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Alright, let me be completely honest with you about how I stumbled upon
For most of my life, I had no idea who or what the West Memphis 3 were. I'm a 23 year old girl, living in Toronto. When these crimes were committed, I was in kindergarten likely learning how to read. So the fact I never heard of the crime never exactly surprised me. And if it wasn't for Johnny Depp, I probably would have never heard of the crimes to begin with.
I first learned about the West Memphis 3 watching a Johnny Depp interview on David Letterman. I was intrigued, looked up the case, became slightly disturbed, and unfortunately, forgot about it for a while. I hadn't actually heard about the case again until TIFF announced the final films in its 2012 program. West of Memphis sounded familiar, and low and behold, it had been the topic of the discussion in that said interview. After reading that Depp was attending and discussing the film after, I purchased the tickets.
Now I'll be honest, it may be slightly sad or pathetic, but Johnny Depp was the main reason I decided to see West of Memphis. I'm a huge fan of his work, and I had the opportunity to see him discuss a film, so of course I was getting the tickets. I realized after the film, if it wasn't for Depp I'd never even know about the West Memphis 3, and that made me realize how much the media and publicity truly helped their case. I barely knew a thing about them before I walked into the screening, but coming out, I was glad I blindly followed Depp towards it.
West of Memphis tells a true story that the world needs to hear. It's a film that I sincerely believe everyone needs to see simply so they can be aware of how cruel the justice system really can be.
he story of the Memphis 3 is eye opening, and disturbing. It's terrifying to know how badly the justice system can fail somebody. For nearly two decades Damien Echols, Jason Misskelley and Jason Baldwin sat behind bars for no real reason, while a murderer walked free. The crimes they were charged with were absolutely horrendous, and they were suspects purely because they fit a stereotype. That fact alone is just plain wrong. Facts were ignored, forensics were wrong, and three young men suffered due to the failure and lies of others. Stuff like this shouldn't happen, but yet it does. The worst part about it all is that the three men are still technically guilty. They may be free from imprisonment, but they're not innocent in the eyes of the law.
I'm not normally very big on documentaries, but I think this is an important film to watch purely because it's a crime and trial that shouldn't be forgotten. The film is over, but the story isn't. Justice hasn't been served yet, and that's something that needs to change.
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While the story of the West Memphis Three, their awful flawed trial and
subsequent efforts to obtain freedom were well covered in the "Paradise
Lost" trilogy of films, this single film overview has a lot of value.
Perhaps because the case can now be looked back on in total, it feels like there is a clearer focus here than in the excellent "Paradise Lost" series. There also seems to be more of an emphasis on the emotion and humanity of all the victims the three falsely convicted young men, but also the families that lost children.
Last, the film makes some of the awful holes in the prosecution case more simple and clear than earlier accounts, as well as putting a chilling spotlight on the possible real perpetrator, but without the theatrics that harmed 'Paradise Lost 2', which seemed guilty of what the trial did to the three boys; throw suspicion on a subject largely because he 'acted weird'.
Here the investigation into another possibility feels more dispassionate and scientific, and less manipulated, leaving one with questions rather than forcing conclusions.
The world might not have 'needed' another film on the subject, but personally, I feel the more injustice can be intelligently examined and exposed the better off we are as a society.
Just saw this at the premier in Wellington. It is a great film. The
events themselves are incredible and this documentary more than does
Its late in the evening and I can't go into a long review - I also think I need to let the film sink in. My initial feeling is that this is a really amazing film - it is very carefully crafted and is a deeply compelling study on justice, family, love, commitment and friendship.
My head is spinning a bit. Watching the film felt like sitting in a room with all of those involved - listening to them talk and sharing their experience. It was such a messed up crime and the subsequent events so shocking that this has left me feeling a bit shocked.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Life is made up of many moments whether they are good, bad, or ugly.
