West Memphis blues

A sordid murder case gets yet another examination in West of Memphis.

By now you’ve at least heard of the West Memphis Three (WM3), a group of ostracized teenagers who were convicted of the brutal murders of three young boys in West Memphis, Ark., in 1994. The case was the subject of a popular series of documentaries that began with 1996’s Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills and included two sequels. It was also chronicled in books, songs and even a benefit album. With all that coverage readily available, I went into the screening for West of Memphis, a new documentary about the now 20-year-old crime, wondering what could possibly be left to say?

Turns out, the answer is plenty.

Despite a lengthy 146-minute running time, Memphis races by, piling up interviews, transcripts, photographs and witness testimony to present the most complete examination of this case currently available in one film. Paradise Lost fans will no doubt gripe that Memphis is more like the CliffsNotes version of the story, but it’s also an excellent film in its own right. Created with care by documentarian Amy Berg (Deliver Us From Evil), who enjoyed access to almost everyone associated with the case, Memphis is a powerful indictment of a legal system blinded by conflicts of interest that is often more concerned with covering its own ass then seeking justice.

The basic story: In May of 1993, three boys under the age of 10 are found dead in a drainage ditch, each bound, stripped and mutilated. After a deeply flawed police investigation, the cops settle on Jason Baldwin, Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley as the main suspects. Though the trio didn’t know the victims and had a convincing alibi, the local police investigators get a confession out of Jason Baldwin, the slowest-witted of the bunch (Memphis makes the case that he is borderline mentally handicapped). That sets the stage for a sensational trial in which the three teens are accused and convicted of murdering the boys as part of a satanic ritual.

Holes in the state’s case were always apparent (like that aforementioned alibi), but as the Paradise Lost filmmakers and a whole host of others dug into the evidence (“The world’s first crowd-sourced murder investigation,” as one talking head calls it early in Memphis), it became clear that the wrong people had been convicted even as one of them, “ringleader” Damien Echols, was sitting on Death Row. By the late 1990s a full-blown movement had developed to get the WM3 out of jail. Henry Rollins played a benefit concert, Eddie Vedder got involved, and the tide seemed to be turning. Then nothing happened. Vedder is interviewed extensively in Memphis (as are Rollins and director Peter Jackson, who also served as a producer for the film), and one of the main points the Pearl Jam frontman makes is that reversing a legal decision like this takes on average 15 to 20 years — something he’s glad he didn’t know when he first got involved.

Starting in 2007, the DNA evidence began piling up, in the process proving that the WM3 couldn’t have committed the murders. I was certain from the first two Paradise Lost movies that John Mark Byers, the bizarre and eccentric stepfather of one of the murdered boys, was the killer. (In addition to other circumstantial evidence, Byers gave the Paradise Lost filmmakers a knife that later tested positive for blood.) So imagine my surprise when, early in West of Memphis, the film eliminates him as a suspect, making a powerful point about scapegoating in the process. Guess I should have seen Paradise Lost 3 as well.

But if not Byers, than who? Memphis points to a different suspect (his hair was found in the binding of a knot that tied together the wrists of one of the victims), but knowing that I was already sold on a non-suspect by a previous doc, how am I supposed to believe this one? And should films like Memphis go out on the limb of accusation? It’s one thing to exonerate someone who is innocent, but can any filmmaker (or viewer, for that matter) really know the true perpetrator of a crime that took place two decades ago?

Putting that aside, I highly recommend West of Memphis to fans of true crime documentaries (or just docs in general). Though we may never truly know the full story of what happened back in 1993, this case should now be considered closed.

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