Why would you need to watch Amy Berg’s “West of Memphis” when the trilogy of “Paradise Lost” documentaries, made by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky over 15 years, has so thoroughly parsed the case of the West Memphis Three?
For a couple of reasons. By the time of 2011’s Oscar-nominated “Paradise Lost: Purgatory,” Berlinger and Sinofsky had themselves become part of the story, their films in large part responsible for attracting the attention of the media and heavy-hitter celebrities to the miscarriage of justice that landed Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley in jail for murders that most people now believe they didn’t commit. A set of fresh eyes is welcome and even necessary. Most important, while the “Paradise Lost” films captured events as they unfolded in the heat of battle, “West of Memphis” has the luxury of at least partial closure. Berg, who took on pedophile priests in “Deliver Us From Evil” (2006), stands back to take the measure of the whole story, letting its entire awful shape come into focus.
For those new to the subject, three young boys — Stevie Branch, Christopher Byers, and Michael Moore — were found murdered on May 6, 1993, in West Memphis, Ark., their bodies hogtied and sunk in a watery ditch. Rumors of Satanic cults swirled and eventually landed on Echols, a Goth-y, disaffected teenager, and his “followers” Baldwin and Misskelley. After the latter confessed (in a statement that becomes more dubious as the film goes on), the state marshaled witnesses and forensic experts and convicted the three in a pair of 1994 trials. Echols received a death sentence; the other two got life.
There were enough holes in the state’s case that Berlinger and Sinofsky (unseen in “West of Memphis”) came sniffing, and the 1996 “Paradise Lost” film made the three cause celebres with the likes of Johnny Depp, Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, and “Lord of the Rings” director Peter Jackson. It also brought Echols a wife, Lorri Davis, who took up his defense with missionary zeal.
Berg’s film is hardly unbiased, since Jackson and his wife, Fran Walsh, and Echols and Davis are all listed as producers. Yet “West of Memphis” makes its case clearly, cogently, and without any of the red herrings of “Paradise Lost 2: Revelations” (2000), which went after Mark Byers, Christopher Byers’s stepfather, mostly because he was so dramatically odd. (This wasn’t much more logical than suspecting Echols because he liked to wear black.)
Bankrolled by Jackson and Walsh, Davis hired ex-FBI criminal profiler John Douglas to investigate anew and got nationally known forensic experts to weigh in on the physical evidence. Over the course of “West of Memphis,” the state’s case dissolves like wet tissue. Witnesses recant their testimony tearfully and on-camera, the mutilations of the bodies are shown to be the work of animals, not people, and fresh DNA tests are unable to place any of the defendants at the scene.
They do, however, seem to place Stevie Branch’s stepfather, Terry Hobbs, there. The evidence against the coiled, taciturn Hobbs takes up much of the second half of “West of Memphis,” and it’s infuriating to see both how close Berg comes to proving his guilt and how uninterested the state has been in the new findings. A 2007 petition for a retrial was turned down by the presiding judge in the first trials; Berg has him on camera scoffing at “all this hoop-de-la about newly discovered evidence.”
There are moments where the filmmakers overstep the bounds of documentary ethics and start creating drama rather than capturing it. A scene where Hobbs’s alibi, David Jacoby, tries to get his former friend to confess over the telephone plays like ghoulishly suspenseful entrapment, while a filmed therapy session with Hobbs’s troubled stepdaughter feels cooked-up and exploitative. The West Memphis Three would never have been freed without the efforts of famous people fighting to bring attention to their case, but the celebrity angle threatens to turn self-righteous. (A little of Eddie Vedder goes a long way for some of us.)
Still, freed they were in August 2011 after 18 years in jail, through a bizarre legal contortion in which Echols and the others pleaded guilty while maintaining their innocence (thus saving the State of Arkansas from embarrassment and, more crucially, a civil suit). By then, the prosecutors realized they were holding a losing hand and even some of the victims’ family members agreed that the wrong men were in prison. Echols has since resettled with his wife in Salem. No one seems particularly interested in pursuing a case against Terry Hobbs. All that’s left are three small graves, three interrupted lives, and a tragedy of community hysteria that refuses to diminish with time.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.