Seeking Justice For The West Memphis Three
West of Memphis is a continuation of the well-documented story of the West Memphis Three - Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley - teenage boys who were arrested, tried and convicted of brutally murdering three boy scouts in West Memphis, Arkansas.
In the documentary, filmmaker Amy Berg brings to light new evidence in a case that has been going on since 1994 and has already been the subject of three documentaries -- The Paradise Lost Trilogy by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky -- that came to a conclusion with the official closing of the case in 2011.
West of Memphis scans some of the same territory that's covered in the Paradise Lost films (recently released on DVD), but shifts the focus from presenting proof of innocence to asking the not-yet-answered question 'who's guilty?'
What Happened in Paradise?
If you're unfamiliar with the case and/or the Paradise Lost films, some background information will help you to understand why the making of this fourth West Memphis Three film was essential -- and why your seeing it is a must.
To begin at the beginning: filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky were commissioned by HBO's Sheila Nevins to produce a documentary about the trial of three teenage boys what was being described by local prosecutors as a satanic ritual murder of three boy scouts.
Shortly after they began filming, Berlinger and Sinofsky became convinced that the teenagers were not Satanists and, more importantly, were not guilty.
When their first film, which pointed out errors and oversights made by police and prosecutors, was broadcast on HBO, it attracted worldwide attention, making the case a cause celebre, and fomenting a worldwide 'justice for the WM3' movement spearheaded and funded by Eddie Vedder, Johnny Depp, Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and other celebrities.
While protests and appeals pressed for a new trial, Misskelley, Baldwin and Echols were growing up in jail, with Echols on Death Row. As seen in the Paradise films, the three showed extraordinarily strength of character and maturity in their exemplary behavior and high-minded handling of the situation. Lesser souls would have caved in rage and disillusionment.
Can Justice Be Partial?
Berlinger and Sinofsky chronicled new developments and shifts in interpretation of the case in the next two Paradise Lost films.
The second film reflected the then popular opinion that the killings were done by Mark Byer, the father of one of the murdered boys. But that theory gradually faded after the second film had been finished.
The third film, subtitled Purgatory, culminated with the eventual release of the WM3 in 2011.
It shows the State of Arkansas basically acknowledging that it had made a mistake, and negotiating for Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley to enter 'Alford' pleas to secure their immediate release from prison.
In the 'Alford' plea, persons convicted of crimes officially maintain their innocence, but admit their guilt in exchange for immediate release from prison.
Huh?Yes, that plea really exists and that really was what was demanded of Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley.
Echols -- sentenced to death -- and Misskelley agreed immediately to the State's conditions, while Baldwin -- saying his mother taught him not to lie -- felt it was wrong to admit to something he hadn't done. He wanted full exoneration. In the end, however, Baldwin agreed to the 'Alford' plea because it would surely prevent the execution of Echols.
While entering the "Alford" plea got the three out of jail, it saddled them with a criminal record for life. It also prevents them from suing the State of Arkansas for its justice system's misdeeds.
It also officially brings the case of the murdered boys to a conclusion and ends any further investigations -- without finding, prosecuting and punishing the real killer of the boy scouts.
Will Justice Be Fully Served?
The Paradise Lost: Purgatory clearly points to the failings of the system, and draws Berlinger and Sinofsky's involvement with and coverage of the case to a close. With the WM3 out of jail and their 'Alford'-prompted admission of guilt on record, the State of Arkansas sees no need -- and in fact refuses -- to pursue the case any further.
However, during the twenty years that the WM3 were incarcerated, new evidence has been found -- evidence that points to someone else as the perpetrator, evidence that would exonerate the WM3, evidence that will never be heard in court because the case is officially closed.
West of Memphis reveals that evidence, and it suggests the guilt of Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of one of the murdered boy scouts. Hobbs was never questioned by police at the time of the killings.
West of Memphis producers Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh (best known for their Lord of the Rings films) funded further investigation of Terry Hobbs' background, relationship with this stepson and doings on the day of the murder.
Witnesses interviewed on camera include the families of the murdered, investigators and forensics experts hired by the production, prosecutors and the judge in the ongoing case, lawyers for the WM3, celebrities other people who'd supported who'd supported the WM3 and been instrumental in securing their release from jail -- including organizer Lorrie Davis, who is one of the film's producers and is now married to Damien Echols.
Terry Hobbs, now the prime suspect in the killings, appears extensively in archival trial-related footage and during his interrogation by private investigators hired by the production.
The film is very well constructed, its argument is clearly presented and the new evidence is quite convincing. It is a demand for further consideration of the case, but that will probably never happen.
Is This The Finale?
The long term filmmaker documentation of the WM3 case provides proof of the impact that movies -- narrative as well as nonfiction -- can have on public awareness and understanding of events, on stimulating public debate and engagement in current affairs. The Paradise Lost Trilogy and West of Memphis made independently of each other and each brilliantly realized by different teams of filmmakers, are both must see films -- certainly for anyone involved with the criminal justice system and for the people who followed the WM3 case, but also for anyone who is interested in the pursuit of justice and movie fans who like films with long and complex investigations, especially if they are true stories.
But the story of the WM3 isn't over yet. There is certainly room for another documentary that shows the real murder brought to justice. And, narrative film fans can look forward to a scripted adaptation of Devil's Knot, the 2002 book written about the case by Mara Leveritt. The narrative feature is set to star Reese Witherspoon and Colin Firth. See the documentaries first, to see whether the narrative features gets the story right!
If You Like This Documentary, You May Also Like:
- The Paradise Lost Trilogy
- The Central Park Five
- Crime After Crime
- Presumed Guilty
- Deliver Us From Evil
- Forbidden Lies
- Deliver Us From Evil
- My Neighbor, My Killer
- Made in India
- Title: West of Memphis
- Director: Amy Berg
- Producers: Amy Berg, Lorri Davis, Matthew Dravitzki, Damien Wayne Echols, Tina Elmo, Katelyn Howes, Peter Jackson, Ken Kamins, Dan Kaplow, Alejandra Riguero, Fran Walsh
- Original Music: Nick Cave, Warren Ellis
- Cinematography: Maryse Alberti, Ronan Killeen
- Film Editing: Billy McMillin
- US Theatrical Release Date: December 25, 2012
- Running Time: 147 mins.
- Parental Advisory: Content advisory for parents
- Production Country: USA
- Production Location: West Memphis, Arkansas and others
- Language: English
- Production Companies: Disarming Films, Wingnut Films
- Distribution Company: Sony Pictures Classics
- Official Site