Although it’s the fourth documentary about the West Memphis Three, West of Memphis doesn’t feel superfluous. This bizarre case rates at least 18 documentaries — one for each year Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley spent in prison for murders they clearly didn’t commit.
Anybody who’s seen one or more of Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s three Paradise Lost films will know the basic story. In 1993, the bodies of three 8-year-old boys were found in a creek in Robin Hood Hills, a section of West Memphis, Ark. The police quickly decided that 18-year-old Echols, a heavy metal fan with loads of teenage attitude, was involved. Detectives also went after Echols’ 16-year-old friend Baldwin, as well as the 17-year-old Misskelley, who was apparently not that close to the other boys.
It was Misskelley, characterized in this film as “borderline mentally retarded,” who cracked under police interrogation. He signed a confession that was heavily prompted by investigators — much like the ones accepted by the suspects in a judicial travesty recently investigated by another documentary, The Central Park Five.
Because Echols had the adolescent metal fan’s customary interest in the occult, the police presented the murders as satanic. The victims’ genitalia had been mutilated, detectives claimed, during a demonic ritual. Many journalists accepted this characterization and some embellished it. Emotions were perilously high when the three suspects were found guilty in two 1994 trials. Echols was sentenced to death.
The evidence against the three teenagers began to wither immediately. By the time of 1996’s Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, exoneration seemed imminent. Yet Arkansas held the trio for 15 more years. Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley were released in August 2011, and only after entering an Alford plea — a concession that the case against them was strong.
It isn’t. West of Memphis is an engrossing detective story, so it’s best not to spoil the story by revealing exactly what was wrong with Arkansas’ prosecution of the teenagers. But filmmaker Amy Berg’s anti-indictment includes perjured testimony (later recanted), ignored alibis, absurd assumptions, incompetent forensic work and disregarded evidence that not only attests to the young men’s innocence but also points toward another suspect.
This is the movie’s most problematic aspect. The cinematic brief filed by Berg, who previously investigated a sexually abusive priest in the powerful Deliver Us from Evil, seems strong. But Paradise Lost 2: Revelations also compellingly singled out a possible perpetrator of the murders. That person is no longer considered a likely suspect.
The three’s high-profile defenders have long been part of the story. The members of Metallica gave their aid (and music) to the Paradise Lost movies. Subsequently, Johnny Depp, Pearl Jam‘s Eddie Vedder, Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks, former Black Flag frontman Henry Rollins and others have added their voices. Australian rockers Nick Cave and Warren Ellis (of Dirty Three) joined the movement by composing the West of Memphis score.
There’s another significant Down Under connection: This documentary was co-produced by Lord of the Rings maestro Peter Jackson and his wife and collaborator, Fran Walsh. (Echols and Lorri Davis, the woman who married him behind bars in 1999, are also co-producers.)
If West of Memphis spends a great deal of time with the trio’s advocates, that seems warranted. Without outside pressure, Baldwin and Misskelly would still be in prison, and Echols might well have been executed. Mara Leveritt, who wrote a book on the three, notes that they benefited from a “crowd-sourced investigation.” It took way too long, but the crowd finally bested the mob. (Recommended)