This new documentary about the gruesome murders of three children, the subsequent trial of teenagers Jessie Misskelley Jr, Damien Echols and James Baldwin, the court case that found them guilty and, finally, the evidence that suggests otherwise, is an engaging but ultimately frustrating experience.
From the film’s opening minutes it becomes clear that the fates of the accused were predetermined. In the opposite of a fair and balanced journalistic moment a television newsperson reporting on the final days of the 1994 trial, says that the people of West Memphis (which is in Arkansas, not Tennessee) will rest easier when these suspects are found guilty. It’s an effective illustration of the prevailing attitude of the time. Despite flimsy evidence the three didn’t stand a chance of acquittal because they were perceived as different and dangerous. They fit the profile. One prosecutor even says, “You look inside Damien Echols and there is not a soul in there.”
The murders and trial are a starting place for Berg’s doc. The bulk of the 146 minute running time is comprised of the seventeen year fight to prove the innocence of the West Memphis 3, a battle which attracted the attention and support of high profile show biz types like Johnny Depp, Eddie Vedder and “Lord of the Rings” director and producer team Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh.
Much of “West of Memphis” is compelling stuff. The evidence is laid out in a clear and interesting fashion, using first hand interviews, crime photos (including unforgettable and upsetting police photos of the three dead eight-year-olds) and information form private investigators paid for by the wealthy celebs who stood behind the three even though it “felt like treading water for years without the shore getting closer,” as Walsh writes in an e-mail.
Compelling and frustrating though the story may be, sometimes real life gets in the way of a satisfactory conclusion. The outcome of the seventeen-year crusade to get a new trail is well known, so no spoilers here—unless you haven’t read a newspaper or seen the news in years. Instead of being granted a new trial the three were offered an Alford Plea, a little used petition that sees them released from prison on the proviso that they plead guilty to the crime. It’s a slippery way for the state to release the men, but erase any possibility of them suing for wrongful imprisonment.
As a filmgoer it’s hard not to feel a let down at the end of the film. The three are free, and according to the evidence presented in the film, they deserve to be, but the manner of their release is frustrating.
Ditto the real life reluctance to pursue another suspect, Terry Hobbs, the man who is presented as the most likely killer. Hobbs is interrogated at length in the film but the police, having closed the case, are not interested in pursuing anyone else for the crime.
So, by film’s end, we have three innocent men free after almost two decades behind bars, a smug judiciary confident they have done their job despite evidence to the contrary, a possible suspect on the loose and three dead kids for whom justice was never properly served.
Real life doesn’t always work it the way we want it to and neither do documentaries. “West of Memphis” is interesting, but unsatisfying.