Mark Metcalf

“West of Memphis” documents a harrowing miscarriage of justice

The latest film following the West Memphis Three covers the span of the case, from their apprehension to their eventual release.

By - Mar 14th, 2013 12:49 am
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The story of the West Memphis Three continues in the new film by Amy Berg, West of Memphis. Photos: West Memphis Police Department

On May 5, 1993, three 8-year-old boys went out to play in West Memphis, Arkansas.  They rode their bikes. Michael Moore wore his Cub Scout uniform just because he really liked it. Stevie Branch wore jeans and a T-shirt. Christopher Byers also wore blue jeans, with a long-sleeved white shirt. They all wore tennis shoes. They didn’t come home for dinner. The next day their bodies were found in a ditch, stripped naked, hog tied, and covered in water, mud and debris.

You may have heard about the West Memphis Three, the WMT. Michael, Chris and Stevie — the victims — are not the WMT. In the 20 years since their murder they have not been forgotten – they will never be forgotten by their families and friends. But Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jesse Misskelley, Jr., the three teenagers accused of the crime will be better remembered as the West Memphis Three, accused, tried and convicted of murdering three 8-year-old boys who went out on an early summer evening to ride bikes, yell, scream, and have some fun.

Many believe the conviction to be a horrible miscarriage of justice. At least three documentaries have been made about this murder and the subsequent trials. HBO made Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996) and Paradise Lost 2: Revelations (2000).

Amy Berg made West of Memphis. The film has star power behind it; Peter Jackson and his partner Fran Walsh are executive producers. Johnny Depp, Eddie Vedder, Patti Smith and many others have gotten involved as well, holding concerts, rallies, press conferences and TV interviews to raise funds for the defense and call attention to what they believe to be the inept police work that led to the WMT’s convictions.

West of Memphis follows the entire saga from the beginning, carefully and systematically. Berg, Jackson and Walsh pay special attention to the lack of physical evidence, specifically DNA evidence, in the conviction of Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley, Jr. The West Memphis Three spent 18 years in prison for a crime they almost certainly did not commit. The film makers build quite a strong case on specific DNA evidence, confessions of witnesses, and a series of very pointed interviews with Terry Hobbs, the man they believe did commit the murders.

Damien, Jesse and Jason are free now. The work and commitment of Jackson, Walsh and others paid off in August 2011. The West Memphis Three all walked out of prison and back to their families, thanks to an obscure deal called the Alford Plea. The plea at once acknowledges evidence that could convict them, but finds them innocent despite that evidence. It prevents them from suing Arkansas and allows the state to continue to do nothing to find the real murderer. And it ensures there will be no real closure for the families of the murdered boys or for Damien, Jason and Jesse.

In our nation of laws, we sometimes have odd ways of doing things, don’t we?

West of Memphis opens Friday, March 15 at the Oriental Theatre on Farwell.

Categories: Arts & Culture, Movies

0 thoughts on ““West of Memphis” documents a harrowing miscarriage of justice”

  1. Anonymous says:

    This is an excellent article, focusing on the real victims, Christopher Byers, Steven Branch and Michael Moore. However, one correction should be made. HBO made a third documentary, “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory” which was released in 2011, shortly after the Alford plea. So, this documentary, “West of Memphis,” is the fourth documentary about the case. At least one more movie, a dramatization of Mara Leveritt’s excellent book about the case (“Devil’s Knot”) is in the works. Another movie, based on Damien Echols’ second memoir, “Life After Death,” is also being discussed.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Thank you for making that correction. I didn’t realize until after the article had gone to print that HBO had followed up on their earlier documentaries with the ‘Purgatory’ one. With so much media attention brought to bear on this case that it seems to be almost a celebration, I hope that the families of Christopher, Steven, and Michael can find some peace.

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