Rarely do we ever witness a moment that hits as at our core. I was
lucky enough to witness one of those moments at the screening of West
It was a moment in time that I'll never forget. Now if you haven't been following the case of the West Memphis Three over this past decade here's a little breakdown. Three young boys were murdered in Arkansaw in 93 and three teens labelled as the 'West Memphis Three' (Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, and Jason Baldwin) were hastily convicted of the murders. However nothing really added up from the witch hunt-styled case the state bought forward to the 'encouraged' (or as I see it, forced) confession of the mildly retarded Misskelley. Echols was to take full blame and serve a death row sentence while the other two received life in prison and all because they were viewed as a little off centre making them satanic worshippers clearly. Fast-forward a decade along with the noted Paradise Lost documentaries, things well still didn't make sense.
This was the story. I say was because it has long developed since then and all thanks to (ironically) another three that go by the name of Sir Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, and the director of 'West of Memphis' Amy Berg. Good things come in three? Sorry bad joke. Not only did they create this master piece of a documentary, they provided actual help in the way of defence teams, an actual authentic investigation, and an array of officials to the 'West Memphis Three' to aid in their case. This was very much a story of the filmmaker becoming an investigator and doing the job that the state of Memphis should have done all those years ago. Filmmakers 1, Judicial System 0.
And so this brings me to the screening. Note mild spoiler coming up. Not only were we one, viewing this amazing story in the historical Civic Theatre (which in itself was amazing), two, in the company of Sir Peter Jackson, but we had the honour of meeting the Damien Echols and his wife Lorri Davis (who played an integral role in story). The film was quickly followed by one of the most empowering standing ovations one could hope for and a Q and A session with Jackson, Echols, and Davis. Some questions were most certainly cringe worthy, others shared stories, but the best were the short stabs of curiosity that encouraged Echols to give us a real insight into his world. The cherry on the cake was when Echols said he wouldn't be adverse to living in New Zealand because he loved it little kiwi pride there for you.
What an amazing man. Having served 18 years in prison on death row you would think that he would be bitter with the world having lost all faith in humanity. And you know what? In some ways he was arguably but rightfully so at least when the Judicial system is concerned. But what we mainly saw was an intelligent, forward thinking man that could have easily crawled up in a corner hating the world but decided you know what? I've got my life back and so I'm going to live it.
That was the moment. To see that such an incredible human being come back so strong after everything he had endured. Those are the stories that make your spine tingle. Those are the stories that demand attention. Those are the stories that really do put faith back into the cruel humanity we have come to know.
The film has very explicit footage so be warned. It is approximately 2 hours and a half long, but worth every second. It serves as a statement on what humans are, what they're not, and what they can be (See? Good things come in three's). At times you will feel despair, and then be enlightened by a strong sense of empowerment to do the right thing all things good films are made of. The journey was rough and it was real and my emotion scale was certainly forced on a roller-coaster ride. If you've watched it you'll know exactly what I'm talking about, and if you haven't you owe it to do yourself a favour.
"Celebrity that's not something I have thought about, I'm no celebrity I'm living my life day by day It's the only thing I can do the only thing I want to do", Echols answered after being asked about his new 'celebrity' status. This was one moment in my life that I will never forget.
Martin Luther King said, "The arc of history is long but it bends
toward justice." Justice has been a long-time coming for Damien Echols,
Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, three marginalized teenagers
wrongfully convicted of the 1993 murders of three eight-year-olds:
Steven Branch, Michael Moore and Christopher Byers, found dead in a
creek in West Memphis, Arkansas. The subject has been brought to the
screen before in the "Paradise Lost" trilogy, yet the documentary West
of Memphis, directed by Amy Berg and written by Billy McMillin, adds
another dimension to our knowledge and understanding of the
circumstances and the characters involved. It is a film of
extraordinary power that has the ability to stir a range of emotions
from frustration, anger, depression, to even joy.
After the victims were found beaten, bruised, and sexually mutilated, hysteria gripped the town and word circulated about the killings being the work of a satanic cult. Despite a lack of physical evidence, the accused teenagers were charged with three counts of capital murder and brought to trial. Damien Echols was sentenced to death, while Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley both received life sentences. Jesse confessed to the crime but the audio recording of Jessie's interrogation reveals that the prosecution took advantage of the mildly retarded boy by feeding him the desired answers. Soon after the verdict was handed down much to the relief of the bereaved parents and frightened residents, critics of the case began to point to serious discrepancies in the evidence.
