How you receive Amy Berg's (Deliver Us from Evil) documentary depends a lot on what you already know. Those who have never heard of the West Memphis 3, a trio of Arkansas teenagers who spent nearly two decades in prison for a crime they clearly did not commit, will probably experience despair and rage in equal measure while watching this 145-minute chronicle of gross injustice. West Of Memphis exposes a legal system that is too easily manipulated by unscrupulous prosecutors and despicable lawmakers in order to appease a hysterical mob and advance their careers.
For those who have seen Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky's landmark 15-years-in-the-making Paradise Lost trilogy, however, there is the nagging feeling that this "untold story" has arrived late in the game and declared itself the winner. More a recap and appendix to the three HBO documentaries, Berg's film is certainly provocative in its treatment, having the advantage of hindsight to construct a lucid and compelling narrative, but it's only in its second half that it proves its worth. And even then, there is a self-congratulatory attitude that subverts the film's final impact.
In 1993, the mutilated bodies of three 8-year-old boys were found in a drainage pond in the Robin Hood Hills neighborhood of West Memphis. After roughly a month of investigation, three teens — Jessie Misskelley, Jr., 17; Jason Baldwin, 16, and Damien Echols, 18 — were charged with the crime. Though there was no physical evidence linking them to the murders, authorities claimed they had killed the boys as part of a satanic cult ritual. This was determined by the boys' love of heavy metal music and preference for black clothing. Misskelley, who had an IQ of 70, eventually confessed under police interrogation, though his account didn't match the details of the crime. He and Baldwin were given a life sentence while Echols — who was too smart for his own good and legally an adult — was put on Death Row.
Berg's film systematically lays out the crime and the highly flawed investigation that follows, but only occasionally references Berlinger and Sinofsky's documentaries. It seems to forget that it was their films that first presented evidence of a shoddy police investigation and an unprincipled prosecution. Nevertheless, by hiring her own investigative team of legal and forensic experts, Berg is able to assemble a critical mass of evidence that contradicts the state's case and provides the film with effectively dramatic gotcha moments. This ultimately convinces the Arkansas Supreme Court to arrange a plea agreement with the three men in order to win them their freedom.
Unfortunately, to compound Arkansas' profound perversion of justice, not only did the state steal 18 years from the three teens' lives and subject them to horrific abuses in its prison system, but their release agreement required that they accept that the prosecution had enough evidence to convict them. It is akin to saying, "I'm guilty but I didn't do it." This legal maneuver, known as the Alford Plea, shields the state from lawsuits but also guarantees that the real killer will go unpunished.
Where West Of Memphis really hits its stride is in its inquiries into Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of one of the victims. A man with a disturbing and violent past, his alibi is convincingly called into question and interviews with other family members reveal a profoundly unsettling pattern of behavior.
In their third film, Berlinger and Sinofsky first hinted that Hobbs might be the likeliest suspect, but Berg seems convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt — a troubling attitude given the knee-jerk miscarriage of justice her subjects endured. While the evidence is damning, if there's one thing this movie proves it's that everyone deserves a fair trial.
West of Memphis
Dir. Amy Berg; writ. Amy Berg, Billy McMillin; feat. Jason Baldwin, Damien Wayne Echols, Jessie Misskelley (R)
Opens at the Bijou March 22