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If you don’t know much about the West Memphis Three, you sure will by the end of Amy Berg’s nearly two-and-a-half hour documentary, West of Memphis. Unlike the recent The Central Park Five, which also examined a wrongful-incarceration case, West of Memphis doesn’t bring the arrestees front and center to tell their stories, resulting in endless details about their confessions and anecdotes about what they lost (youth, innocence—duh). Instead, the story of three teenagers who in 1994 were convicted of murdering three boys is intricately interwoven from the views of not only the teens (in fact, there’s hardly any input from them) but also legal teams, activists who took up their cause, family and friends, and other suspects. At times the film may delve a little too deeply to allow a new-to-the-topic viewer to keep the facts straight, but it’s nothing if not thorough.
Berg begins at the beginning, with a grizzly recount of the disappearance of three boys in West Memphis, Ark. (One of the searchers is said to have literally stumbled on one of the victims in a local stream, with “one of the little bodies…on his leg.”) The boys were hogtied and cut up, even genitally mutated, leading authorities to believe they were made part of a satanic ritual. Cops arrested Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley Jr., and Jason Baldwin. Though Echols, who bore a resemblance to Jack White, was the primary focus due to his alleged involvement with occultism, a history of mental illness, and prior arrests (Baldwin, too, had been arrested before), it was the confession of Misskelley, who according to one commenter was “borderline mentally retarded,” that became the final nail.
After reports of a botched investigation—including mishandling of the bodies and a lack of DNA evidence—multiple instances of perjury, and two films on the subject (Paradise Lost and Paradise Lost 2), celebrities took up the cause to free the men. Berg features a handful of them prominently, including musicians Eddie Vedder and Henry Rollins, screenwriter Fran Walsh, and her partner, director Peter Jackson. Another supporter of the convicted was Lorris Davis, the eventual wife of Echols, who began writing to him while he was in prison. (And unlike what you might think of women who become pen pals with prisoners, Davis comes across as quite stable and intelligent.)
West of Memphis follows the story to its appalling conclusion, which, although it results in the three men being released due to a little-known legal maneuver, does not involve the arrest of the alleged guilty party when, in 2007, new DNA evidence was discovered. The wrongfully accused, meanwhile, come across as rather Zen about the whole experience. When one of the witnesses who gave a false statement recounted her asking Echols why investigators thought he did it, his reply was, “Because I’m weird, I guess.”