It was also found out later that many of the visible physical injuries were caused after the children's death by turtles living in the swamp. The subsequent media attention led to a twenty-year campaign to free the inmates who become known as the Memphis 3. West of Memphis includes archival footage of the trial and press reports, a police investigation video, and contemporary interviews with victim's families, supporters of the convicted men including their attorneys, and celebrities such as Johnnie Depp, Eddie Vedder, and filmmakers Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh. If not for the courage and, of course, the financial support of those who fought a long battle to overturn the convictions, Damian might have been executed years ago.
Of the three convicted men, much of the film's focus is on Damian, a self-educated and highly articulate young man, describing his correspondence and subsequent marriage to New York Landscape Architect Lorri Davis. Despite the community protest and continued investigation of the case that unearthed new evidence, particularly DNA evidence, it became increasingly apparent that the justice system in Arkansas would rather perpetuate a lie than admit serious mistakes and become vulnerable to a series of damage suits. Even though he is presented with overwhelming evidence for a new trial, the original judge, David Burnett (now a state senator) refused to reconsider the case.
As a result of the continued pressure by those working for the boys' release, another suspect emerges who has never been investigated before and was the last person seen with the murdered boys. The thrust of this new lead propels West of Memphis toward a dramatic and surprising conclusion. Although some of the tactics of the investigation are open to question, such as filming a young girl's session with a psychiatrist and recording a private telephone conversation, West of Memphis is a riveting experience that suggests incidents of injustice and abuse of power such as this may be more common than we think.
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.
This is a great partner to "Paradise Lost 3", which is the third installment of the trilogy that makes the documentary of the West Memphis Three, e.g. three young teenage boys who were judged as murderers in lieu of the real killer(s). Where this film is at its worst too skipping in time, it makes up for in spades where tempo, humanity and questioning the bad is concerned. A slew of people are interviewed and as the film progresses, we're thrown into the arms of Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of one of the murdered boys. One wonders how this could have happened, especially considering how the evidence _against_ the boys were in-place, paired with the prosecution almost having planted evidence, not to mention how the court really wanted to condemn these boys. This is a well-made documentary, but should perhaps only be seen after having delved into "Paradise Lost 3".
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Three young boys were murdered on May 5th, 1993. Stevie Branch, Michael
Moore, and Christopher Byers were eight-year-old neighbors who
disappeared in the evening of May 5th. Their dead bodies were found
mutilated. Three local teenagers were charged with the crimes and found
guilty after a trial which was notable for prosecutorial dishonesty,
preposterous expert evidence and a bizarre, unfounded theory of the
case. The prosecutor, John Fogelmann, with an assist from the trial
judge, nearly murdered an innocent teenager and ruined the lives of two
more teenagers. Officials were hoping to bury their mistakes rather
than go to the trouble of finding the person responsible for the
slaughter of the three children.
Damien Echols was sentenced to death, Jessie Misskelley, Jr. was sentenced to life imprisonment plus two 20-year sentences, and Jason Baldwin was sentenced to life imprisonment. They were innocent but Arkansas refused to look at evidence which would have disproved the prosecution's theory. The incompetent judge later ran for the Senate, and the corrupt prosecutor ran for the Arkansas Supreme Court,illustrating how such unqualified men aspire to higher office.
"West of Memphis," released in 2012, is the fourth documentary on the case. That is an incredible number of documentaries on the same case, and is probably a cinematic and judicial record of some kind. The first three films were called Paradise Lost 1, 2 and 3. Every few years, documentary teams have returned to Arkansas to find what else officials got wrong.
The documentaries present a laundry list of the ways in which the Arkansas criminal justice system is flawed. Arkansas is not alone in its ability to make mistakes, but The West Memphis 3 were so clearly not guilty that it was an easy case to criticize. Police overreaching, dishonest prosecutors, and brain-dead trial judges are much more routine than we would hope, but Arkansas must be the bottom of the barrel.
