Review"West of Memphis" documents the end of an 18-year legal challenge
Posted by Alison Gillmor, CBC Reviewer | Friday April 5, 2013
Lorri Davis met and married Damien Echols while he was in prison.
After the magazine articles and the books, after the documentary films (including the Paradise Lost trilogy by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky), after the rallies and benefit concerts and the huge celebrity-backed public campaign--after all this, do we really need another look at the story of the West Memphis Three?
West Memphis Three mugshots
West of Memphis, which plays this week at Cinematheque, suggests that, yeah, we do, if only so we can follow this 18-year miscarriage of justice to its bittersweet conclusion.
This overview of the West Memphis Three case from American documentarian Amy Berg (Deliver us From Evil) is comprehensive and compelling, if overly long at 150 minutes. Berg delves into the details of this case while offering larger insights into the ways the legal process can be derailed.
In 1993, three eight-year-old boys were found naked, bound and dead in a drainage ditch in a small, poor Arkansas town. The local police, desperate for an arrest in such a horrific and seemingly random crime, bought into the current moral panic about "satanic ritual abuse." With advice from a self-professed "expert" on satanic cults, they rounded up three teenage boys, Jessie Misskelley, Jason Baldwin and Damien Echols.
Echols, in particular, was known for listening to Metallica, wearing black T-shirts and reading Stephen King novels--pretty typical teen behaviour, but enough to make him suspect in this Bible Belt town.
After the police coached a confession from Misskelley, who is borderline mentally challenged, the three youths were charged with first-degree murder.
Damien Echols during one of many court appearances
Add in an incompetent pathologist-- forget that CSI-induced notion of infallibility!--a prosecutor looking to make his name, and a judge mulishly unwilling to admit mistakes, and the verdict went against them, despite the lack of any hard evidence.
The first Paradise Lost film, released in 1996, galvanized public support for the WM3 and rallied celebrities like Eddie Vedder, Johnny Depp, Patti Smith, Henry Rollins and The Lord of the Rings filmmakers Fran Walsh and Peter Jackson (who reportedly donated millions for the WM3 defense and co-produced this film).
This long campaign culminated last year when the three men were offered an Alford Plea, a slippery legalistic process by which they maintain their innocence while simultaneously pleading guilty.
West of Memphis is a fascinating look at the ideals of justice undone by flawed human nature--by arrogance, ambition, prejudice, and by the need for certainty, any kind of certainty, in the face of horror.
What's even more fascinating, in terms of human fallibility, is that the filmmakers themselves fall into a trap. Berg, who ought to know something about the dangers of throwing around accusations, fixes on another suspect, Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of one of the boys.
Hobbs is a shifty, nasty SOB with a history of violence. He's detestable and very possibly guilty, but the film doesn't bother to wait for a fair trial, instead using ominously framed photos and unsubstantiated innuendo to convict him in the court of public opinion.
And isn't that where this whole mess started? West of Memphis screens at Cinematheque April 5-7.