Starring: Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, Jason Baldwin
Directed by: Amy Berg (“Deliver Us From Evil”)
Written by: Amy Berg (“Deliver Us From Evil”) and Billy McMillin (“Project Kashmir”)
On May 5, 1993, three 8-year-old boys were murdered in West Memphis, Arkansas. In the following days, three teenagers: 18-year-old Damien Echols, 17-year-old Jessie Misskelley and 16-year-old Jason Baldwin were arrested in connection with the murders. After a highly publicized trial, Misskelley and Baldwin were sentenced to life in prison and Echols was sentenced to the death penalty. Since that date, the case has been heavily disputed and evidence had been piling up that potentially indicated that the three teenagers known as the “West Memphis Three” were, in fact, innocent. “West of Memphis” is a look into how forced confessions, poor police work, and a lack of hard DNA evidence contributed to one of the most infamous cases of wrongful imprisonment.
After the success of the first three HBO documentaries in the “Paradise Lost” series, “West of Memphis” is the 4th total movie on the subject and the first unrelated from the first trio of films. With the wealth of information about the case already displayed in that franchise, it is nearly impossible to ignore the HBO documentary series and treat them as a separate entity from “West of Memphis.” There’s not a lot of difference as far as informational content between the two. There are, however, some subtle changes that make “West of Memphis” interesting in its own right. To separate itself, “West of Memphis” spends a great deal of time covering the third-party private investigation, which was partially led and funded by Oscar-winning director/producer Peter Jackson (“The Lord of the Rings” series) and his wife and fellow Oscar winner, screenwriter and producer Fran Walsh (“The Lord of the Rings.”) Throughout the investigation, forensics experts analyze new and previously uncovered DNA information, as well as other physical evidence that could potentially exonerate the West Memphis Three. This also includes fascinating legal details of how the case was woefully mishandled by not only the police, but also the prosecution.
Where as “Paradise Lost” spent a lot of time focusing on the litigation part, as well as an insight into the mind of Echols, “West of Memphis” spends more time talking about the curious case of Terry Hobbs who was the stepfather of one of the victims, Stevie Branch. While Hobbs is covered in “Paradise Lost,” a huge chunk of “West of Memphis” deeply explores the personality and curiosity of Hobbs as a person of interest. These scenes include fascinating interviews from people previously unheard of and some strong evidence that insinuates perhaps Hobbs is the real perpetrator of these crimes. As with “Paradise Lost,” the main focus is on Echols, the supposed ringleader of the group. As an interview subject, Echols is fascinating, intelligent and completely captivating to listen to. While Misskelley and Baldwin are not nearly as interesting as Echols, more time could have been spent with them to get their perspectives in more distinct manner.
From a directorial perspective, “West of Memphis” provides a more cinematic experience than its “Paradise Lost” counterpart. Included are several scenic shots of Arkansas and one memorable shot in particular involving giant turtles to show that the murder of the boys was not related to satanism as the prosecution suggested. Since the case has been such a high profile one since the early 90s, most people know the West Memphis Three have been released from prison. While the latest installment of the “Paradise Lost” series follows the big release day, “West of Memphis” provides a very small glimpse into their lives outside of their cells. While this epilogue of sorts is not nearly as detailed as it could have been, it is still interesting to watch these grown men, who have been in prison since they were teenagers, assimilate into the real world.
The story of the West Memphis Three is so fascinating that there is no such thing as an overload of information, details and coverage. As a human-interest story, it is a staggering look at how fallible the entire judicial system can be. It retreads a lot of details seen in other places, but it also differs enough be its own product. For information-based material packed into a short amount of time, the outstanding “Paradise Lost 3” is a great place to start building familiarity with the case. “West of Memphis” is perhaps better suited as a companion piece.