Updated Sat. 8:30 PT
At a news conference on Saturday, the filmmakers and legal team behind "West of Memphis" made it clear that they'd be delighted to be sued by Terry Hobbs, the man they strongly suggest is responsible for the triple murder for which three young men spent nearly 20 years in prison.
"Let him have at it," said Dennis Riordan, an attorney who led the legal battle of Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelly, the "West Memphis Three," to regain their freedom.
Hobbs has sued before and lost. But the filmmakers go out on a limb, almost inviting a new lawsuit in implicating him in the murder of his stepson and two eight-year-old playmates in 1993.
"Things worked out very well for us when he sued Natalie Maines," said Riordan with a smile.
That suit came in 2007, when Maines pointed out that DNA evidence tied Hobbs, not Echols or Baldwin or Misskelly, to the crime scene.
Not only did Hobbs lose his defamation case, but he was ordered to pay Maines' $18,000 legal bills – and crucially, he was deposed about the day of the murder for the first time.
The resulting deposition footage is a key part of "West of Memphis." In it, Hobbs laughs off and refuses to answer some questions about his history of violence, and gives an account of the evening of the murder that contradicts the testimony of eyewitness.
This week, the West Memphis Three's legal team released additional information implicating Hobbs, in the form of the December depositions and polygraph tests of three people who say the killings were a "Hobbs family secret" known to Hobbs, his brother and his nephew. (The accounts are based on overheard conversations and things the nephew told his friends, and are thus not admissible in court.)
"We would never say that we have proof positive beyond a reasonable doubt that Terry Hobbs did it," said attorney Stephen Braga at a Sundance press conference on Saturday.
"But the case is building, and that allows us to go to [district attorney] Scott Ellington and say, 'Can we work with you instead of against you?' And he has indicated that he is receptive to that."
Officially, Echols, Baldwin and Misskelly remain guilty of the murders of Christopher Byers, Steven Branch and Michael Moore. They were released from prison in August under an unusual "Alford plea," which allowed them to plead guilty but still assert their innocence.
And while Braga said that the three could be exonerated even if nobody else is convicted of the murders, he added that realistically, it would take a successful prosecution of the real killer to reverse the convictions obtained in a trial rife with innuendo about Satanic cults.
The evidence pointing to Hobbs is one of the centerpieces of Amy Berg's film – and while Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky brought up many of the same charges in "Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory," which recently debuted on HBO, "West of Memphis" spends far more time on the Hobbs side of the case.
"PL3" was the third in Berlinger's and Sinofsky's West Memphis Three trilogy – the first of which, the 1996 film "Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills," is what initially interested "West of Memphis" producers Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh in the case.
"We just saw 'Paradise Lost' and wanted to help," said Jackson. Walsh emailed Lorri Davis, who'd fallen in love with and married Damien Echols while he was in prison, and who was spearheading efforts on behalf of the West Memphis Three.
Initially, Walsh sent Davis financial contributions for the cause, which was also attracting the attention of high-profile backers like Eddie Vedder and Henry Rollins. She and Jackson helped fund new testing and brought in a number of forensic specialists who examined the evidence and concluded that the wounds the state's expert said were caused by a knife, or by "Satanic" mutilations, were in fact caused by animals after the boys' deaths.
(Photo of Damien Echols, Amy Berg, Lorri Davis and Peter Jackson by Larry Busacca/Getty Images)
And when David Burnett, the judge who heard the original case, ruled in 2008 that new DNA evidence ruling out the three was "not compelling" enough to warrant a hear hearing, Jackson said they decided to "do what we do best, which is to make movies."
They brought in director Berg, who followed the principals, did extensive investigative reporting and interviewed most of the major players, including Judge Burnett – who, she said at the press conference, was different from most of her other subjects.
"There's not a soul in there," she said. "It's corrupted and ugly and just different."
Davis gave Berg complete access through years of investigations and fruitless legal appeals, at a time when Berlinger and Sinofsky were also working on their third "Paradise Lost" film.
At the urging of Jackson, Berg also filmed a disturbing sequence in which a number of snapping turtles native to the area of the murders are set loose on a pig carcass, leaving wounds that look nearly identical to the wounds that the original prosecutor had attributed to serrated knives and Satanic rituals.
The evidence mounted until September 2010, when the Arkansas Supreme Court heard arguments for reopening the case. The following month, it unanimously ruled in favor of the West Memphis Three, dismissing all of the state's arguments and overturning all of Judge Burnett's ruling.
Faced with having to retry the three with evidence that was looking increasingly shaky, and with potential wrongful-imprisonment lawsuits that could have cost Arkansas $60 million, the state offered the Alford plea. Echols, who was ailing and said he could not have lived much longer in prison, accepted immediately, as did Misskelly; Baldwin wanted to fight for exoneration, but he accepted the deal out of concern for Echols' well-being.
"I was conscious of everything going on in the case over all those years, but I tried to distance myself from it as much as I could," said Echols, who came to Sundance with Davis and the filmmakers. "I couldn't think about the case all the time, or I would have been eaten alive by bitterness and anger over everything that had been done to us."
For him the lesson was simple: "You can have all the evidence in the world that you didn’t do it, but unless there's outside attention focused on your case, it'll get swept under the rug."
Echols is publishing a book in September and is currently working on a show for the Museum of Modern Art, but he refuses to turn this into a "happily ever after" story.
"In a lot of ways, going through something like this destroys you," he said at a post-screening Q&A. "Pardon my language, but it fucks you up in ways you can't imagine."