In an exclusive interview, a witness for the prosecution discusses the documentary West of Memphis, which is a gut-wrenching account of the "West Memphis Three" and the failure of the justice system that put the boys behind bars for 18 years.
West of Memphis was one of eight documentaries to premier at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.
The filmmakers behind West of Memphis are producers Peter Jackson and wife Fran Walsh (The Lord of the Rings trilogy) and husband and wife Damien Echols and Lorri Davis (Echols is one of the "West Memphis 3" and he and supporter Davis married in 1999). The documentary is directed by Oscar-nominated Amy Berg whose debut documentary, Deliver Us From Evil, received numerous awards.
Sundance provides the following summary of the documentary West of Memphis:
Three teenage boys are incarcerated for the murders of three 8-year-old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. 19 years later, new evidence calls into question the convictions and raises issues of judicial, prosecutorial and jury misconduct – showing that the first casualty of a corrupt justice system is the truth.
The murders occurred in May 1993 and the victims were Christopher Byers, Stevie Branch and Michael Moore. According to the New York Times, the nude bodies of the three boys "were found in a drainage canal in Robin Hood Hills, a wooded area in the poor Arkansas town of West Memphis. The bodies appeared to have been mutilated, and their hands were tied to their feet."
Rumors of satanic cult activity swirled in the grief strickened community leading "investigators from the West Memphis Police Department to focus on Mr. Echols, a troubled yet gifted 18-year-old who wore all black, listened to heavy metal music and considered himself a Wiccan. Efforts to learn more about him through a woman cooperating with the police led to Mr. Misskelley, a 17-year-old acquaintance of Mr. Echols’s," reports the New York Times. "After a nearly 12-hour police interrogation, Mr. Misskelley confessed to the murders and implicated Mr. Echols and Mr. Baldwin, who was 16 at the time, though his confession diverged in significant details, like the time of the murders, with the facts known by the police. Mr. Misskelley later recanted, but on the strength of that confession he was convicted in February 1994."
SilkTork/West Memphis Police Department
West Memphis Police Department mug shots of "West Memphis Three"
The Exonerate the WM3 Support Fund notes that Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley Jr., commonly known as the West Memphis Three, "were all arrested on June 3, 1993, and convicted of murder in early 1994...Echols was sentenced to death, Baldwin received life without parole, and Misskelley got life plus 40."
The case caught the attention of Jackson and Walsh in 2005 and they funded private investigations that led to many discoveries particularly concerning forensics. As Jackson told The Hollywood Reporter, "Fran and I just got deeper and deeper into the facts of the case and we thought… a documentary is possibly the only way that we can think that all of this can be presented to people that actually care about this. The state was trying to suppress it all. So, we contacted Amy [Berg]."
After "approximately seven years in the making," the world premier of West of Memphis was held at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.
Two minutes and eight seconds into the film’s trailer, above, a man’s voice can be heard asking, “Did Damien invite you to some meeting?” And the response from the woman seen in the video is, “Occult, Satanic meeting,” which is followed by the same woman saying, “I was just a big liar. And I really was.”
The woman in the video is my friend Victoria Hutcheson. Hutcheson is not a fan of the media, but she graciously agreed to an exclusive interview with me concerning West of Memphis.
I asked Victoria to tell me about the two scenes in the documentary's trailer in which she is featured. She replied:
Scene one was in Corning, AR at Jessie Misskelley's trial when I testified. I believe the date to be around January 1994. I think that would be a close guess. Jessie's is the only trial I testified at. I was 31 at the time. I lived in Marion, AR but because of change of venue the boys' trials were moved from West Memphis to one in Corning (Jessie's) and the other two (Damien & Jason's) in Jonesboro. Scene two was in Granite City, IL during the summer of 2009 I think, as this was where I was living at the time so it was just a couple of years ago. I was 46 at the time. It was filmed in the backyard of a house belonging to a couple of my friends whom I met through the West Memphis Three supporters and they are still good friends to this day.
In order to help me better understand how she and her son, Aaron, first became involved in the case, Hutcheson suggested I look at the midsouthjustice.com website. There I found a section called "Media coverage regarding Vicki and Aaron Hutcheson" and a newspaper report stating "The whole affair began as a result of a coincidence." Victoria was asked by her employer to take a lie detector test to find out if she had made a credit card overcharge. On May 6, 1993, the day after the three boys were murdered but before the bodies were found, Victoria, 30, accompanied by her son Aaron, 9, went to the Marion Arkansas Police Department to find out the status of the investigation.
Upon learning that Aaron was friends with two of the missing boys, Michael Moore and Christopher Byers, an officer began questioning Aaron without his mother being present. This marked the beginning of Victoria and Aaron being questioned and interviewed repeatedly by the police, as documented by WM3, and ultimately Victoria's testimony at the trial of Jessie Misskelley.
But, as the newspaper articles indicate, as time passed, Aaron wasn't sure about what he saw and Victoria began "backtracking from her testimony within months of the trials' conclusion."
