Injustice happens every day. Innocent people are convicted within corrupt judicial systems while the guilty go free on technicalities and pleas. DNA exonerates some while highlighting how, in the blink of a brazen prosecutor’s eye, evidence can easily be tampered with, or outright destroyed. The case of Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley, Jr., also known as the West Memphis Three, sparked outraged around the world when documentary filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky stumbled upon their case, making it the focus of their fascinating trilogy of films found under the Paradise Lost title. Over the last two decades, their cause has become a landmark of grassroots activism.
The trio were accused of the ritualistic murder of elementary school aged Christopher Byers, Steven Branch, and Michael Moore. Prosecutors even used a “Satanic” angle to explain away the gruesome and shocking nature of the crimes as well as the motive for same. Railroaded into a trial which saw a coerced confession lead to an easy conviction. Baldwin and Misskelley were sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole while Echols received the death penalty. With the help of Paradise Lost, the plight of these boys was brought to the attention of a public eager to pick apart the Arkansas legal loggerhead and, some 18 years later, a mass effort of supporters, celebrities, and lawyers made history, getting the otherwise doomed individuals that most elusive of legal endgames – freedom.
Of course, the lingering question remains – if not Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley, then who? That becomes the focus of a new film on the case, West of Memphis. If you’ve seen the Paradise Lost films, you’ve seen a good portion of this Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings) supported follow-up. Along with partner Fran Walsh, this Oscar winning filmmaker became a passionate defender of the three, going so far as to hire experts and private investigators to pursue leads left for dead by the original police detectives. Their goal was to help raise awareness while discovering new facts and evidence that would help Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley earn a new trial – or even better, acquittal.
In this movie’s mind, all possible murderer paths lead to the stepfather of one of the victims – Terry Hobbs. Mentioned in the Berlinger and Sinofsky trilogy, the soft spoken (but supposedly explosive and violent) man becomes a ‘person of interest’ when a hair found in one of the bindings around the boy’s wrists is liked to him. Even worse, his purported alibi, a man named David Jacoby, winds up with a sample of his DNA at the crime scene as well. Along with a slew of forensic pathologists, all of whom discount the “blood cult” explanation for the injuries (the wounds were more consistent with ravenous wildlife, like…turtles?) West wants to be the final word on a case that really offers no lasting conclusion.
In a way, West of Memphis is a better film than the Paradise Lost trilogy. With the value of hindsight, and a lot of famous money, director Amy Berg (responsible for the chilling expose on sex abuse in the Catholic Church, Deliver Us from Evil) cuts through the content to give us the basics. We get the horrible crime (with equally disturbing descriptions and police photographs to back it up), the reason for the accusation, the damning confession by Misskelley, and the slow upswing in support for the trio. Of course, former red herring John Mark Beyers is around to rant and rave, condemning the men at first but then changing his tune significantly when Hobbs becomes a key.
Similarly, we get the other members of the Hobbs household, including a sister that defends him to the hilt, a stepdaughter who seeks therapy for her ambiguous relationship with her stepdad, and the spaced out spouse who accuses her ex of everything short of sacrilege. As circumstantial cases go, it’s strong – but it is far from open and shut. Still, the questions raised by supporters and actual participants in the case bring Arkansas to one of the most unusual decisions in the history of criminal law – something called an Alford plea. Basically, Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley were allowed to maintain their innocence while being found guilty of the crimes. Yes, it makes no sense, but that’s the legal system.
By keeping the narrative simple and straightforward, by avoiding the minutia of detail to get us from crime to conviction to freedom in 140 minutes, West of Memphis becomes a real emotional rollercoaster. Unlike Paradise Lost, the trio become background material for their various family and friends. We meet Echols jailhouse bride, a woman who has been married to an alleged murderer and yet so believing in him that she quit her previous job to focus full time on his defense. Misskelley’s dad is also on hand to describe his already labeled “borderline retarded” son as “slow” and “easily confused.” Some of the star power even shows up, Jackson lending his intentions to those of Johnny Depp, Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, Henry Rollins (who held rock concert benefits in their support) and perhaps most importantly, Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks. It was she who became the focus of a lawsuit by Hobbs, forcing him to testify (and many believe, lie) under oath about his involvement in the crimes.
While Berlinger and Sinofsky have the scope, West of Memphis has the specifics. The impact of the details cannot be overstated. With such shocking information being presented to the jury, Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley had no chance at a fair trial. Yet for many, obviously guilty men are walking the streets, freed because state and local law enforcement couldn’t battle a superstar juggernaut determined to undermine their efforts. As part of a Q&A with trial judge David Burnett, we get the lasting legal position – nothing, not the lack of DNA or the connection to Terry Hobbs or the mountain of newly discovered material changes the fact that Jessie Misskelley confessed to helping Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin torture, mutilate, and kill Christopher Byers, Steven Branch, and Michael Moore. In his mind, justice was served back in 1994. For others, West of Memphis is the real vindication – even if it is incomplete.