WEST OF MEMPHIS (2012, Dir. by Amy Berg, 140 minutes U.S.)
BY MIKE WALSH For West Memphis 3 (WM3) groupies, the new documentary West of Memphis won’t add to your knowledge of the case. If you’ve read the books and seen the excellent HBO Paradise Lost documentaries, you know almost all of what’s covered in West of Memphis. It contains no new revelations, but it does contain a good deal of video you haven’t seen. So see this new documentary, which you’ll thoroughly enjoy. It will have you hyperventilating with rage at the injustice all over again.
But if you aren’t familiar with the case, West of Memphis by Amy Berg, who directed the Oscar-nominated Deliver Us From Evil (2006), is a great introduction to the case. It’s a thorough, well-made, compelling overview of a tragic triple murder and the resulting miscarriage of justice that resulted in three innocent teenagers spending 18 years in jail. Berg is a pro, and she and her crew know how to craft a story.
The story starts in May 1993 when the bodies of three 8-year-old boys were found dead in a muddy creek in a wooded area near a West Memphis, Arkansas. They were nude, hogtied, and had numerous injuries, and West of Memphis isn’t shy about showing those injuries, including genital mutilation.
Teenager Damien Echols was questioned by the police numerous times because he was thought to be a Satanist by an idiotic local counselor, Jerry Driver — who robably had more to do with the three teens going to jail than anyone else. The police also questioned another teenager from the same neighborhood. Jesse Misskelley had an IQ of about 70 and, after 12 hours of grilling, confessed that he, Echols, and Echols’ friend Jason Baldwin committed the murders. (Oddly, only 30 minutes of the interview was recorded.) Misskelley said later that he thought the police would let him go home if he told them what they wanted to hear. He wasn’t even aware that he had confessed to triple murder. And once the state had that confession, all other investigation of the case stopped.
Following trials that focused on testimony from an alleged expert on the occult, Echols’ artwork and journal entries, and his interest in other religions, the defendants were convicted, despite a lack of physical evidence linking them to the crime. Echols was sentenced to death, and Baldwin and Misskelley got life in prison.
Berg spends the first third of West of Memphis thoroughly demolishing the prosecution’s case. You get to hear Vicki Hutcheson recant her absurd yet damming testimony that she attended Satanic rituals with Echols and Baldwin. There was no corroborating evidence that such rituals had ever taken place, but that didn’t stop the witless jury — drunk on Satanist paranoia stoked by the police, prosecutors, and local media — from believing it. After all, Echols and Baldwin wore black clothing and listened to heavy metal. Hutcheson apparently was interested in the reward money and was afraid that she would lose her son if she didn’t testify for the prosecution.
Then there’s the drug addict/jailhouse snitch who testified that Jason Baldwin admitted to sucking blood from the scrotums of the three victims. He too recants his testimony for the cameras in West of Memphis, attributing his testimony to being high on glue while testifying.
You also hear how prosecutor John Fogelman invited journalists to watch as divers checked the pond behind the Baldwin family trailer home. Lo and behold, the divers found a large hunting knife. It was miles from where the bodies were found, but it must be the murder weapon! And judge David Burnett allowed it to be shown to the jury and witnesses, even though there was no evidence linking the knife to the murders. Burnett, by the way, rejected virtually every motioned filed by the defense during the original trials and during the years of appeals that followed.
The middle portion of the West of Memphis focuses on Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of Stevie Branch, one of the murdered boys. Incredibly, the police failed to interview Hobbs during their investigation, but DNA tests conducted in 2007 determined that a hair in one of the knots that bound the victims belonged to Hobbs.
You see Hobbs being interviewed about his whereabouts on the day of the murders and the holes in his story during a deposition for a lawsuit he unwisely brought against Natalie Maines, Dixie Chick and WM3 supporter. You see him being questioned about his history of domestic violence and his alleged abuse of Stevie. If you troll the WM3 web sites, you know all this, but it’s fun watching Hobbs squirm.
A neighbor of the Hobbs’ in 1993 recounts how she saw the boys with Hobbs shortly before they disappeared. She too was never interviewed by police.
West of Memphis also features an appearance from the star of the three HBO documentaries, John Mark Byars, the stepfather of another of the victims. Like a deranged preacher, the 6’ 6”, 300 pound maniac pontificates again, this time not against Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley, as he had so frequently in the HBO documentaries, but against Hobbs. During one scene, Byars accuses Hobbs of the murders as Hobbs walks by not ten feet away. The dude may not have a high IQ, but he sure has a way with the media.
The last portion of West of Memphis focuses on Echols’, Baldwin’s, and Misskelley’s years in jail and the efforts to free them. West of Memphis also has appearances by Eddie Vedder, Henry Rollins, and Johnny Depp. It also demonstrates how tens of thousands of people from across the country donated time and money to free those kids.
The only new evidence presented in West of Memphis is that Hobbs’ nephew evidently told his friends that his uncle committed the murders, but the nephew does not corroborate that on screen.
The story of how West of Memphis came to be made is starts when director Peter Jackson and his wife, Fran Walsh, the team who won multiple Academy Awards for the Lord of the Rings trilogy, contact Lorri Davis, the woman who had married Echols during his time on death row and was leading the efforts to free him. Jackson and Walsh were convinced of the three’s innocence, became part of the defense team, and ended up funding a new investigation and forensics tests.
The new tests revealed that no DNA evidence linked Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley to the crime scene or the victims, but instead pointed to Hobbs. The reviews of the evidence by eminent pathologists also showed that the fiber evidence used against the WM3 at the first trial was suspect, if not complete nonsense, and that the genital mutilation found on one of the victims was actually the work of turtles in the creek, not Satanists.
The defense team presented the new DNA evidence and new analysis in court in 2008, but Burnett refused to grant a new trial. So Jackson and Walsh turned their efforts to an area where they had more expertise: filmmaking. They hired Amy Berg, who too became fascinated with the case. Within a few months, she and a film crew were in Arkansas. What West of Memphis shows that the state of Arkansas belligerently fought to keep three young men incarcerated despite reams of evidence of their innocence. Fogelman, Burnett, and the state seemed more interested in ignoring a mistake than justice. They also seem unconcerned to this day that the murderer of three 8-year-old boys walks free.
If West of Memphis piques your interest, watch the HBO Paradise Lost documentaries, which Echols credits with saving his life. They show lots of footage from the original trials as well as many scenes of Mark Byers going off his rocker. The second film focuses on Byers criminal history and the mysterious death of his wife. Also, read the very good Devil’s Knot (2003) by Arkansas journalist Mara Leveritt, and she has another book on the case coming out soon. Not enough? Then go to WM3.org and Freewestmemphis3.org, which are packed with information and legal documents. There’s also DamienEchols.com and, for masochists, TerryHobbs.com. Also, Life After Death by Damien Echols (2012) is a very well-written autobiography that focuses on his childhood in poverty and his prison years. By then it will be the fall, just in time for Atom Eyogan’s true crime movie Devil’s Knot, starring Reese Witherspoon and Colin Firth.