Influenced by the, mostly erroneous, belief that satanic cults were on the rise in America the police decided that this was the work of one such cult and began looking for possible culprits. Seemingly top of their list were three local teenagers, Damian Echols, Jessie Misskelley and Jason Baldwin, with Echols positioned as the ring leader of the group. Echols was a fan of heavy metal, although actually relatively tame bands such as Metallica were the ones most often cited, a reader of writers such as Aleister Crowley and someone who often wrote rather dark poems in his journal.
These facts are hardly damning and probably apply to a very large number of teenage boys, including this writer at a younger age, but they were enough to whip the media into a frenzy, turn the local residents against the three boys (since dubbed the ‘West Memphis Three’) and to convince many of their guilt before any substantial evidence was even uncovered. The most damning ‘evidence’ ultimately brought forward was a confession from Jessie Misskelley, who buckled after hours of interrogating. Misskelley has a low I.Q. and when one reads his confession or hears excerpts in West of Memphis it is clear how much he was led and coerced into admitting to the murders.
This important information regarding his confession, along with the lack of hard evidence, was never properly communicated to the jury though, in a trial that was so poorly handled that it would be blackly comic if it wasn’t for the deeply upsetting consequences. Echols, Misskelley and Baldwin were found guilty, Echols was sentenced to death, Misskelley to life plus forty years and Baldwin to life in prison.
In 1996 HBO aired a documentary entitled Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, which highlighted the witch hunt that had occurred and made many people aware of what clearly looked to be a serious miscarriage of justice. Two more documentaries followed, in 2000 (Paradise Lost 2: Revelations) and in 2011 (Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory), the latter bringing the story to a close with a hastily added epilogue due to the release of the three from prison thanks to the Alford Plea, a bizarre legal loophole that allows the defendant to admit that there is sufficient evidence to prove their guilt whilst at the same time allowing them to maintain their innocence.
As Echols makes clear in West of Memphis, and the documentary seeks in part to explore, the three, now all in their thirties, are still technically considered guilty and have been for almost twenty years, meaning that the true perpetrator or perpetrators are still walking free and un-investigated. The suspect that is highlighted most strongly in West of Memphis is Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of one of the murdered boys and someone who seemed to be somewhat ignored by the initial investigation. Director Amy Berg makes a very compelling case that Hobbs is very much the prime suspect in this case but despite the wealth of damning evidence there is never the sense that the documentary is an unfair hatchet job against a man who could of course be innocent.
It is difficult to argue that Berg presents the information related to the West Memphis Three case with a sense of allowing every voice to be heard and every viewpoint given space, but unlike the way that balanced news reporting often misses the point that all opinions are not equally substantiated by facts, Berg navigates all the pertinent information and provides a condensed but sufficiently complete picture of the story.
The elephant in the room is perhaps the three documentaries that have come before, they get a mention in West of Memphis as their impact was important in bringing the case to the attention of many people, but this film differs from those in that it has been made with room to breathe. Although the real killer(s) appear to still be out there, the conclusion of sorts too the story of the West Memphis Three has now occurred. When watching the three Paradise Lost documentaries there is always the sense that the filmmakers (Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky) are constantly reacting to a developing story, and occasionally these reactions lead them down paths that now seem like dead ends and unfortunate diversions. Berg has the advantage of being able to step back from the case, to re-evaluate what has occurred, and to put together all the pieces and present a more complete story.
Despite the release of the West Memphis Three and over six hours of Paradise Lost documentaries on the case, West of Memphis is still a vital documentary that brings to light new evidence and presents existing information in a compelling way, telling the story in a way that will engage even those already familiar with the case. Handsome cinematography from Maryse Alberti and Ronan Killeen and a beautiful score from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis help make for a sumptuous cinematic experience, but it is one that will leave audiences undoubtedly disturbed by the failings in the U.S. Judiciary system and the West Memphis police department and significantly troubled by how easy something similar could happen to you or I.
A vibrant documentary, West of Memphis has all the access needed to explore the West Memphis Three case with skill and class and unlike the police and judicial system in 1994, Berg and co. don’t bungle it. An absorbing and emotional journey, West of Memphis is one of the best documentaries of the year so far.