Directed by: Amy Berg.
I have now seen four documentaries about the West Memphis 3 – the three Paradise Lost films directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky made between 1996 and 2011, and now Amy Berg’s West of Memphis made in 2012. Of them all, I still think the original Paradise Lost from 1996 is the best. When Berlinger and Sinofsky went down to make the film, they assumed, like everyone else, the three were guilty and they would be making a film about how three teenagers murdered three younger boys. What they found though didn’t add up. There was no evidence, aside from a confession got out of the slowest of the three boys, who recanted. Other than that, the entire case seemed to be built on smoke and mirrors. And it is also unquestionable that without that film, they rest would not have been made. Pretty much everyone who became involved in the case over the years became involved BECAUSE of that documentary. Having said that, I think that West of Memphis is probably the most complete single film about the case. It has the benefit of hindsight, and the years of research and investigation into the original case and shows you precisely what did happen. Even after four documentaries about the case – not to mention an excellent book about it – I’m still learning things.
The story is now familiar to most people – it has become one of the most well-known true crime stories in recent American history. Three eight year boys were found beaten, bound and murdered in a shallow creek. The police have no real leads, but think that the crime might have something to do with Satan worship. They focus on Damien Echols, a “strange” teenager in town, who dresses all in black, and is said to worship Satan – as well as his two friends – Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley. The story becomes huge in the small town, and begins to attract national attention. After hours of interrogation, Jessie confesses to helping Jason and Damien kill the three boys. His confession is splashed all over the front page of the paper. It is also riddled with mistakes and inconsistencies that the detectives help him remember correctly. He later recants his confession, and refuses to testify against Damien and Jason – who are to be tried separately. There is no physical evidence tying any of the three of them to the murders. Despite this, all three are convicted, and Damien is sentenced to death.
The movie opens with a recap of the case from back in 1994 – including gruesome crime scene footage and descriptions, that quite frankly, are hard to stomach, but necessary. It then goes over what has happened in the 18 years since then – the celebrities who became involved in trying to free the West Memphis Three – from Eddie Vedder to Johnny Depp to the Dixie Chicks to Peter Jackson (who produced this film, and also gave lots of money in order to hire appeals lawyers and investigators to help out) – as well as the “regular” people who became involved – including a woman named Laurie who ended up falling in love and marrying Damien. The film also supplies an alternate theory of the crime.
For years, the most likely suspect was thought to be John Mark Byers – the stepfather of one of the murdered boys. He was front and center in the first two Paradise Lost movies (especially the second one, which is admittingly the weakest of the three) – and certainly did himself no favors, with his over the top grieving and hate filled tirades against the West Memphis Three, not to mention some apparent slip ups. But in one of the ironies of this case, many focused on him solely because he “seemed” like the type of person who WOULD do something like this – which is precisely what got the West Memphis Three in trouble in the first place. There is no evidence against him, and no one really believes he did it anymore. That person is now Terry Hobbs – another stepfather – and there actually is some evidence to support this claim – a hair found in one of the knots that bound the murdered boys for example. Whether or not he did it, you’ll have to decide for yourself based on what the movie shows. It is clear there will never be a true investigation into him by the police or the prosecutors, who insist they convicted the right three people.
And that is sad thing about this case. What has become clear enough for pretty much everyone to except – that the West Memphis Three are innocent and served 18 years in prison for something they didn’t do, is what the police and prosecutors – not to mention the original judge – will never admit. When it became clear that the three were going to get new trials, the prosecutors came up with a deal for the three of them. In one of the strangest pleas I can imagine, the West Memphis Three were allowed to maintain their innocence, while admitting that the prosecution had enough evidence to convict them - and were allowed to go free. This was presented as a Win-Win for all involved. The Prosecution technically got guilty pleas, and are able to close the case, maintaining they convicted the right three people, and they spent years in jail for the crime, and also protect themselves and the state from any lawsuits the three may file. The West Memphis Three got to get out of jail, and not spend years longer waiting for a new trial, where there was no guarantee they would be found not guilty. Win Win, right?
Except it isn’t a w in win, because the real killer or killers of those three innocent boys is still out there. The prosecution and police don’t care, because they have protected their own asses. But is that really their job? Isn’t their job to find, convict and punish the guilty, and get some level of justice for the victims and their families? The case of the West Memphis Three is one of injustice – injustice because three innocent kids spent 18 years in jail for something they didn’t do, going in when they were teenagers and coming out as they approach middle age. And injustice because someone killed three innocent children, and will never face justice for it. There is no happy ending to a case like this.