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Film review: WEST OF MEMPHIS, from Built For Speed

West of Memphis is a powerful and sometimes infuriating documentary that describes the events surrounding the plight of the so-called West Memphis Three.

On May 6th 1993 the bound bodies of three eight year old boys: Christopher Byers, Michael Moore and Steven Branch were pulled from a creek in the town of West Memphis, Arkansas.  Local teenagers Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, who came to be known as the West Memphis Three, were convicted and imprisoned for the murders.  Echols, the alleged leader, also faced the death penalty.  A subsequent documentary, Paradise Lost by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky raised serious questions about the validity of the evidence against the trio.  Following that film, Lorri Davis (who married Echols in prison in 1999) took up the case and West of Memphis documents her quest to obtain a retrial in the hope of clearing their names.

As it meticulously re-examines aspects of the evidence and new material that has come to light, West of Memphis is, despite its near two and a half hour length and detailed forensic approach, never less than riveting.

The film is roughly divided into three segments with the first examining the validity of the case against the three teens.  The film asserts that a shoddy police investigation, questionable forensic evidence, dubious testimony from drug-affected witnesses and coerced confessions led to a wrongful conviction.  The film also suggests that the jury were overwhelmed by the sheer horror of the case and felt compelled to provide a speedy resolution to a crime that had produced community outrage.  In disturbing echoes of The Crucible, the film also states that the Bible belt jury were seduced by prosecution claims that the three committed the murders as part of a satanic ritual, a narrative into which the three  heavy metal-listening teens’ supposedly unusual personalities easily fitted.

The second part of the film presents a compelling case that someone else in the town may have been responsible for the murders.  The film fails, however, to mention other theories and suspects that demand serious consideration.  The last section of the film brings us up to date with the current status of the case.

This story has a particular fascination because The West Memphis Three quickly turned into a cause celebre with people like Eddie Vedder, Henry Rollins and Johnny Depp organising benefits to fund legal representation for the trio.  According to the film, it was when Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson and his wife Fran Walsh (who are producers of this documentary) became involved that the supporters of the three started to make breakthroughs.  Jackson hired private investigators to interview witnesses and helped Davis pursue the case through the Arkansas legal system.

The evidence presented in favour of the three’s innocence is compelling and few would deny that they deserve a re-trial.  Still, as with any documentary, especially one co-produced by one of the accused (Echols), there’s always gnawing doubts as to whether we have heard the full story.  The film places great emphasis on the defence case but needed to give the prosecution and the jury equal opportunity to articulate their position.  The film depicts the state of Arkansas’s reluctance to allow another trial as intransigence and possibly a desire to avoid damages claims for wrongful imprisonment but it doesn’t completely dispel the notion that they may have had more solid reasons for refusing another trial and for upholding the original verdict.

Despite questions of the film’s emphasis regarding each side’s case, this is still a superb and engrossing piece of documentary film-making that presents the unnerving possibility that three innocent men may have lost 18 years of their life to prison and that the killer of three children still walks free.

 

Nick’s rating: Four stars.

Classification: MA15+

Director(s): Amy Berg

Release date: 14th Feb 2012

Running time: 147 mins.

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