56th BFI London Film Festival: West of Memphis Review

West of Memphis is a new documentary from American filmmaker Amy J. Berg and produced by Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Damien Echols. The film focuses on three men – Damien Echols (sentenced to death), Jessie Misskelley, Jr. (sentenced to life imprisonment plus two 20- year sentences), and Jason Baldwin (sentenced to life imprisonment) who were wrongly accused of murdering three 8 year old scout boys – Michael Moore, Christopher Byers and Stevie Branch- in 1993. Despite no proof tying the men to the boys’ horrific homicide, Damien, Jessie and Jason were sent to jail under the prosecutor’s beliefs that  the brutal murder was a part of some kind of Satanic sacrifice.

The documentary not only tells the story of the WM3 but also exposes jury misconduct and substantial errors made by the police at the crime scene. In 1994 the three appealed against their convictions which were upheld on direct appeal. It took another 13 years before one of the accused, Damien Echols, petitioned for a retrial based on “a statue permitting post- conviction testing DNA evidence due to technical advances made since 1994 which might provide exoneration for the wrongfully convicted.” However, the original trial judge, Judge David Burnett, didn’t agree with a presentation of this information in his court. Luckily on November 4, 2010 the Arkansas Supreme Court threw this ruling out and allowed the WM3 to appeal again. The Supreme Court also ordered a lower court to examine claims of misconduct by the judge who sentenced Damien Echols to death and Jessi and Jason to life in prison. The appeal was successful and on August 19, 2011, Echols, Misskelley and Baldwin were released from prison as a part of an Alford plea deal, “a rare legal mechanism in which ‘no contest’ pleas are entered but innocence is nevertheless maintained.”

West of Memphis features many interviews with people associated with the trial: judges, prosecutors and defense. There are also interviews with those involved in helping with the release of the WM3: Henry Rollins, Patti Smith, Johnny Depp and Eddie Vedder. Before West of Memphis hit the big screen, Joy Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky directed three films, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, Paradise Lost 2: Revelations and Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, documenting the case and criticizing the verdict. The movies drew attention to the case and opened the doors for another documentary to be made.

West of Memphis premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival and it’s a very moving and one of the most emotionally draining films I’ve ever seen. It seems to me like the case was never about the justice. People who were involved in prosecuting the WM3 were more interested in being famous rather than fighting for truth and justice. I wish the justice system stopped being a playground for those hungry for fame and became a steady ground for those eager to fight for it. As Peter Jackson said: “Justice should be honorable, right and true”.

There is only one question in my head that needs answering now: WHO WAS THE REAL MURDERER? New DNA tests showed that Mr Hobbs’ ( one of the murdered boys’ step father) might have been involved in boys’ disappearance as well as the homicide. What struck me the most was that the Arkansas Police Department didn’t even bother to arrest or interview him with regards to the murder. It made me feel sick knowing that Mr Hobbs’ past clearly indicated that he was a very violent, brutal and controlling individual who might have actually committed the crime. Was the police afraid of prosecuting him? I don’t know. And will they ever be able to find those responsible for the scouts’ death? I also don’t know. Will this case ever be solved? I have to say that I don’t believe it will.

Currently Jason Baldwin lives in Seattle, Damien Echols resides in Massachusetts with his wife and Jessie Misskelley lives in Arkansas.

Written by Maggie Gogler

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