I’ve watched several documentaries over the years but I’m not nearly as well versed in them as I should be. To showcase my negligence even more, I don’t think I’ve ever watched a documentary in the theater. That finally changed with my viewing of “West of Memphis”, a film that looks at the 1993 murders of three 8-year boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. The case has seen a resurgence of media attention, much of it due to the HBO “Paradise Lost” trilogy and now this film. There have also been a vocal group of movie actors, directors, and music stars who have rallied to defend the three men convicted of the murders.
Usually when I see entertainers latch themselves onto high-profile news stories like this, I’m a little skeptical. To be quite honest, seeing Eddie Vedder, Henry Rollins, and the Dixie Chicks chiming in can sometimes do more to push me away than draw my interest. But “West of Memphis” is much more than a group of self-important celebrities posturing for attention (although there is some of that in the film). I found it to be an interesting documentary that had me challenging popular thoughts as well as weighing the wealth of new evidence and theories surrounding the case.
I was a 22 year-old Arkansan when the three young boys, Steven Branch, Christopher Byers, and Michael Moore were found murdered. Their bodies were discovered underwater in a drainage ditch, all three were nude, hog-tied, and showed signs of mutilation and sexual abuse. It was a horrific crime scene and the murders, the investigation, and the court cases captured the attention of the entire state of Arkansas. At the time, the buzz surrounding the events was enormous. And even now, after all these years, I like many other Arkansans who are old enough, still remember the details surrounding the sickening homicides and the highly publicized arrests and convictions that followed.
The film starts by going back over the case. It uses archived news footage and interviews to lay out the disappearances and subsequent discovery of the three children’s bodies. I found this to be the most impressive and effective part of the entire film. With amazing care and precision, director Amy Berg resets the table for those familiar with the case and gives a history lesson to those who aren’t. She captures the tension and emotion that soaked the entire community during the time. She also does a wonderful job of bringing the audience into this simple blue-collar part of the country. The film instantly refreshed the timeline in my mind and almost immediately my heart was once again heavy for these families that suffered such terrible losses.
But the documentary quickly shifts to its main focus – the three young men convicted of the murders. Known as the West Memphis Three, Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, and James Baldwin were teenagers at the time they were arrested and convicted for the murders. Misskelley and Baldwin would receive life sentences while Echols, the perceived leader of the group, received the death penalty. They would spend 18 years in prison before a movement would arise and promote new evidences that some believe prove their innocence. “West of Memphis” clearly has a slant and a motive behind it. In fact Damien Echols is one of the film’s producers so I was questioning how objective and forthcoming the film would be.
The film’s defense of the West Memphis Three begins with attempts to discredit the police’s questioning of the suspects particularly during a confession made by Misskelley. It then attempts to show mistakes and flaws in the prosecution’s handling of the case as well as forensic incompetence my the state medical examiner. Now some of the filmmaker’s arguments raise some interesting questions, but others don’t seem to hold water. I also found it interesting that the film leaves out some of the more important questions surrounding the three teens, their statements, and their behavior during the investigation and trials. But even though I wasn’t completely sold on the filmmaker’s defense, they do offer up enough compelling questions to cause you to believe there may be a reasonable doubt.
But then the film takes another interesting turn. It removes the focus from the West Memphis Three and places it on Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of Steven Branch. It begins by linking new forensic evidence to him as well as documenting inconsistencies in his own story. The film also shows several interviews with people who speak of Hobbs’ past, his personality, and of inconsistencies that may implicate him in the murders. This is where I really found myself questioning the credibility of the state and the prosecution of the West Memphis Three. I did find it interesting that the film used some of the same tactics that it confronts the earlier prosecution of using. Uncorroborated statements, out-of-the-blue accusations, and questionable witnesses. But there are also several pieces of fascinating information that bruises Hobbs’ credibility.
All of this leads to the reason I really appreciated this documentary. The filmmakers have a strong and obvious opinion but they lay out enough facts, bits of evidences, and testimonies to allow the audience to decide for themselves. I was thoroughly engaged and constantly found myself moving from one side to the other while trying to deduce what was truth and what wasn’t. I also appreciated how the film moved at a crisp and fluid pace as it went from one investigative premise to another. Well, except for the end where the filmmakers go to great lengths to make heroes out of the West Memphis Three. If they are innocent, they should have never been unjustly convicted. That’s a travesty. But aside from the murder accusations, these weren’t the best of kids especially Echols and to place them on a pedestal felt a bit uncomfortable.
At just under two and a half hours, “West of Memphis” does get a little long-winded. It could have trimmed down the attempts at credibility through celebrity appearances and some of the prison scenes meant to endear Echols to the audience. But these shortcomings did little to hurt the overall effect of the picture. It’s an impressive piece of investigative filmmaking and it had me completely involved. I questioned the prosecution. I questioned the detectives. I questioned family members. I questioned the West Memphis Three. So after all the compelling food for thought, what’s my conclusion? I still don’t know who killed those three little boys. And without a doubt that’s the saddest thing of all.