I have just returned from watching West of Memphis, the latest film in the West Memphis Three saga. This is a case I care about a great deal, and I have been following it for eighteen years, until its surprising ending last fall in an Alford plea.
Those of you who have followed the case and were convinced, as I am, of the defendants’ innocence, may have been drawn to the case by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky series of documentaries Paradise Lost (1996), Paradise Lost 2: Revelations (2000), and Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (2011). What could a fourth documentary possibly add to those?
Plenty, apparently. West of Memphis, directed by Amy Berg and produced by Damien Echols and his wife and staunch supporter Lorri Davis, as well as supporters such as Peter Jackson, offers fresh perspectives on the case that were not highlighted in the previous documentaries. If you thought what you saw in Paradise Lost of the trial was an absolute travesty, wait until you see incredible footage of the trial not seen in the original documentary. This movie also benefits from the passage of time and the discovery of new forensic evidence, as well as recantations by several key witnesses from the original trial.
The film has many strengths, but the most interesting bit, to me, was the blow-by-blow documentation of the Alford plea process, and in particularly the excruciating dilemma faced by Jason Baldwin, who did not want to plead guilty to a crime he did not commit. We got to hear moving words from the judge accepting the pleas (who was clearly convinced of the defendants’ innocence) and some ridiculous statements from prosecutors, present and past.
The weakness of the film is in its overemphasis on the alternative theory, according to which Terry Hobbs, stepfather of one of the children, committed the crime. It is true that some forensic evidence ties Hobbs to the crime, and he is therefore a more convincing suspect than John Mark Byers, who was cast as a possible suspect in Paradise Lost 2. At the time, I thought that the case against Byers was no less a witchhunt than against the original defendants. While these filmmakers have a bit more to support their theory, including DNA from the alibi witness, I can see a talented defense attorney explaining away the DNA evidence. The crime does not necessarily make sense, there is no clear motive, and the hearsay evidence about a late confession could be as problematic as the bogus evidence about Damien Echols’ alleged confession in the original trial. I think we can easily come to believe in Echols’, Baldwin’s and Misskelley’s innocence without casting aspersions on new suspects without conclusive proof.
That said, the film is a masterpiece: Beautifully filmed, fast paced, intelligent, and providing a fascinating perspective into the case and the defendants’. I urge you all to see it.