In 1993, three young boys were found brutally murdered in the small community of West Memphis, Ark. In the maelstrom of initial disclosures and media coverage, it was reported that the bodies found in a drainage ditch showed signs of ritual murder.
The community panicked, and within weeks three misfit teenagers were arrested for the killings. Even though no physical evidence tied Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley to the scene, and they provided credible alibis, they were convicted and Echols, deemed the ringleader, received the death sentence.
The baffling, infuriating case of the West Memphis Three has been dragging on for two decades now. A three-part HBO documentary series on the case, the excellent Paradise Lost films by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, raised multiple red flags regarding the trial, including suggestions of false testimony, coerced confessions and prosecutorial misconduct. Those films put such a bright light on the case that thousands rallied to the cause of the West Memphis Three, including celebrities Eddie Vedder and Johnny Depp and filmmakers Fran Walsh and Peter Jackson.
The new documentary film West of Memphis, produced by Jackson and Walsh and directed by Amy Berg (Deliver Us from Evil), covers much of the same ground as the Paradise Lost films. About halfway through, however, West of Memphis shifts its focus. By way of new eyewitness and DNA evidence, the filmmakers make a persuasive case that the real killer is Terry Hobbs, stepfather of one of the murdered kids, and that he has been hiding in plain sight all along.
The film also chronicles recent developments in its last half-hour. Most importantly, it documents the decision by the state of Arkansas to release the three men from prison in 2011, on one condition: They agree to an obscure and dubious legal plea that would protect the state from any further civil lawsuits.
The most compelling passages in West of Memphis are new interviews with key persons involved: witnesses, investigators, forensic experts and relatives of both the suspects and the victims. For 18 years, the state of Arkansas refused to reopen the case, despite multiple appeals and mounds of new exculpatory evidence, including DNA reports. And so a dedicated activist community—led in part by the film's producers, it should be noted—mounted a massive private investigation parallel to and in protest of the state investigation. Their work would uncover many appalling details that were never presented in a court of law, and never will be. In one sense, the filmmakers bankrolled the investigation that resolved the case that they made the movie about.
Stylistically, director Berg takes the standard documentary approach, mixing new interviews with archival footage to follow the many harrowing turns the case has taken over the years. Berg gets a little too excitable at times, editing footage into self-consciously dramatic sequences: a pathologist displaying crime scene photos, animals scavenging at corpses. In one particularly off-putting scene, Berg has the cameras rolling during a young woman's session with her therapist as she recalls episodes of child sexual abuse. What kind of therapist lets the cameras in for that?
There's another tonal problem toward the end of West of Memphis. The film's final scenes linger on triumphant images of Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley, free at last and reunited with their families. But then we get slow-motion images of birds in flight and earnest acoustic music from Eddie Vedder. It's too broad a send-off for a film otherwise so focused in on the sad and complicated specifics, including the fact that their plea agreement with the state prevents them from seeking damages.
I kept thinking about those three 8-year-old boys, murdered in the woods a few hundred yards from their homes, with the killer still at large due to a system that failed them. Echols delivers a similar sentiment in a jailhouse interview just before his release, after 18 years behind bars for a crime he didn't commit: "The person who killed those three kids is still out there on the streets. That should be the main priority."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Cold case, cold comforts."