Whether the state of Arkansas can ignore “West of Memphis” seems to be the only remaining question surrounding this first-rate investigative docu on the notorious West Memphis Three case, its questionable prosecution and its dubious resolution. Following on the heels of the celebrated “Paradise Lost” trilogy, Amy Berg’s clear, captivating, indignant film carves out its own significant place in criminal-justice cinema, makes new and startling revelations into the triple-murder mystery, and is visually spectacular to boot. As an annotated supplement to the existing films or on its own, pic could find a theatrical aud and will undoubtedly play well on cable.
Produced by Peter Jackson and longtime partner Fran Walsh (as well as the recently freed Damien Echols and wife Lorri Davis), “West of Memphis” initially prompted the question: Why? The existing films of Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, whose HBO-produced docus covered the case more or less in real time, had seemed to exhaust the subject. Not so.
Berg, enlisted by longtime West Memphis Three supporters Jackson and Walsh, has obtained interviews with principal players who eluded Berlinger and Sinofsky, digs deeper into specific aspects of the case, and unveils shocking information about Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of murder victim Steve Branch. Where “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory” pointed a finger at Hobbs, “West of Memphis” shakes a fist. As “Purgatory” made clear, Hobbs’ whereabouts at the time of the murder would seem to make him a prime suspect; a witness places him with the boys just before the murder; DNA is not his friend. His record of domestic violence, which Berg examines in much greater detail than “Purgatory” did, is damning.
In addition to the several recanting trial witnesses Berg assembles and the conclusions of a forensic team that independently reviewed the murder scene and trial exhibits (and that Jackson and Walsh paid for), the film also includes the late-breaking assertions by Blake Sisk and Cody Gott — friends of Michael Hobbs Jr., Terry’s nephew — that they overheard Terry discussing a highly incriminating “Hobbs family secret.” (The on-camera accounts by Sisk and Gott were added to “West of Memphis” only this month.) Taken together with last summer’s supposed conclusion of the case — in which the imprisoned Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr. traded guilty pleas for their freedom — it amounts to a tragicomedy of prosecutorial errors and obstinance.
If the West Memphis Three chapter teaches anyone anything, it’s to not jump to conclusions. At the same time, the conclusions the film leaves us with would seem to call for a misconduct case against certain state officials and, at least, a grand jury investigation of Hobbs. The rub is that, having taking so-called Alford pleas, Echols, Misskelley and Baldwin cannot sue Arkansas, and the state — which considers the case officially solved — has no interest in pursuing any other possible suspects. Legally speaking, the three principals seem to have hit a dead end, although the Sisk-Gott revelation is precisely what could lead to a fresh examination of the evidence.
The many leading Arkansans who oppose such an outcome include two high-ranking jurists who never spoke to Berlinger and Sinofsky. They do, however, speak to Berg: David Burnett, the original trial judge who repeatedly thwarted the West Memphis Three supporters’ efforts to secure new hearings (“There is no new evidence,” says Burnett, now a state senator), and prosecutor Scott Ellington, who still insists the men are guilty, but agrees to be interviewed here because, “I need to be heard by my voters.”
One aspect of the case that Berg could have emphasized regards the political hay to be made by perpetrating injustice: Echols states quite frankly that he, Baldwin and Misskelley were railroaded and kept in prison because it was to the career advantage of state officials to do so. “West of Memphis” makes it extremely difficult to believe otherwise.
Tech credits are tops, notably the work of lensers Maryse Alberti and Ronan Killeen.