Unless you’ve been locked up in a maximum security prison for the past two decades, chances are you’ve heard of the West Memphis Three, the Arkansas teenagers convicted in 1994 of torturing and killing three 8-year-old boys. A classic miscarriage of justice, the case attracted international attention, thanks to a trio of “Paradise Lost” documentaries made by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, the investigative work of the Innocence Project, and the pro-prisoner activism of such celebrities as Natalie Maines, Johnny Depp and Eddie Vedder.
At first glance, Amy J. Berg’s documentary about the affair, “West of Memphis,” seems to come way late to the party, after the story has been endlessly picked apart in just about every media imaginable. But this exhaustive, fascinating and ultimately disturbing film is a brilliantly researched and edited summing up of all that has come before it, while also updating with new material.
The case was, in fact, severely compromised from the start. Satanic cult hysteria played a major role, thanks to the eccentricities of the brooding, charismatic and highly intelligent defendant Damien Echols. There was a tainted confession from another defendant, Jessie Misskelley, whose IQ of 72 made him susceptible to police influence. At the trial, two witnesses for the prosecution were a drug addict and a self-confessed liar, and testimony by the medical examiner was later debunked by an all-star crew of nationally known forensics experts. Plus, years down the road, DNA testing of the bodies came up negative for all three defendants.
But as Berg’s film shows, none of this seemed to matter to the judge and prosecutors in the case, all of whom circled the wagons to protect their prejudices and incompetence. Yet thanks to the efforts of Echol’s wife, Lorri Davis, whom he married in prison, what one person in the film refers to as the world’s first “crowd-sourced criminal investigation” began to pick up steam through social media and the largesse of “Lord of the Rings” director Peter Jackson (who produced Berg’s film).
So after years of a legal roller coaster ride, the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled that a judge should decide whether new DNA evidence would exonerate the prisoners. Obviously afraid that a new trial would overturn their convictions, the prosecution offered the three a deal with the devil: In exchange for their immediate release from jail, the trio would accept an Alford plea, in which they proclaimed their innocence while still pleading guilty to the murders. The West Memphis Three were released from prison in August of 2011.
Not that that solved anything. Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley remain free men today, but tainted with a guilty plea they were practically forced into accepting. And toward the end of Berg’s film, a compelling, but not airtight, case is made that Terry Hobbs, a stepfather of one of the murdered kids, might be the real murderer. That leads to the most upsetting conclusion possible: no matter who it is, the killer is still out there. But the state of Arkansas, guilty pleas in hand, could notcare less.