“West of Memphis” revisits the case of the “West Memphis Three,” the doozy of a miscarriage of justice that led to a trio of Arkansas teens spending 18 years in prison for a grisly crime they didn’t commit.
The film is the fourth documentary inspired by the case, following three HBO “Paradise Lost” films, and it treads familiar terrain. But new findings introduced by director Amy Berg, combined with a solid presentation of known events, should engross newcomers and generally satisfy the initiated.
Like Berg’s “Deliver Us From Evil,” which centered on a Catholic priest whose acts of child sex abuse were ignored by church superiors, the film deals with a horrible crime and indicts a system for allowing such things to happen. Advocacy journalism combines with involving storytelling in this nonfiction detective story.
Some background: In 1993, the mutilated corpses of three 8-year-old boys were discovered in a creek in West Memphis, Ark.
Eighteen-year-old Damien Echols, 16-year-old Jason Baldwin and 17-year-old Jessie Misskelley were arrested.
Deemed satanic cultists, the black-clad, heavy-metal-listening three were convicted of murder, following a suspicious confession from the mildly mentally disabled Misskelley.
The legal process included recanted testimony, a peer-disputed “expert” witness and the ignoring of alibis. Echols received the death penalty. The others got life in prison.
The case sparked grass-roots and celebrity support. Filmmaker Peter Jackson and partner Fran Walsh funded their own investigation, which yielded revealing forensic and DNA evidence. (Turtles, not knives, probably mutilated the victims’ bodies, for starters.)
Infuriating actions occurred. Judge David Burnett dismissed the new evidence, calling it non-compelling.
In 2011, events prompted the three to enter an Alford plea, which allows defendants to assert their innocence while pleading guilty. Consequently, the trio went free. But any state effort to find the actual killer now seems unlikely.
Indeed, some of “West of Memphis” plays like a “Paradise Lost” retread. And the prominent presence of Jackson, and inclusion of other famous faces, can make things seem overly glossy.
But Berg sharply focuses on what matters: The blunders of a system marred by corruption and incompetence and, on the sunny side, success achieved by truth-seeking supporters determined to exonerate the three.
She also delivers a nugget for thought when presenting evidence suggesting that the stepfather of one of the slain boys may be the killer.
Her efforts add up to a worthy nonfiction film that, while adding little that is new, makes history feel urgent and immerses viewers in a real-life whodunit.
There is also a bit of farce and even romance. The latter involves the correspondence and eventual marriage of Echols and New York landscape architect Lorri Davis. The two now share producer credits with Jackson and Walsh.