'West of Memphis' asks some long-overdue questions of a notorious case
FILM At this point, it's hard to imagine a present-day murder trial more painstakingly documented than that of the so-called West Memphis Three. The subject of four documentaries, with a feature film in the works (starring Colin Firth and Reese Witherspoon, no less), and inspiring at least as many books, websites, and countless articles, the story of the three teenagers convicted of the brutal killings of three small boys has never quite dropped from public attention.
Still, despite its relatively high profile, almost two decades have passed since the crime, and the defendants' quest to have their convictions overturned has taken literally half their lives — a journey they're still traveling, despite a surprise 2011 deal cut with the state of Arkansas that allowed them to walk out of prison, free men but convicted felons. According to the newest documentary in the canon, West of Memphis, that's just too long to wait for justice.
West of Memphis can be considered both a crash course for those who somehow missed the Bruce Sinofsky and Joe Berlinger-directed Paradise Lost trilogy of documentaries which preceded it, as well as a telling portrait of a deeply-flawed criminal justice system at work. It's an evenly-paced montage of talking heads, archival trial footage, and interviews with investigators and legal experts, with additional focus on the personal life and relationship between death row inmate Damien Echols and his wife Lorri Davis, who met while he was incarcerated.
The doc traces the entire case, from the initial news reports of the disappearances of eight-year-olds Christopher Byers, Michael Moore, and Steve Branch, to the supporter-funded, post-conviction investigation and appeals process still unfolding today. Produced by Echols, Davis, and power-duo filmmakers Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, West of Memphis centers specifically on Echols' case, in distinct contrast to the Paradise Lost films.
"There were a lot of different reasons for that," director Amy Berg explains. "[One was] because Damien was on death row, he was taking a different journey through the legal system [than fellow defendants Jason Baldwin and Jesse Misskelley Jr., who were sentenced to life imprisonment instead]."
Another reason: access. Echols and Davis were not only central to the narrative of the film, they were also instrumental in getting Berg acclimated to West Memphis. Their contacts became her contacts, and their story became her focal point.
Over the years, Echols' defense team had gradually amassed testimony from a slew of high-powered experts — profilers, forensic pathologists, and DNA testers — all of which pointed away from the West Memphis Three, and in some cases suggested new suspects. But despite this seemingly compelling material, Echols' appeal hit a wall in 2008, when then-Circuit Court judge David Burnett, who had presided over the original trials, denied a new hearing, citing "inconclusive evidence." It was then that Jackson and Walsh, who had privately bankrolled much of the investigation leading to the DNA appeal, began to think about making a documentary.