D: Amy Berg / 149m
With: Pam Hobbs, Terry Hobbs, Damien Echols, Lorri Davis, Jessie Misskelley Jr, Jason Baldwin, John Mark Byers, David Burnett, Peter Jackson, David Jacoby, Holly Ballard
The case of the West Memphis Three – Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley Jr – is one that has attracted a lot of media attention in the years since they were convicted of the murders of three young boys in the Robin Hood Hills area of West Memphis. Their convictions occurred in 1994. Misskelley Jr was tried separately from his friends and sentenced to life plus forty years in prison. Baldwin was sentenced to life in prison, while Echols, regarded as the ringleader, was sentenced to death. Throughout the police investigation and the trials, there was no physical evidence linking the three teenagers to the murders, other potential suspects were ignored, and so-called “experts” on Satanic cults gave evidence that ascribed all three defendants’ behaviours and interests as consistent with involvement in Satanism and ritual sacrifice. The three young men were convicted on a combination of local hearsay, prejudice, police incompetence, and judicial lethargy. The phrase, “miscarriage of justice”, couldn’t be more apt.
There have been three previous documentaries that have followed the case from beginning to near end, and while these are impressive in their own right for being of the moment and for the access to the various people involved – the families of the victims, the police, the lawyers on both sides, interested parties etc. – none of them are able to do what West of Memphis can do, and that’s tell the whole story in one fell swoop. It also has contributions from the likes of Eddie Vedder and Henry Rollins, and one of this movie’s producers, Peter Jackson, as they explain their involvement in trying to get the trio’s convictions overturned. Part of this documentary’s allure is the sense of outrage that it maintains, as each twist and turn in the story prompts an ever-increasing disbelief that the police and the legal system could have knowingly conspired to send three young men to jail on the flimsiest of evidence – and feel justified in doing so. And then continue to see them remain incarcerated even as more and more evidence is discovered that should exonerate them. By the movie’s end, and the details of their eventual release after eighteen years, your faith in the US legal system should be in tatters, so tarnished is its reputation.
Fortunately, in assembling this movie, director Amy Berg has also gained the trust and cooperation of two very important people in this story: Pam Hobbs, mother of Stevie Branch, one of the victims, and Lorri Davis, a young woman who befriended Damien Echols while he was in prison, and who eventually married him. Watching Pam come to terms with her grief and her growing belief in the trio’s innocence, while also trying to come to terms with the mounting evidence that her husband, Terry, may have killed the children, is often heartbreaking to watch. Lorri, meanwhile, is a tireless advocate for Echols, and as she shares her feelings about him, she also reveals an inner strength that is reflected in Pam’s need to know the truth about her son’s death. Both are admirable women, and in their different ways, have managed not to be subsumed by the events of 5 May 1993, when the children were murdered. Berg addresses all the theories about those murders, including other potential killers that the police failed to follow up on, and she keeps a strict focus on the inability of the law and jurisprudence to behave in any other way than appallingly. The West Memphis Three may have their freedom, but as this sincere and gripping documentary points out, the cost to them and everyone associated with that terrible event twenty-five years ago, will remain, and despite an outwardly “happy” ending, the movie also makes it clear that moving on may not be entirely possible for anyone.
Rating: 9/10 – the human element is kept to the fore in Berg’s excellent documentary about a murder case that, despite three convictions, remains unsolved, and which remains endlessly fascinating; with new evidence, new sources, and a fresh take on the whole godawful mess, West of Memphis is the kind of documentary you don’t want to take your eyes from in case you miss something important, and which will have you praying you’re never charged with murder in the state of Arkansas.