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A documentary that examines the 1989 case of five black and Latino teenagers who were convicted of raping a white woman in Central Park. After having spent between 6 and 13 years each in prison, a serial rapist confessed to the crime.
West of Memphis is an examination of a failure of justice in Arkansas. The documentary tells the hitherto unknown story behind an extraordinary and desperate fight to bring the truth to light. Told and made by those who lived it, the filmmakers' unprecedented access to the inner workings of the defense, allows the film to show the investigation, research and appeals process in a way that has never been seen before; revealing shocking and disturbing new information about a case that still haunts the American South. Written by
The 'West Memphis 3' were first brought to my attention back in 2007/2008 when I viewed the astonishingly eye-opening documentary Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996), which I watched back-to-back with its sequel Revelations: Paradise Lost 2 (2000). The case was so fascinating due to its unbelievable revelations of the flaws in the American justice system that I was more than happy to spend over 5 enthralling hours of my night watching it unravel. Those films brought mass attention to the case, due to the fact that the three accused - Damien Wayne Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley - were so blatantly innocent of this terrible crime. I assumed justice would prevail, and it soon left my mind. So it was shocking to learn upon the release of the third instalment of the trilogy, Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (2011), and this, West of Memphis, that these three were still in prison, 19 years after the murders, with everything from mere bureaucracy and political motivations standing in their, and thousands of others, way.
For those unacquainted with the case, back in 1993, the mutilated bodies of three young boys - Christopher Byers, Steven Branch and Michael Moore - were found in a stream in the Robin Hood Hills, West Memphis. With no evidence, prosecutors quickly deemed the murders a result of Satanic ritual, due to (apparently) sexual mutiliation, and sought out any locals known to practise such an art. They were given the names of three youngsters, Echols, Baldwin and Miskelley, who were known to listen to heavy metal music and act much like your typical isolated, 'gothic' teenagers. Through manipulation of the jury, and a trial by media, the three were quickly convicted (again, with no evidence against them, apart from a heavily dubious 'confession' by the borderline mentally retarded Misskelley). They were given life, with Echols possibly facing the death sentence. Interest in the case quickly gathered, due to many aspects not making any sense, and gathered support of musicians such as Metallica, Henry Rollins, Patti Smith, and Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam. West of Memphis focuses on the fight to free the West Memphis 3, with new evidence gathered and possibly a revelation as to who the killer may actually be.
West of Memphis doesn't spend much time treading the same ground as the Paradise Lost trilogy, and quickly covers the original trial. It consists mainly of original footage, such as the lawyers and investigators funded by supporters of the West Memphis 3 and various celebrities such as the film's producers Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh trying to find fresh evidence in favour of the 3, and footage of the various concerts designed to raise awareness and make money. But where West of Memphis truly invigorates is the alarming case built against Terry Hobbs, stepfather of Steven Branch, who was all but ignored by police in the original investigation. Paradise Lost 2 brought up the possibility of another stepfather, John Mark Byers, being the culprit, but often felt like he was a suspect due to him simply being quite strange, which seems hypocritical considering the West Memphis 3 were convicted for the same reason. But there is strong evidence against Hobbs, such as a violent past, the lack of an alibi during the time of the deaths, and his hair being found within the knot of the shoelaces to which the three boys were hog-tied with.
Above all, West of Memphis is a staunch reminder of the darkness of this case. This was a horrific crime, almost beyond belief (and the sights of the three corpses really hammers this home), and an equally disturbing path of 'justice' that followed. This is a deep, dark stain on the American justice system, where political aspirations, ignorance and outright lying stand in the way of true justice. They do walk free in the end, but not without leaving a bitter taste in the mouth. They had 19 years of their life stolen from them, yet to be free they must plead guilty to a crime everyone knows they did commit. In the eyes of the law, the West Memphis 3 are child murderers, while the real murderer walks free with a clean name. The Paradise Lost films and West of Memphis, if anything, are a testament to the power of film, along with Errol Morris' The Thin Blue Line (1988), which exposed police ineptitude and helped set an innocent man free, but above all else, they are a terrifying and utterly depressing indictment of a country that needs to take a good look at itself.
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