Here are two excerpts from the article concerning Victoria:
At that time, she told an attorney and a private investigator that, while she felt she’d gone to an "esbat," or witches’ meeting, she had been drunk that night and could not recall whether Damien Echols and Jessie Misskelley had gone with her.
When asked about "her story" to the police, Hutcheson replied: "Well, I’m really concerned about legal issues now with it. But basically, I said what the West Memphis police wanted me to say. And that was that I went to the meeting. The esbat meeting. It was all their stories." She added, "I just want to tell Jessie and Jason and Damien that I’m sorry."
Given her reticence to talk to the media, I asked Victoria how her participation in the West of Memphis documentary came about. She said, "Amy Berg got in touch with my oldest son Scott Hutcheson, as he is a very public person on the internet with a movie website Very Aware and makes it a well known fact who he is and that he is a big supporter of the West Memphis 3."
Victoria explained that Amy Berg got in touch with Scott to talk with him about the documentary, her intentions to see if she could talk with me or Aaron, and she asked Scott if he could help her get to us. "Scott never gives my information or Aaron's to anyone, as we have been through this for several years and have had some pretty bad experiences with the media so he will not just hand out my information," Victoria said. "Scott told Amy he would give me her number, let me know what she wanted to do, let me decide, and if I wanted to get a hold of her I would."
The decision was not an easy one for Victoria. She said:
I did not immediately get a hold of Amy because I do not believe in the media or anyone that does any of this. They have made a mockery of my son and of me and what I have tried to do. And I know that even though I did lie, they never let me tell the truth behind the real reasons or the pain of Aaron's things that he went through. Instead they put us through so much until I chose to never have anything else to do with them.
However, after Victoria spoke with a close friend, Demian Fieldman, the man who designed the midsouthjustic.com website and who is a friend of Amy Berg's, he convinced her to talk to Amy. "I took his advice and I phoned her," Victoria said. "I was pretty impressed with what she had to say and set up a meeting with her at my friends' house...as long as my friends were there with me. And then after we talked, I decided she was going to bring out the truth and I would tell her our story."
We met at my friends house and set up in their backyard. It was a very emotional day. I kept having to break to cry. I guess I haven't actually told that story from beginning to end in a long time. It hurts me so bad for all of us involved. Amy listened with tearful eyes as did each of her crew, they hurt as well. It was something that tore me up. But you know people don't know all of what happened. They think that I lied to get the reward money and this and that. I just wanted people to know the truth, so I had to tell them the truth. And I wanted people to know about my little boy and that he was a victim A VICTIM. I was sick of the fact that Aaron has just been pushed to the side. No, he didn't die but they messed him up you know and no one cared. Why? They all thought it was my fault so I had to talk. So I did.
Victoria understands that not all of the things she said that day made their way into the documentary, but her main concern is that viewers know what the "West Memphis Police did to Aaron, because," she said, "you know that is what I want brought out. The way a 9-year-old was done. Call me names. Do what you want to me. I can handle it, but for goodness sake can you please take a look at everything that has been done to him. And everyone that has suffered at the hands of the West Memphis Police... Jessie, Jason and Damien, Christopher, Michael, Steve and all of their families."
During the 18 years that Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley were in prison, Victoria was a supporter of the "Free the West Memphis Three" movement that also included noted celebrities like Johnny Depp.
"You know I never gave up on the fact that they would walk free," Victoria said. "Never. You can ask anyone who knows me. I've always said they would walk out of those prison gates. God would see to that and guess what? He did!"
As Victoria points out, West of Memphis was made for Jessie, Jason, and Damien in an effort to help free them. Prior to the documentary's premier at Sundance, that is exactly what happened. In August of last year, the West Memphis Three walked out of a Jonesboro, Ark. courtoom as free men.
Courtesy of Victoria Hutcheson
Victoria said that her participation in West of Memphis provided her "the opportunity to tell the world the truth and to let them know that I am not this horrible person. I am a good person, I really am." Overall, though, Victoria appreciates the fact that the documentary will shed light on the failure of the justice system. "Our justice system failed," she said. "Three little boys were murdered and their killers walk free still today. Our justice system failed for three teenagers. My son was done horribly wrong by a system that is supposed to be there for him. I did things I should not have done for a system I thought would turn things around on me. Isn't it time we took a look at this system?"
In the end, however, it may be that the justice system will not fail the three murdered boys like it did Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley and others involved in the case. Last month, according to The Commercial Appeal, three new witnesses have been found "who point to Terry Hobbs as the real killer of three West Memphis boys." Hobbs is the stepfather of victim Stevie Branch.
For Damien Echols, the only member of the West Memphis Three to spend 18 years on death row, life is good. Johnny Depp plans to make Echols' forthcoming memoir into a motion picture.
Even though she remains frustrated with the judicial system, Victoria is now victorious and thankful. She currently resides in her home state of Arkansas and is working hard to move up the ladder in the business where she is employed. She wrote to me and said, "But I praise God for bringing us through all this and I praise God that I am able to sit here today and write this to you."