Amy J. Berg’s documentary “West of Memphis” tells the searing story of the West Memphis Three through a great amount of detail and a mostly objective lens. By combining expert interviews, news footage, and first hand accounts of the facts we learn the story of a supposed cult who murdered three boys in 1993. As more facts and testimony emerges, it becomes clear a serious mistake has been made and justice has definitely not been served.
In 1993 eight-year-old boys Steven Branch, Michael Moore, and Christopher Byers were found dead in a ditch in the town of West Memphis in Arkansas. Their bodies were sexually mutilated leading the police to focus their search on satanic cults. The investigation ended with the arrest of teenagers Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley. Echols was pegged as the leader of the three because of his diary filled with dark thoughts. One key piece of evidence was the confession of Misskelley, which resulted in a life sentence for him and Baldwin and a death sentence for Echols. The case was closed and the parents of the victim felt some semblance of relief.
Yet over time it became clear something was very wrong. “Paradise Lost,” a 1996 HBO documentary about the case, questioned the guilt of the West Memphis Three and would be followed by two sequels that further examined discrepancies in the case. For one thing, Misskelley’s confession was the result of a police interrogation that lasted hours, during which it becomes clear the young man is almost certainly mentally deficient. Then there is the fact that many childhood friends stepped forward to say they called the teens on the day of the murders and that they were at a different part of town that day.
The documentary gave the three some very tenacious friends, including Lorri Davis who started corresponding with Echols after seeing the first film. The two would later marry in 1999 while he was still in prison. New fans also included musicians Henry Rollins and Eddie Vedder, who saw a kindred spirit in Echols. It turns out the supposed cultist was a lonely teenager who was into rock music and had no respect for authority. In other words, just your average teen with the potential to turn his anger into song lyrics.
The case took a major turn after Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, yes the same who brought to life “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, heard about the case in New Zealand and began corresponding with Lorri Davis. They brought on former FBI profiler John Douglas to the case who said he would take an impartial look at the case. As the years go by and investigators dig deeper, a new suspect emerges: Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of Steven Branch. When Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks publicly linked him to the crime, he sued her for damages. During the trial it emerged the man has a history of violence, including assaulting a neighbor in her home, beating up his own daughter, and beating up Steven. Suffice it to say he lost the lawsuit.
At two and a half hours, a lot of information is told throughout the film, but it grabs you from beginning to end. The more you hear, the more you want to know. For the most part the film never goes for dramatic tricks and focuses on facts and interviews with experts, while the director remains off screen. The result is a gripping story that is both infuriating and uplifting.
It is a matter of record the West Memphis Three would eventually walk out of prison, but only after agreeing to a controversial plea during which they plead guilty to the charges while claiming their innocence. They walked out for time served, but can never sue the state for the 18 years they spent behind bars. Those last moments when they have to unanimously agree to the plea make for an edge-of-your-seat moment even if you know what is coming. What stays with you long after the movie is over is the fact that if every fact told is true then the real killer is still out there.
(“West of Memphis” is available on Blu-Ray and DVD and is streaming on Netflix.)