”West of Memphis” is the fourth, and most chilling, documentary about the West Memphis Three. Its unique perspective benefits immensely from hindsight, an attribute the previous films did not have available at the time they were made.
In 1993, the West Memphis Three were three teenagers who were accused and found guilty of brutally murdering three young boys. The 8-year-old children were found bound, beaten and mutilated in West Memphis, Ark. One month later, Jesse Misskelley Jr., 17 (who was described as “borderline mentally retarded”), is cajoled into a confession and implicates Jason Baldwin, 16, and Damien Echols, 18.
The prosecution presented the murders as satanic in nature because Echols had an interest in heavy metal music and magic. Emotions ran high in the tiny community and, in 1994, the WM3 were found guilty, and Echols received the death sentence. A mob mentality took hold as three teens incurred their misplaced wrath.
But, due to some high-profile intervention, a movement to free the WM3 was successful. It took 18 years and the unwavering faith of people, including Johnny Depp, Eddie Vedder (Pearl Jam), Henry Rollins (Black Flag) and Natalie Maines (Dixie Chicks). Director Peter Jackson (“Lord of the Rings”) and his wife, Fran Walsh, co-produced “West of Memphis” along with Echols and his wife, Lorri Davis, who married him behind bars in 1999.
Director Amy Berg (“Deliver Us From Evil”) chose to highlight the vast advocacy, which included thousands ultimately responsible for freeing Baldwin and Misskelley and saving Echols’ life. She also employed the music of Aussie rockers Nick Cave and Warren Ellis (Dirty Three) for superb scoring. Her up-close camera interviews with the victims’ parents are tragically riveting.
As advancements in DNA forensics evolved over the years during the WM3’s incarceration, noted legal professionals, such as Barry Scheck and Michael Baden, offered their services. They analyzed hairs found on the victims’ bodies and found they belonged to Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of one of the murdered children. Intense live interviews with Hobbs reveal a monster who seems highly likely to be the perpetrator of these heinous crimes.
Sadly, he’ll never be charged because the state of Arkansas did not grant a retrial, knowing it would lose. Rather it allowed the WM3 to accept the Alford Plea, an oxymoronic deal in which the defendants plead guilty, but not guilty and walk free. That plea shielded the state from future lawsuits and let a murderer remain at large.
Peter Jackson cites that one of the greatest travesties in life is “people of power taking advantage of the weak.” “West of Memphis” proves it beyond a reasonable doubt.
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