West of Memphis

Reviewed by Marc Glassman

West of Memphis
Amy Berg, director & co-scriptwriter w/Billy McMillin of this feature documentary
Peter Jackson & Fran Walsh, producers
With: Damien Echols, Lorri Davis (Echols’ wife), Jessie Misskelley, Jr., Jason Baldwin, Eddie Vetter, Johnny Depp, Natalie Maines

 

Amy Berg’s new feature doc West of Memphis is being released at the right moment. Her film documents one of the most glaring miscarriages of justice in modern times. Financed and produced by Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, the couple behind The Lord of the Rings’ franchise, Berg’s film uses excellent sound, lighting and filmmaking techniques to effectively relate a compelling tale of how prejudice, anger and ignorance can almost cause the execution of innocent people.

The story of the West Memphis Three is one of the most notorious in recent American legal history. It’s a case of the Generation Gap writ large, with three teenagers accused and convicted of the murders of three young boys. When the trial took place in West Memphis, Arkansas in 1994, the three—Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, Jr. and Jason Baldwin—were (informally) accused of being not just murderers but also devil worshippers, drug takers, sexual deviants—and lovers of heavy metal music.

Tried and convicted on flimsy evidence mainly based on the recanted “confession” of Misskelley, who has a barely functioning IQ of 72, backed up by the since recanted testimony of Vicki Hutcheson, a single mother of uncertain means, the West Memphis Three looked as if they would die in prison—or, in the case of Echols, be executed.

Happily, that didn’t take place. Lawyers fought hard and public opinion began to sway as the George Bush Sr. era morphed into the one led by Bill Clinton.

Award-winning documentary filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s Paradise Lost trilogy (1996-2012) began to change attitudes. Several books were published, notably Guy Reel’s Blood of Innocents and Mara Leveritt’s The Devil’s Knot, which also swayed opinion. The true game changer was likely former Black Flag lead singer and composer Henry Rollins’ 2002 compilation CD Rise Above, which featured performances by Ice-T, Chuck D, Iggy Pop and Hank Williams III and highlighted the plight of the Three.

By 2010, DNA was able to prove that the Three hadn’t left any evidence in the remains of the three young victims. In short, they weren’t there. In order to save face and get the story over, the powers-that-be in Arkansas offered the West Memphis Three a bizarre plea bargain. If they would admit that the prosecutors had enough evidence to convict them, they could still assert their innocence but make it impossible for them to sue the state after being released. The “Alford plea” allowed Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley to leave prison after 18 years.

Amy  Berg’s doc recounts this complex and terrifying tale. The theory suggested in the film is that one of the three victims’ step-dad had killed the lads. Quite frankly, it will be difficult to convict anyone at this point but celebs ranging from Jackson to Depp to Rollins are still fighting the good fight. Leading the charge at the moment is Amy Berg, whose West of Memphis should do well in theatres. She’s made the issues—and injustices—clear. If you haven’t seen the Paradise Lost films, this is the one to see—until the release of Atom Egoyan’s dramatization of  The Devil’s Knot, starring Reese Witherspoon and Colin Firth this fall.