The three men convicted of the crimes, though not guilty, served nearly 20 years for crimes the State of Arkansas knew or should have known they did not commit. Whenthe evidence pointed elsewhere. The State, for fear of embarrassment, allowed the killer of three children to remain free and persisted in keeping the innocent behind bars. The real killer still remains at large. The real killer was found by the documentary makers, but, Arkansas has not prosecuted him partly because the State will not admit the error.
One criminal offense by prosecutor, John Fogelmann, was the planting of a knife in a lake where it would be found by scuba divers, at a moment in time when the press were on hand to observe the retrieval of the weapon. The knife was flashed in front of the jury and used to explain cut marks on the slain children, and to convince the jury that the teens had mutilated the bodies of the children. Photographs of the mutilated bodies were shown to horrified jurors.
It was later learned that the knife brandished by the prosecutor had nothing to do with the crimes. The knife had been discarded a year before the crimes. The bodies were not touched by the knife. The cuts and wounds on the bodies came from animal bites (probably turtles) after the children were dead. A so-called expert embarrassed himself but convinced the Arkansas jury with an incredible and stupid theory of the murders. The "expert"s ignorance of forensic science was profound, and was contradicted by a panel of qualified experts post conviction - too late to prevent the injustice.
DNA testing, not available at the time of the first trials, was used in recent years to establish that the boys were not present at the murders. One of the step-father's DNA was found in hair in the rope which bound the dead boys' bodies. Much evidence was developed by the documentary makers to prove that the murderer was one of the step- fathers.
Witnesses were coerced. They lied at trial and later recanted. Piece by piece the evidence came apart, and the sham that was the trial was exposed by the documentary makers. The makers of the first documentary - "Paradise Lost- The Child Murders and Robin Hood Hills" - produced enough evidence of the wrongful convictions to exonerate the boys years ago. That film was made in 1996, and the boys were just beginning to rot away in prison in Arkansas. A number of celebrities brought notoriety to the case and its obvious wrongful convictions, but Arkansas would not be moved by reason, intelligence, or the cause of justice. Released in 2000, "Paradise Lost 2: Revelations" explored a new suspect a step father by the name of Mark Byers. Byers is an odd fellow and he does strange things and he seemed a possible suspect. Byers was an odd duck, but not a murderer.
A third installment was released in 2011 called: "Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory." That documentary covers a lot of the same territory covered in "West of Memphis."
A disheartening aspect of the story is illustrated in the final minutes of "West of Memphis." The Attorney General of the State of Arkansas is single-minded in his pursuit of face-saving explanations for why his justice system should not be blamed. You want to say: "Give it up, Dude. You made a mistake. Own it. Apologize and move on." He does not. In trying to save face, he heaps more disgrace on Arkansas and himself.
This film is well-worth the viewing. It is a cautionary tale to the viewer. Bravo to Peter Jackson for this excellent inside look at our justice system.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
In 1993 three young boys are found in a ditch, bound and mutilated. The
local police, desperate for a conviction, make a connection between the
marks on the dead children's bodies and Satanic rituals. Before long
suspicion falls on three local teenagers, and in particular, Damien
Echols, who with his died black hair, stands out from the rest of the
community. At the 1993 trial, evidence of Echols interest with Satanic
symbols surfaces, which, along with a confession from Jessie
Misskelley, is enough to convict all three, and in Damien's case, bring
a death sentence.
Over the following 15 years, doubt over the convictions grows, and fanned by several celebrities taking up the cause (Eddie Vedder, Jonny Depp among them), eventually force the Arkansas state to re-look at the case.
This documentary, produced by Peter Jackson, and directed by Amy Berg, is more than just a skillful re-telling of the story, from the original trial through to the eventual final judgement. Far from just reporting the defence campaign, the film-makers get involved in the campaign, helping organise DNA analysis, and setting-up a strong case against another member of the family for the killings.
The film gradually dismantles the original prosecution case, pointing out the lack of the teenagers DNA evidence at the crime scene, explaining that far from sexual mutilation, the dead children's injuries were actually post mortem, from snapper turtles, living in the creek. In the final third of the film, having done a convincing job of un-picking the evidence, the film makers pull out a final card. Using new DNA techniques, they test the single strand of hair found in the shoelaces used to tie up one of the victims. It's found to belong to one of the dead children's step father's, Terry Hobbs. The film then focuses on Hobbs, using interviews with his estranged wife and family to accuse him of being a child sex abuser, one with a violent temper, and jealous of the attention his step-son was receiving from his partner.
