I’ve been following the case of the West Memphis Three ever since HBO aired the first ‘Paradise Lost’ documentary in 1996. I was 15 then, and at that age, I was outraged at how the justice system in Arkansas failed. I couldn’t believe that three innocent young men could be convicted to life in prison (one was sentenced to death) with no evidence that they committed the crime. The original team behind ‘Paradise Lost’ also made two sequels that shed new light on the convictions. However, now director Amy Berg delivers ‘West of Memphis’ with the help of Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh. The film offers many new insights and interviews for viewers who have followed this case from the beginning, while also letting newcomers in easily. It’s one of the best documentaries ever made.
Some of you might ask why another movie on this case needed to be made. Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky already made the three ‘Paradise Lost’ documentaries that chronicled the three men’s trials, prison sentences and their ultimate release for prison 18 years later. Berg pays homage and gives credit to the ‘Paradise Lost’ films almost immediately, and does so throughout the two-and-a-half hour documentary, and even goes further than the original filmmakers did.
‘West of Memphis’ starts out with actual footage of the police officers finding the three murdered children. The beginning recounts why Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley and Jason Baldwin are in prison. The year is 1994 in West Memphis, Arkansas, and we see a montage of dialogue and video of the first trial and convictions, which ends with Echols smiling from the back of a police car as he’s hauled away. For some people not familiar with the case, it would be easy to see why these boys were convicted.
From there, we fast-forward 15 years, and millions of people around the world have supported the release of these innocent men still in prison. Peter Jackson and his ‘Lord of the Rings’ screenwriter Fran Walsh heard about this case and immediately wanted to help. In 2005, they called the right people and financially supported new DNA testing, new investigations into the murders, and even got new hearings based on the evidence they found. Back in the 1994 trial, it was claimed that the defendants performed Satanic ritual killings on the three children. However, new evidence showed that in fact the victims’ bodies were eaten by animals as they laid in the water. Live tests demonstrated that turtles were the particular animal that caused all of the scratches and bite marks on the children.
The documentary also focuses on Echols’ time in prison, and how he met Lorri Davis, a woman he would eventually marry. They’re still together to this day and living in New York. Lorri has worked on the case for a long time and was a big part of organizing worldwide awareness of the injustice of the West Memphis Three case.
A very big chunk of the documentary is devoted to Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of one of the victims, who we learn is the prime suspect in the murders and is still walking freely today. Through Berg’s documentary, she unravels some harsh and very shocking truths about Hobbs and how the West Memphis police wrote him off as a suspect. However, new testimony made from a tip line in 2012 suggests that Hobbs was the killer, and that the police had evidence of this all along.
The state of Arkansas, in order to avoid the shame and humiliation and loss of millions of dollars, told the three men that they could go free if they plead guilty, which is called the Alford Plea. We see some of the degenerate Arkansas politicians who wanted to close this case quickly to avoid further embarrassment.
Berg pulls at our heart-strings for these three once-young teenagers, who are all now in their 40s and have spent 18 years in prison for crimes they didn’t commit. If you see one documentary this season, see ‘West of Memphis’. It will stay with you forever.