” (Hobbs did not cooperate on the making of “West of Memphis.”)

Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley were released last August, after accepting the state’s offer of an “Alford Plea.” The bizarre legal maneuver allowed them to maintain their innocence while accepting a guilty plea.

“West of Memphis,” which was being shopped to distributors at Sundance for a theatrical release, is unsparing in its assertions of police corruption and judicial misconduct that kept the three men in prison for 18 years.

Echols, dressed in a long black leather coat, black jeans and black t-shirt -- the goth-hipster style that first drew police attention to him as a 16-year-old in 1993 -- attended a press conference Saturday along with the director. After making the film, Berg said, “I now have no faith in the justice system.”

I spoke with Berg at a crowded Park City, Utah, lounge shortly after the press conference.

Digging Deep

Evans: When you signed on with producers Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh in 2008, did you know what you were getting yourself into?

Berg: We thought I would spend a couple months down in Arkansas. Two and a half years later...

Evans: What was the attraction?

Berg: The whole idea [of false imprisonment] is one of the most horrific things in the world to me. This case has everything -- misconduct on every level. And then I got to know the people, and I knew it was tragic on every level.

Evans: At the press conference, you spoke of sensing something “dark and corrupt and ugly” about Judge David Burnett, who presided over the case and later refused to hear new evidence.

Berg: I try to understand people from their own perspectives and be empathetic in a way that they can be honest with me. But I felt dirty when I left Burnett’s house.

Evans: Will you continue to investigate the case?

Berg: I don’t know if I’m going to be able to let go of this one. It’s up to the state of Arkansas, but the call to action is out there.

Evans: Any sequels possible?

Berg: Do you think it needs a sequel?

(Greg Evans is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)

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