West of Memphis (2012)
The West Memphis Three murder case gained substantial notoriety thanks to an HBO documentary team, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, who were on hand in 1993 to document the trial in their film, Paradise Lost. Three eight-year-old boys (Michael Moore, Christopher Byers, Steven Branch) went missing one day in May in West Memphis, Arkansas. Their bodies were found the next day in a nearby creek. The boys had been hogtied and bore plenty of vicious marks, one of them having a severed penis. The horror shocked the small town and the blame landed on a trio of local teens (Jessie Miskelley, Jason Baldwin, Damien Echols). Miskelley had confessed under police interrogation and so was tried separately, but all three were found guilty. Miskelley and Baldwin were given life in jail and Echols, the supposed ringleader, a teen who disliked authority and read about magic and demons, was given the death penalty.
In the years that followed, thanks to the exposure of the Paradise Lost films (a second was released in 2000 and a third in 2011), advocates flocked to the cause, belied by the overwhelming belief that the three convicted had been unfairly railroaded. Celebrities spoke out and got involved, chief among them Lord of the Rings filmmakers Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh. They began communicating with Echols and his wife, Lori, and personally bankrolled a new team of forensic experts to amass new evidence that could allow for a potential appeal. Jackson even hired Oscar-nominated filmmaker Amy Berg (Deliver Us from Evil) to helm her own documentary, West of Memphis.
Denied at most turns by the same flat-footed officials, the West Memphis Three struck a deal with the Arkansas attorney general in August 2011. The three would be granted freedom if they agreed to an Alford Plea, a rare legal circumstance where a defendant can plead guilty while still maintain their innocence. Eighteen years later the West Memphis Three are free but there are still many questions that need to be answered, mostly involving the conduct of officials involved in the case and the identity of the real killer.
As an ardent follower of the case, as well as the three previous documentaries by Berlinger and Sinofsky, I was concerned that West of Memphis would be more or less a rehash of what has already been covered in earlier, better movies, and to some degree it is. When you’re the fourth documentary to the table, there’s going to be some repetition. Berg’s film serves as a nice introduction to the case for newcomers and provides a diligent overview of the main facets of the murder case. There are a few finer points that Berg’s film spends more time illuminating that I think are worth mentioning. The first is extensively laying out why Miskelley’s confession was coerced. The teen, whose mental faculties are low, was locked away in police custody, without a parent or lawyer, for most of a day, with only a scant portion recorded. On these recordings, Berg clearly points out, with the assistance from some expert talking heads, how police officials guided Miskelley into the statement they wanted to hear. It’s pretty damming stuff to hear and a clear-cut case of a coerced confession.
What West of Memphis does best is narrow its focus to police and prosecutorial misconduct, picking apart the evidence that put two men away for life and one on death row. The fact that the prosecution used Damien’s own teenage poetry against him, evidence that might simultaneously doom and embarrass us all, should speak volumes. This was a case where the only thing tying the defendants to the crime scene was Miskelley’s false confession and the flimsy idea that the crime scene was a satanic ritual. Berg finds several of the prosecution witnesses who testified on the stand about how the three were involved in satanic practices, and in those new interviews each witness comes clean, admitting they were pressured by police or offered attractive deals to link the defendants to the satanic motive. Their recantations are satisfying to hear and, in journalistic lingo, a true get for Berg and her crew.
We expect our law enforcement officials to be just but mistakes will happen; however, in the event of those mistakes, we expect officials to try and correct them, to make things right. What West of Memphis shows is that the West Memphis officials dug down deeper in the face of compelling evidence, refusing to admit when they were so clearly wrong. In the years after the case and following the Berlinger and Sinofsky films, there have been renewed efforts to revisit the physical evidence of the case. To a fault, every professional profiler, including one guy who was there at the founding of the FBI, concluded that the crime had nothing to do with Satanism or the occult. They also concluded that most of the wounds, argued by prosecutors to be responsible by a serrated knife found in a lake behind Baldwin’s family mobile home (a knife the prosecution expressly knew Baldwin’s mother admitted to hurling in that lake a year prior to the case), were in fact made post-mortem by local scavenging animals, mainly large turtles with snapping jaws. There’s a reason that the wounds aren’t bloodier. It’s because the victims were already dead.
But the most enlightening piece of evidence is what was found thanks to DNA, namely nothing. On not one single piece of evidence or anything relating to the victims was one scrap of DNA linked to Baldwin, Misskelley, or Echols. Seems rather open and shut, doesn’t it? Except Judge David Burnett, the same judge who presided over the original case, dismissed the reams of new physical evidence and rejected the motion for an appeal. It got to the point where, at the Arkansas Supreme Court, the state was arguing that the only new evidence that should be considered when granting appeals is evidence that points to guilt. The state argued, to the disbelief of the court justices, that new evidence that could overturn (wrongful) convictions should be disallowed. Fortunately, the Arkansas Supreme Court rejected this motion unanimously. It’s quite clear that law enforcement officials sought to save face rather than enact justice.