Eventually, in 2012, the District Attorney strikes a deal, that grants the convicted teenagers freedom, in return for their guilty plea, thereby avoiding a costly re-trial and compensation. It's an un-satisfactory legal outcome, but one that Misskelley, Echols and Baldwin understandably elect to take-up, and finally secure their freedom after 15 years of incarceration.
This is undoubtedly a very skillful documentary, which after a slow start, grows into a riveting story, with twists in the evidence and the legal process with up to the end. But it's a one sided affair, and the film-makers direct involvement with the campaign, muddies the waters, and asks the viewer to take their side.
While probable that there was mis-carriage of justice, or at the very least, that the convictions were "unsafe and unsatisfactory", the film and the case leave significant ambiguity behind. Some of the parents of the dead children still firmly believe that the real killers were indeed the ones that were found guilty back in 1993, and Terry Hobb's is left with the finger of suspicion hanging over him, never to be proved or dis-proved for the rest of his life.
American screenwriter, producer and documentary filmmaker Amy J. Berg's
second documentary feature which she co-wrote with screenwriter and
film editor Billy McMillin and co-produced, premiered in the
Documentary Premieres section at the 28th Sundance Film Festival in
2012, was screened in the Mavericks section at the 37st Toronto
International Film Festival in 2012, was shot on location in USA and is
an American production which was produced by producers Peter Jackson,
Fran Walsh, Damien Echols and Lorri Davis. It tells the story about
American 16-year-old Charles Jason Baldwin, American 17-year-old Jessie
Lloyd Misskelley Jr and American 18-year-old Michael Wayne Echols who
in June, 1993 in the city of West Memphis in the state of Arkansas in
Crittenden county, USA was arrested for the triple homicide of three
8-year-old boys named Michael Moore, Steve Branch and Christopher Byers
whose bodies were found by a former Juvenile officer named Steve Jones
and a policeman named Mike Allen in a pond in the Robin Hood Hills.
Distinctly and subtly directed by American filmmaker Amy J. Berg, this fourth documentary about the now well-known West Memphis Three which was preceded by American filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky's "Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills" (1996), "Paradise Lost 2: Revelations" (2000) and "Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory" (2011), is narrated from multiple viewpoints, draws a more multidimensional portrayal of the place where two young men were sentenced to life imprisonment and one to death by the Arkansas Supreme Court in the year of 1994, focuses mostly on the story of Damien Echols and reexamines the case which has engaged filmmakers, actors, musicians, journalists, defense attorneys, activists and people from all over the world in a common action to get the three men who become preys of a satirical judicial system exonerated. While notable for its distinct and atmospheric milieu depictions and the sterling cinematography by French cinematographer Maryse Alberti and Irish cinematographer Ronan Killeen, this narrative-driven retelling of a criminal case which began two decades from today, which as the former documentaries proves how horrible things can turn out when people in power decides to play almighty and self-righteously impose their judgment on people they regard as inferior and which deprived the freedom of three American citizens and isolated them from the civilized society for eighteen years, introduces new interviews, theories and stories and contains a timely score by Australian musicians and composers Nick Cave and Warren Ellis.
This investigative, educational and scrutinizing study of a 20th and 21st century tragedy which is set mostly in the American South and which through a wide range of conversations with people who has, still is and will always be connected to the case describes the significance of the media and politics in this matter and points pretty clearly as to who the real perpetrator might be, is impelled and reinforced by its fragmented narrative structure, subtle continuity and nuanced style of filmmaking. A lyrical, philosophical, humane and informative documentary feature which brings forth unheard voices, acknowledges the many people who stood by the three convicted boys who became the earliest and most accessible targets of hatred and condemnation until their arduous and disregarded call for justice prevailed and underlines how a pivotal union between a once aspiring magician and a woman who dedicated her life to a man on death row was born in the midst of this real life horror story which began on a day in May, 1993 when three boys went missing.
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