Hollywood celebrities rarely get involved in criminal justice reform, but many have taken up the cause of the West Memphis Three. The degree of celebrity involvement in this case is unprecedented. Nevertheless, as Chris Nashawaty of Entertainment Weekly reports:
When Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s award-winning documentary, “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills” aired on HBO in 1996, it mobilized passionate advocates – including Johnny Depp, Peter Jackson, Winona Ryder, Eddie Vedder, Natalie Maines and Henry Rollins – to rally around a trio of young men known as the West Memphis Three, who many felt had been wrongfully convicted of [murdering three children].
“If just 1 percent of all prisoners are innocent, that would mean that more than 20,000 innocent people are in prison.” – The Innocence Project
After seeing the film, celebrities funded a second documentary, released in 2000, which claimed to provide new evidence in the case. Then stars poured millions of dollars into the legal team representing the men. They felt the three teenagers were unfairly targeted for their “taste for heavy metal music and the occult.” It appeared to many that the three teens were victims of the Satanic ritual abuse myth that swept the country in the 1990s.
On Aug. 18, all the money finally paid off, and all three men – Jason Baldwin, Jessie Misskelley, Jr. and Damien Echols – walked free after 18 years behind bars. Their attorneys negotiated the release under the Alford plea, which allows the men to plead guilty but publicly maintain their innocence.
Director Peter Jackson is in the process of editing the film’s ending to capture the men’s release – and putting the finishing touches on his third documentary about the men. Called Purgatory, the film is on schedule to premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in October.
The celebrities who funded this effort are well-intentioned, and they are right to highlight the fact that circumstantial evidence may not be enough to prove murder “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Celebrities are known for having pet causes, and the West Memphis Three are lucky that they caught the attention of this throng of stars. Most wrongfully convicted prisoners must rely on qualified but underfunded organizations and public attorneys, who may be excellent but do not have sufficient resources to effectively serve the many who need their help. Most of these prisoners are very unlikely to receive this kind of public attention.
However, time will tell if Purgatory will make the public more aware of the injustice of wrongful conviction and imprisonment – and about the need for more widespread prison reform.
Most of these prisoners are very unlikely to receive this kind of public attention.
Still, Jackson and the other celebrities have tapped into the fact that a moving story may ultimately inspire long-term social change. In 1966, The Battle of Algiers highlighted the brutal realities of French occupation of Algeria. Then in 1973, Norma Rae brought attention to the brutalities of union-busting and shifted Americans’ views about organized labor. And 1993’s Philadelphia challenged the bigoted public response to AIDS in the gay community.
Let’s hope that Purgatory has as much social influence as these earlier films.
How can artists and celebrities make meaningful social change?
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