'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.
"We'd been shut down by the court system," Davis says. "We didn't know what else to do to get this information about the case out to the public." That's when Berg, whose 2006 doc Deliver Us from Evil was nominated for an Academy Award, was approached by Jackson about the possibility of filming the continuing saga of the West Memphis Three. A former investigative journalist, Berg's experience in the field led to some very interesting interview footage of subjects hitherto undocumented, including two young men — friends of a nephew to victim Branch's stepfather — whose rather late-in-the-game affidavits may turn out to be the impetus for the state to reopen the investigation that the West Memphis Three have been hoping for.
"Amy just has this amazing ability to wait it out," Davis says. "People would just open up to her."
But where were these witnesses before West of Memphis? There's been a reward offered on new information for years, and it seems like there's been plenty of opportunity for folks to come forward before now.
"There's such a culture of fear in Arkansas, and in the South in general," Berg considers. "I really think everyone was concerned for their own well-being."
It remains to be seen if breaking the long silence of a cluster of perjurers and procrastinators will translate into a reopening of the case; word is there's some movement in that direction. But for now, at least, the public finally has a chance to hear the testimonies that the West Memphis Three have waited so long to present.
WEST OF MEMPHIS opens Fri/8 in San Francisco.