You might be somewhat familiar with the West Memphis Three, the trio of teenagers who, almost 20 years ago, were arrested and accused of murdering three 8-year-old boys in West Memphis, Ark.
Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley were convicted based on what appeared to be shaky and circumstantial evidence—testimony that’s since been recanted—and many people thought they were singled out because they were far outside of the mainstream. This is small-town America, and once investigators decided that the crimes looked as though they could have been part of a Satanic ritual, they went hunting for anyone who might be capable of taking part in something like that, which led them straight to Echols.
These events were captured in Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofky’s excellent 1996 documentary Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, and Echols, who was condemned to death, Baldwin and Misskelley became a cause célèbre around the globe.
You might wonder if another film on this subject is necessary. After all, Berlinger and Sinofsky have made three of them, culminating in the trio’s release in 2011. But West of Memphis is more of a compendium of the work of those two filmmakers, and it goes even further to assert the innocence of the WM3.
Director Amy Berg got pretty amazing access to the case, and it should be noted that one of the many celebrities who lent their time and energy to the cause and the film is Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson, who helped finance Berg’s movie and also paid for a new investigation into the crimes. As a result, the new documentary shines a spotlight on Terry Hobbs, the former stepfather of Stevie Branch, one of the murdered boys, as a possible suspect.
The evidence against Hobbs, including DNA, is certainly compelling, though much of it is also circumstantial. This comes close to crossing over from documentary to advocacy. Is that a problem? No, not at all. But if a lifetime of watching lawyer shows has taught me anything, it’s that one of the best ways to shift attention from one suspect is to put it on another. I’m not condemning the film or the filmmakers here, but it’s worth remembering that the work of Berlinger and Sinofsky presented an entirely different scenario that was equally persuasive.
Still, West of Memphis is an impressive piece of work; it examines not only what appears to be an absolute miscarriage of justice, but also what happens when people passionately work to right a wrong. Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley are three of the unluckiest people on the planet. At the same time, they’re also three of the luckiest, because most people in similar circumstances don’t have the support and backing of rock stars and Hollywood royalty. This is a tremendously emotional look at a wrong that has finally been righted, even if it feels as though the fix is in on the part of the state.
As you probably know, after new evidence was brought to light, the WM3 signed Alford pleas, which allows them to go free while admitting guilt. But Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley were forced to cop to something they’ve always said they didn’t do, and they’ll have the stigma of guilt draped around their necks for all time. The real get-out-of-jail-free card goes to the state of Arkansas, which is immune to civil suits because the three pleaded guilty (the camera is in the courtroom when they do it, and it’s amazing footage).
That’s a pretty cynical way for the state to deal with its issues, and what’s more, whomever killed those three little boys isn’t in prison, and won’t be. That’s yet another travesty of justice.