"West of Memphis" is a horrific, jarring, and absolutely exceptional documentary. It plays almost as a follow-up to HBO's "Paradise Lost" - which is pretty rare to begin with, I can't recall another real-life situation necessitating two separate documentaries. So what's the story? And why is it important enough to draw the support of Eddie Vedder, Peter Jackson, Henry Rollins, and Johnny Depp?
A sickening crime was perpetrated in West Memphis, Arkansas in May of 1993. Three eight-year old boys (Stevie Branch, Michael Moore, Christopher Byers) were murdered and the tiny community looked around desperately for answers. They settled on three suspects: Jason Baldwin, Damien Echols, and Jesse Misskelley Jr. As the three had no apparent motive, the occult was blamed, and the three boys "outsider" images were played up in front of a jury.
The litany of negligence in the trials of the three defendants that "West of Memphis" claims is staggering. Shoddy, coerced and downright false witnesses (who later recanted) were used to great effect against the suspects. There was a fundamental lack of physical evidence, and in some cases, evidence that might have pointed to an entirely different suspect. Polygraph tests were ignored, as was the expertise of both an FBI profiler and half a dozen forensic pathologists. A "confession" by one of the defendants indicates he was interrogated for 12 hours before giving in, and the audio of the confession is damning … to the prosecution, who clearly leads the suspect the exact way they want him to go. One of the accused had an IQ that qualified him as mentally handicapped. Finally, the presiding judge denied, for 18 years, motion after motion that indicated new evidence.
What "West of Memphis" gets at, with a sledgehammer, is that Damien, Jason, and Jessie were railroaded by a justice system that seemed to prefer certainty and expediency to accuracy.
Recent estimates of wrongful convictions on murder trials range as high as five percent, and nearly 300 convictions have been overturned based on DNA evidence. The system is quote logically imperfect, as humans are imperfect. No matter how sturdy and well conceived the human institution, mistakes are made. In the case of "The West Memphis Three," the mistakes seem to be egregious enough that almost any reasonable interpretation of the facts should have led to exoneration. Yet, the horrendous nature of the crime is too deep for those who were intimately involved with it to reconsider. In other words, once you've been told who the devil is, you're unlikely to notice anything but horns the next time you glance in that direction.
Make no mistake; "West of Memphis" is an extremely tough film to watch. Pointing out the worst parts of humanity, and decrying a system that seems pitted against the innocent, this isn't 140 minutes of entertainment. It vitally important that criminal cases like this are brought to the forefront, but it bears no less of an emotional wallop for the relevance, and it's hard not to come away from "West of Memphis" feeling guilty and fatigued. I empathize with the pain all the living survivors must feel, but it certainly seems as though six lives were lost on that fateful day, not just the three that have been given "justice".