The Pursuit of Justice

A new documentary tries to make sense of what happened to the West Memphis 3

If you are not familiar with the case of the West Memphis Three, Amy Berg's thorough documentary West of Memphis (produced by Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh) gets you up to speed.

Three young boys, Stevie Branch, Michael Moore and Christopher Byers, were found dead in a ditch in West Memphis, Ark., on May 5, 1993. The circumstances of their deaths seemed to suggest some sort of satanic ritual, or so authorities thought. They arrested three teenagers—Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jesse Misskelley Jr.—and eventually put them in jail for 17 years.

The men were released Aug. 19, 2011, after copping to something called the Alford plea. It had the men pleading guilty to first-degree murder, while allowing them to proclaim their innocence outside prison walls. It saved the state from a new trial and protected it from civil suits in which it most certainly would've paid out millions of dollars to the wrongly imprisoned men.

The West Memphis Three story came to national light when HBO began airing the Paradise Lost films. Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills covered the trial and came out in 1996. Paradise Lost 2: Revelations aired in 2000 and pointed the finger at one of the dead children's stepfathers, John Mark Byers, as a possible and rather convincing suspect. Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, nominated for an Oscar last year, recapped the case up until the men's release from prison.

Paradise Lost 3 and West of Memphis both suggest that maybe the killer was Terry Hobbs, another stepfather of one of the murdered boys. Memphis is more dogged in its pursuit of Hobbs, with Jackson himself revealing in an interview that he and his team (which gave much funding to the case of the West Memphis Three) ordered an independent investigation of the man.

The film presents its own unearthed evidence. Hobbs has a violent past (he slapped his wife and shot his brother-in-law), his alibi for the night of the murders is supposedly shaky, and he was alleged to have beaten his deceased stepson regularly. The only DNA found at the crime scene that could be traced to anybody is a single hair found in the shoelace used to tie up his stepson that could belong to Hobbs.

While this movie does do a shocking job of portraying Hobbs as a suspect, I must submit that I was convinced many years ago that John Mark Byers had something to do with the killings. In that respect, I find these movies a little dangerous in how they point fingers in much the way people originally pointed them at innocent teenagers. Perhaps Hobbs will someday see his day in court. Until then, the evidence portrayed in this movie is circumstantial at best.

One thing that West of Memphis does do is once again (as in the previous trilogy) show beyond a shadow of a doubt that three men sat in prison for nearly two decades for a crime they didn't commit, with Echols on death row. The movie also re-examines the Misskelley confession, which appears coerced. Misskelley had a very low IQ, had been interrogated by police for many hours, and was then led through a recorded confession with authorities obviously manipulating his answers.

Berg does a good job of dissecting this confession, displaying it as the miscarriage of justice that it was. She also utilizes phone conversations with Echols from death row and interviews with the likes of Jackson, Eddie Vedder and Echols's wife, Lorri Davis, who quit her New York job, moved to Arkansas, married Echols, and had much to do with his eventual release.

It's good to know Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley are all out of their prison hells and hopefully enjoying their freedom. It's terrible to know that the killer of the three boys still walks free. West of Memphis, like the three docs that came before it, might overdo it a bit in suggesting alternative suspects. That said, these movies kept the spotlight on this case and got these men out of jail. Without the documentaries, I am convinced Echols would've met his maker, and the other two would still be sitting in their cells.

Hey, Arkansas ... if you think the world is going to let you off the hook as you proclaim the West Memphis Three guilty due to this outrageous plea, think again. The killer still walks free. Now get off your arrogant ass and find that killer.