West of Memphis

WEST OF MEMPHIS. Starring Damien Wayne Echols, Jason Baldwin, Jessie Misskelley, Lorris Davis, and other people as themselves. Directed by Amy Berg. Rated MA 15+. Restricted. (Strong themes and actual crime scene footage). 147 min.

This is a powerful and involving American documentary about the failure of justice for the West Memphis Three, who were charged for the brutal murder of three 8-yr. old boy scouts. The boys were found in a water-filled ditch in the town of West Memphis, Arkansas, in 1993, and their bodies showed evidence of what was thought to be a satanic ritual.

The documentary is co-produced by Peter Jackson, who is the director of “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”, currently on release. Jackson started making the film to pressure the authorities to reopen the case.

The West Memphis Three were convicted of the crime, nine months after the killings. Three local teenagers were charged – Damien Echols, then 18, who was a heavy metal fan with suspected “attitude”, his 17-yr. old friend, Jason Baldwin, and Jesse Misskelley, 18, who was intellectually disabled and who confessed and implicated his two friends. Two of them (Baldwin and Misskelley) received life sentences, and the third (Echols) was sentenced to be executed. All were in prison for more than 18 years.

The film focuses on Damien Wayne Echols, the most articulate of the group. Along the way, it strongly points an accusatory finger at Terry Hobbs, stepfather of one of the victims of the crime. Physical evidence linked Hobbs to the crime, and damaging statements were made by his ex-wife, his neighbours, and his own nephew, who claimed Hobbs confessed to him.

The movie details the history of the imprisoned men from the actual crime to their eventual release in August, 2011. The case was reopened with Jackson’s (and others’) financial assistance, and the three finally agreed formally to a suggested plea which maintained their innocence, but accepted that enough evidence existed to convict them. The plea saved face for the prosecution. One of the three, Baldwin, initially opposed the deal, but finally agreed to it. After 18 years, the three walked free, but as convicted child murderers. As of this day, no one has been convicted of the murders, and no new trial has been considered, or re-commenced. Their plea, which has been accepted, prevents that ever occurring.

The film canvases interviews with lawyers, judges, journalists, witnesses, and family members. The real power of the movie, however, rests in its tragic indictment of the American criminal justice system. It shows gross police incompetence, rampant public hysteria, and legal behaviour in court that was totally against the nature of evidence uncovered by private investigation. The committal of the three was supposed to be an airtight case, but instead revealed flagrant perjury, appalling suspicion, and massive errors of legal judgement. Heading the campaign to release the three was Lorris Davis, a New York landscape architect, who began a prison correspondence with Echols, and who later married him while he was in prison.

The film argues strongly that the West Memphis Three were found guilty partly because they “looked the sort of person(s) who could”. The movie is a revelation of the issues that beset the American justice system, and confronts the issue of the adequacy of rehabilitation services in the US. The film also challenges compellingly the moral infallibility of opinions that are often assumed for legal judgements. But, it falls into a dark area by fingering Terry Hobbs, who has never been proven guilty. Despite what one believes about this crime, this is a film which pushes us to think carefully and deeply about what constitutes proven guilt for anyone, who is accused.

History awaits the real murderer(s), whoever they be, being brought to justice in ways that the West Memphis Three clearly were not. The unfairness of a plea that finally set them free under the weight of the evidence, but still formally regards them as guilty, is awe-inspiring.

Peter W. Sheehan is associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.

Sony Pictures.

Out 14th. February, 2013.