Thursday, December 6, 2012
WEST OF MEMPHIS (2012)
In 1993 the town of West Memphis, Arkansas, was devastated by the grisly discovery of the beaten, drowned and mutilated bodies of three 8-year-old boys (Steve Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore) in a nearby creek. Without any obvious suspects, prosecutor John N. Fogelman latched on to the occult as motive and convinced a jury in 1994 that three teenagers (Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and mildly retarded Jessie Misskelley) were responsible. The film quickly establishes that, absent any incriminating physical evidence, the prosecution relied heavily on Misskelley’s coerced confession to obtain the convictions. This is not the first documentary to claim the innocence of the West Memphis 3, as they became known. Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky made three films beginning with PARADISE LOST: THE CHILD MURDERS AT ROBIN HOOD HILLS (1996) to last year’s Oscar® nominated PARADISE LOST 3: PURGATORY. But filmmaker Amy Berg focuses on the efforts of Lorri Davis (Echols’ wife, whom he met and married while on death row) to secure a new trial for her husband based on evidence obtained with the financial help and legal guidance of Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, who took an interest in the case in 2005. Thanks to new DNA technology available in 2007, the investigation discovers that none of the teenagers left any traces either on the bodies or at the crime scene. They also unearth quite convincing evidence and testimony that indicate the real killer may be the stepfather of one of the murdered boys. But the bigger obstacle becomes the perceived infallibility of the Arkansas judicial system and the reputation of the presiding judge and prosecutor in the original case, and the request for a new trial is refused. Only once the State Supreme Court rules in Echols’ favor in 2011 does the District Attorney consider a compromise that could release the wrongfully convicted men. Berg’s film is somewhat overlong, and its alternate suspect theory is undermined by borderline exploitative interviews with the suspect’s best friend, who provided an alibi, and the suspect’s troubled daughter. It is nevertheless a fascinating, frustrating and compelling film.