Another aspect that Berg’s film does better is illuminating another suspect the police have ignored for 18 years, Terry Hobbs, stepfather to Steven Branch. The movie devotes a solid 45 minutes on the subject, painting a convincing portrait of a suspect with long ties to abuse, anger, lies, and manipulation. A hair of Hobbs, matching his DNA exactly, was found tied into the knot of one of the bound boys. Weirdly enough, Terry Hobbs sued Dixie Chicks lead singer Natalie Maines for defamation, which fortuitously provided an opportunity to question Hobbs with the full penalty of the law behind them. Under oath, his story crumbles and his alibi at the time proves to have a sizable a gap, a period where the boys were killed according to medical reports.
Clearly Terry Hobbs is a compelling suspect though I wish the movie didn’t feel the need to resort to superficial assertions concerning how he “behaves guilty,” like his lack of emotion concerned the case. Questioning why he waited over two hours to tell his wife that their son was missing is a fair line of inquiry. Questioning his history of spousal abuse and violent run-ins is fair. Questioning why he isn’t more outwardly bereaved is not. It’s the same prejudicial judgments made against Damien when he was being tried, the idea that he just wasn’t acting like an innocent man (to be fair, Damien was also a moody teen at the time). Berlinger and Sinofsky are guilty of this as well, devoting a disproportionate amount of Paradise Lost 2 to pointing a suspicious eye toward John Mark Byers, stepfather of Christopher Byers, and a theatrical, larger-than-life figure. At least with Paradise Lost 3, the filmmakers make amends, and there’s a nice scene where Byers apologizes to Echols. This guilt-by-superficial-judgment is a dubious line of accusation that Berg and her film should rise above (just the facts, ma’am).
From there, though, I started feeling like West of Memphis is best served as a complimentary film to be paired with the altogether superior Paradise Lost documentaries. There is something to be said for Berlinger and Sinofsky being on the ground from the get-go, having unprecedented access to the victims’ families, the families of the accused, the attorneys on both sides, and the accused themselves. Naturally over three films you get a much stronger sense of the nuances of the case, but Berlinger and Sinofsky also gave you a much stronger sense of the community and the full context of the crimes. I was bothered at how often Berg’s film eschews direct on-camera interviews with Miskelley and Baldwin. Late in the film, as the movie explores Baldwin’s hesitancy to admit guilt for a chance at freedom, a friend recounts her phone conversations with Baldwin on the tricky subject. Why isn’t Baldwin himself on camera talking about this rather than a friend relaying her conversations with the man? Throughout the film, when it concerns the accused, the movie feels oddly removed from the source (Damien and his wife are credited as producers for the doc). It’s got plenty of talking heads and famous celebrities on camera but I’d rather hear from those directly involved. It’s just another reminder of the access and relationships that were formed through the Paradise Lost films. You’ll get a good overview of the fascinating and horrifying case with this movie, but to get a better understanding of the people involved, reference the meatier Berlinger and Sinofsky films.
By the end, even after 18 years in prison, it’s remarkable and inspiring how free of bitterness the three men are. They still have to live with the guilty verdicts but they are free, and rather than dwell on what was taken from them, the men are thankful for their freedoms and thankful for the diligence of the people who believed in their innocence, who fought long and hard so the day would come when they three of them would be set free. Berg’s film even dedicates its last moments to those advocates and their efforts, saying that their involvement made all the difference. This is an example where a movie literally saved somebody’s life. Without the exposure of the Paradise Lost, it’s very likely Echols would have remained on death row and been executed. On a personal note, this was the final moment that got me to cry (there were a couple others that made me teary). It’s because of the shared happiness and accomplishments of helping, in whatever small way, three innocent men get their long overdue freedom. I won’t overstate my involvement, but I was there, writing letters, sending in donations, advocating, since 1999. I have never been happier to retire a T-shirt than with my “Free the West Memphis Three” shirt (I wore it one last time to watch this movie). The forward-thinking, gracious attitudes of Baldwin, Miskelley, and Echols are inspiring, and it even inspired me to seize the moment myself rather than remain passive in a personal relationship.
Coming in after a trilogy of other extensive documentaries, West of Memphis can’t help but feel a little late to the party. Its strengths lie in deconstructing the prosecution’s case and assembling new interviews where key witnesses have an opportunity to come clean and recant. Otherwise, it’s like listening to another singer perform a song you’re already familiar with. The case is so deeply troubling and morbidly fascinating that there’s definitely room for four movies on the topic and then some; Atom Egoyan has filmed a movie based upon journalist Mara Leveritt’s book on the case, Devil’s Knot (starring Reese Witherspoon and Colin Firth too). It’s easy to become immersed in this case; I know I have over the years. It all came down to a police force pressured to find a killer and three teens that were different in a small town. There are many tragedies tied to this case. The three boys who were gruesomely murdered. The three men who were wrongly convicted and lost 18 years of their lives. And since the West Memphis Three plead guilty, it means that the police can officially close the case, allowing the real killer to continue to walk free and unpunished. That should trouble every single person. West of Memphis is a gripping and thought-provoking documentary, though I think it’s best viewed as a supplement or introduction to the superior Berlinger and Sinofsky films.
Nate’s Grade: B+