When Damien Echols, Jesse Misskelley and Jason Baldwin, otherwise known as the West Memphis Three, were released from jail in Arkansas in 2011, it appeared to have brought an end to one of the most media-covered American crime stories in the last two decades.
Imprisoned in 1993 as teenagers for the alleged ritual slaying of three eight-year-old boys, the West Memphis Three’s case was exhaustively chronicled in three HBO documentaries over 15 years by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, which left the clear impression that the men were victims of small-town Southern justice, moral panic and careerist law-makers. Echols, the purported ringleader, was on death row mostly because of his goth tastes in music and fashion. The case spawned books, television investigative shows, and a campaign from high-profile actors and musicians such as Johnny Depp, Eddie Vedder and Henry Rollins.
What can Amy Berg possibly add to all this with her new documentary, West of Memphis? A great deal, it turns out. In a well-paced two and a half hours, Berg’s film is an ambitious mixture of summary and fresh investigation. Berg, who made the 2006 film Deliver Us From Evil, about sex-abuse by a Catholic priest, was commissioned by director Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings) and his producer wife, Fran Walsh, to look into the case while Echols and the others were still in jail.
Along with co-writer and editor Billy McMillin, Berg selects moments from almost 20 years of television and documentary footage to retell the story of the crime, trial and appeal attempts. As the film weaves back and forth through the years, the hairdos change and the faces age, an inexperienced defense lawyer becomes a judge, and an obstructionist judge from the original case graduates to the state senate.
What sets this film apart from previous efforts to document the story is that Jackson and Walsh financed a private investigative team with legal and forensic experts who re-examined old evidence, conducted new interviews and found new witnesses. The investigators secretly get DNA from a suspect’s cigarette butt, and their reinterpretation of the crime scene leads to some “gotcha” moments that no earlier doc could provide. In the end, Berg and the investigators amass enough evidence to help convince the state supreme court to allow a plea agreement and set the falsely accused free after 18 years.
All of this is wrapped around the love story, told through read letters and recorded phone calls, between the imprisoned Echols and Lorri Davis, the New York woman who first wrote to him in 1996, married him in 1999, and led the campaign to prove his innocence.
Though this multi-strand story revolves around dozens of characters, a few individuals drive the narrative. One is Pam Hobbs, the mother of Stevie Branch, one of the murdered boys; her awakening suspicions about her former husband, Terry Hobbs, lead to one of the film’s most painful developments. Another significant presence here is the white-haired ex-FBI behavioural science specialist, John Douglas, who coolly dismisses the original suspicions of ritual killings or crimes of lust, instead focusing on the personal, one-off nature of the murders.
West of Memphis makes much of the inspirational value of entertainment celebrities in this case, especially Jackson and Eddie Vedder, who get a fair amount of camera time. Cynics might roll their eyes when Pearl Jam’s Vedder sings Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changin’ to footage of a Free the West Memphis Three parade, as if it were a ’60s civil rights march. But there’s no doubt the collective spirit helped – case researcher Martin Hill calls it the “only crowd-sourced investigation in history.”
The film’s conclusion is far from comforting, however. The innocent were punished and the guilty still walk free. Echols, whose intelligence and charisma may have saved his life, insists there was nothing exceptional about three “white trash” teens getting railroaded for a crime in Arkansas. That the West Memphis Three were lucky enough to gain the attention of deep-pocketed, powerful celebrities before getting justice seems chillingly arbitrary.