By now everyone should have heard of the West Memphis Three case. Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr. (aged 16-18 at the time) were convicted of the murder of three eight-year-old boys, Steve Branch, Michael Moore and Christopher Byers in West Memphis, by the State of Arkansas in 1994. Damien was sentenced to death, with Jason and Jessie sentenced to life imprisonment. In 1996 a groundbreaking HBO documentary chronicling the case, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky), aired and immediately brought public attention to what many believed to be a disastrous miscarriage of justice. Damien, on Death Row, especially attracted supporters and over the next sixteen years a very thorough, but continuously stonewalled re-investigation has taken place in the hopes of overturning these convictions and finding the real killer/s.
Two more powerful documentaries, Paradise Lost: Revelations (2000)and the Academy Award nominated Paradise Lost: Purgatory (2011), have since aired, but complementing the trilogy is the Fran Walsh, Peter Jackson and Damien Echols produced, West of Memphis. Peter and Fran, like Pearl Jam front man Eddie Vedder, actor Johnny Depp and musicians Henry Rollins and Natalie Maines were high profile celebrities with influence who befriended and supported Damien and his wife Lorri Davis (married after years of correspondence in 1999) and helped finance the investigation.
As expected, West of Memphis is an incredible achievement. It is gripping and maddening throughout and comprised of a stunning volume of formerly unseen footage. The damning new evidence highlights a fresh suspect and the world learns more of the corruption & lies that plagued the case from the start. It is also a profoundly moving example of the power of public defiance against corrupt law enforcement, malicious supposition, double standards, perjury and an inept criminal justice system that has gone un-flagged for too long.
On one side of this battle we have the Arkansas law enforcers who maliciously terrorized Damien as a young boy, operating outside of their jurisdiction and Damien’s legal human rights, and put together a theory that Damien was the ringleader of a satanic cult and that these murders were a sacrifice directly related to such a cult. There was no alternative. Inspector Gary Gitchel creates a scenario and in their minds this was how it was going to play out. Even if they knew the boys were innocent (and it is explicitly suggested that the State Prosecutor John Fogleman was aware) having them quickly convicted would have put the mob at ease, and aided a lot of their personal political affiliations. To them, these boys were white trash who would not be missed.
One of these horrible men, Jerry Driver, is referenced continuously in Damien’s book Life After Death (which I can highly recommend reading) but there had never been any footage of him being interviewed in the Paradise Lost series. Like many others (Fogleman and Judge David Burnett, who repeatedly denied retrials and the presentation of new evidence) this vile individual continues to save face, naively defending his claims that the right perpetrators are behind bars.
One of the more shocking revelations – and who thought there could be any more – involved evidence to suggest that the knife found in the lake behind Jason’s place, a knife that played a major role in the prosecution’s case at the time, was not only known to be there (not a hunch by Fogleman, as he claimed) but was actually thrown in there by Jason’s mother a year before the crimes were committed. This lake was a notorious dumping ground for an array of junk so who knows how many knives were in there. The informant and this time discrepancy were never revealed during the trial because it would have voided these speculations, but Fogleman managed to convince the jury (by shoving unsettling images in their face) that this knife indeed caused the wounds on the bodies.
We now know, courtesy of the re-examination by more than half a dozen adamant forensic experts, that animals, and more specifically turtles, caused these wounds. The castrated penis – the one sign that suggested a cult ritual – was likely bitten off by a turtle and was not the work of what would have needed to be a skilled physician. Further still, a pair of prosecution witnesses have now reversed their testimonies, claiming they lied on the stand and did what the prosecution instructed in return for favourable treatment. All of this, plus the DNA evidence suggesting the three convicted had nothing to do with it (but implicated the involvement of someone else) is stubbornly denied by the State, who evidently fears the embarrassment of their malpractices being discovered. Berg boldly attempts to point fingers at those who knowingly betrayed these boys. It isn’t hard because they tarnish themselves with stubborn denial of their mistakes.
The content alone makes this a fascinating documentary, and perhaps I am biased regarding this film given my emotional investment in the case over the last twelve months, but I will just talk briefly about the film’s structure and filmmaking side. The film’s length is substantial, but given how the Paradise Lost documentaries were predominantly the work of two men and individually more direct in focus, this is very broad. Walsh, Jackson and director Amy J. Berg (Deliver Us From Evil) have started working on this quite late in the case (2005 onwards), and trying to piece together that first decade of footage must have been daunting. The court scenes (including Jessie’s coerced confession, the ‘expert’ on cultism) were already covered extensively in Child Murders and the suspicions surrounding Christopher’s adoptive father, Mark Byers, became the focus of Revelations. The opening hour here, though as fascinating and angering as ever, is a little messy as it recaps things.
But, once we begin to focus on Jackson’s involvement and the revelation of the new evidence, the film is brilliant. It works for the uninitiated, but for viewers familiar with the case it digs deeper and around what we have already seen. There isn’t much footage of the WM3 in prison, but addresses the work done outside of the walls – following Lorri (seen conversing with Damien by phone) and the selfless PI’s and civil rights lawyers working for her. There is a focus shift from the WM3 to a viable new suspect, who I won’t reveal or discuss, and the evidence presented is pretty damning. Whether these new witness accounts can be trusted, given how many liars have been taken seriously in the case before, remains to be seen.
Where Berlinger and Sinofsky never forgot the double-edged horrors of this case, Berg predominantly focuses on the appeals of the imprisoned, but doesn’t lose sight that the killer is still out there. Some may argue that the aforementioned pair, whose first film played a HUGE role in getting the world involved, are not given much credit here. Jackson states that it was their documentaries that influenced his involvement, and Child Murders is so eye-opening it could be considered unofficial evidence. The success of this privately funded endeavour is cause for celebration, despite the ridiculous Alford Plea – a concede that the prosecutors had sufficient evidence to convict, but they are allowed to maintain their innocence and walk free – offered by the State to avoid a likely-embarrassing re-trial.
West of Memphis suggests that this case was never extraordinary, but the horrid Arkansas justice system, spurred on by civil hysteria at the time, made it so. Though no closure is offered it ends with a turn of events equally relieving and angering, but offering hope that sought after justice will prevail in the future and that these young men will live free and fulfilling lives.
Andrew Buckle - follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22
Andy Buckle is a passionate Sydney-based film enthusiast and reviewer who has built a respected online voice at his personal blog, The Film Emporium. Andy will contribute reviews, features and be our resident film festival, and awards expert.