What is told in the documentary “West of Memphis” is still outrageous and infuriating to watch although I have already heard and known a lot about one evil crime which shocked the whole town, three suspects who were wrongfully accused and then mistreated by the legal system eager to close the case as soon as possible, and a very long, long way these suspects and their supporters had to take until they saw the light at the end of the tunnel.
In the evening of May 5th, 1993, the missing of three 8-year-old boys, Steve Branch, Michael Moore, and Christopher Byers, was reported to the local police in West Memphis, Arkansas by one of their parents. On the next day, their dead bodies were found in a ditch in their neighbourhood during the police search, and their parents and the other town people were shocked by this horrible crime. They were brutally murdered with the alarming traces of mutilations on their bodies, and the police wondered whether this case was involved with some sort of Satanic ritual.
And then they found their suspects, who were quickly arrested and interrogated. They were Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jesse Misskelly Jr., and they were teenager boys who had some bad reputation in the town as local juvenile delinquents. The cops extracted the confession from Misskelly, and all three suspects were soon tried and convicted of the murders which many people strongly believed they committed. Echols was sentenced to death, and Baldwin and Misskelly was sentenced to life sentence, and everyone in the town was relieved with the sense of closure.
However, as the time went by, it became apparent that these boys were wrongfully accused of the murders they did not commit, and Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s documentaries “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hill”(1996), “Paradise Lost 2: Revelations”(2000), and “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory”(2011) showed how the legal authorities incompetently and unfairly handled the case and their suspects during the investigation and the trial. The crime scene was not preserved well although they managed to get several crucial evidences including a hair not belonging to the victims or the suspects, and the statements from Misskelly, which were virtually only direct evidence presented by the prosecution, were filled with inconsistency and errors. As a matter of fact, Misskelly was a dim-witted boy with borderline mental retardation(he was just a little smarter than Forrest Gump, by the way), and he was interrogated by the cops all day long before he gave them his ‘confession’.
The movie keeps mounting lots of things to show us how unfair the trial was. Even before the trial began, these boys were already labelled as the horrible devil-worshipping criminals by the media and the prosecution. Although Misskelly had a strong alibi(he was around 40 miles away from the crime scene during that evening) and Echols also had a credible alibi, the prosecution kept emphasizing the graphic details of the murder case in front of the jury, and they even brought in very unreliable witnesses who were later revealed to be forced or coerced to testify against the defendants. Furthermore, it was strongly suspected that some major evidence presented by the prosecution was not involved with the case at all.
Anyway, the jury accepted the prosecutor’s shaky argument in the end amidst the furor caused by this case, and they found all the defendants were guilty as charged. However, thanks to the critical success of “Paradise Lost”, many people came to pay attention to these wrongfully accused boys, nicknamed West Memphis Three around that time, and the boys came to have lots of prominent supporters including Eddie Vedder, Johnny Depp, Dixie Chicks, and Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, who had given lots of help and support to West Memphis Three after learning about the case several years ago and then produced this documentary with the director Amy Berg.
The documentary adds more details and information to the long, frustrating process which was previously depicted in “Paradise Lost 2” and “Paradise Lost 3”. The lawyers and investigators and experts hired by the supporters looked closely on the case, and more revealing things were found as a result. For example, several independent forensic experts concluded that the ‘mutilations’ on the bodies were caused by post-mortem animal predation rather than a knife which was presented as one of the major evidences at the court. That could change the whole perspective on the case, but West Memphis Three continued to be imprisoned even while it became very possible that they were innocent.
As the documentary makes a compelling crime story through juggling the interviews from many various people associated with the case and the following trial, it gives us a big, clear picture of the legal injustice inflicted on West Memphis Three while also presenting us several suspicious things about one very possible suspect. Did this suspect really commit the crime? The documentary does not answer that question while trying to be objective to its target, but we cannot help but be suspicious of this seemingly normal-looking suspect as we look at many questionable aspects.
“West of Memphis” is an absorbing documentary which works as a powerful summary of 18 years of the unfair ordeal and the long fight against it. Finally, as shown in its final scenes, West Memphis Three became free in 2011 through a special deal with the prosecution, but they are still technically guilty because of Alford Plea, a rather oxymoronic legal measure which allowed them to assert their innocence while accepting the plea bargain between their lawyers and the state prosecution. This can be regarded as a half-victory, but everyone supporting them was very glad to see that the justice they had demanded for many years was eventually done in the end.
This is a happy ending indeed, but one nagging question still remains at the end of the documentary: who killed these poor innocent children? – and what exactly happened during that dreadful evening of May 1993? Sadly, it is quite possible that the case will remain in mystery forever, and it is really creepy to imagine that one heinous child murderer is walking freely around somewhere at present without getting caught for what he did.