The astonishing case of the West Memphis Three — teenagers Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr., who were railroaded into prison by authorities for the murder and mutilation of three little boys in 1993 — has already been recounted in detail by filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky in their trilogy of Paradise Lost documentaries. Those movies brought national attention to a case that might have otherwise gone unnoticed by the national media, inspiring activist groups and celebrities to get involved in a crusade to free the three convicted men, one of them (Echols) sentenced to death.
The efforts of their supporters, along with the discovery of new DNA evidence, eventually led to the trio’s release in 2011, after 18 years behind bars. The only condition: They had to agree to an Alford Plea, which meant they would plead guilty to the crime in exchange for time served, essentially protecting the authorities from any civil lawsuits. The case was officially closed.
One of the things you wonder about West of Memphis, another documentary about the case directed by Amy Berg (Deliver Us From Evil), is what there could possibly be left to say. Produced by Peter Jackson, who became obsessed with the case and helped fund the suspect’s legal bills, the movie quickly encapsulates the crime and the trio’s convictions, then focuses primarily on the defense attorneys’ use of the DNA data, which was introduced in 2007, to attempt to get a retrial.
The new evidence changes everything — for one thing, it puts Terry Hobbs, stepfather of one of the murdered kids, at the scene of the crime — and the attorneys push further, going over the physical evidence used in the original trials and making some startling discoveries. For example, the boys’ sexually mutilated bodies helped the prosecution persuade the jury the suspects had performed a satanic ritual on their victims; Berg gives us another, much more believable alternative that shows the physical trauma was almost undoubtedly caused by turtles feeding on the corpses.
But Judge David Burnett, who presided over the original trials, digs in his heels and discounts everything, leaving Echols and his two friends one last hope — an appeal to the Arkansas Supreme Court. Although the end of the story is already known, West of Memphis still builds a considerable aura of suspense. Hobbs is interrogated several times by authorities, while lawyers scramble to make sure their defense is air-tight, and the mind reels at how grave an injustice these three men endured. Echols, the most eloquent of the three, says they were easy targets because they were all “poor white trash,” and the authorities were under extreme public pressure to solve the case and find someone to blame.
Even though several of the people who testified in the original trials recant their testimony in West of Memphis, admitting they had motivation to lie on the stand, prosecutors still believe the trio to be guilty. They can’t say anything else, because to admit doubt or pause would be an admission of their blatant disregard for the rights of the three suspects. West of Memphis has a happy ending — Echols finally gets to spend time with the woman he married while in prison, and Baldwin and Misskelley reunite with their families — but the movie leaves you feeling angry and frustrated anyway. And justice for all? Hardly.
Writer-director: Amy Berg.
Producers: Fran Walsh, Peter Jackson, Damien Echols, Lorri Davis.
A Sony Pictures Classics release. Running time: 146 minutes. Vulgar language, graphic crime scene photos, adult themes. In Miami-Dade: South Beach; in Palm Beach: Shadowood, Delray.