Amy Berg’s sobering polemic West of Memphis (2012) shines a light on the failings of the American criminal justice system through the campaign to free a trio of wrongly convicted men after almost twenty years in prison. Having premièred at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, West of Memphis was released to wide acclaim and now arrives on DVD from Sony Pictures. Following in the footsteps of Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s Paradise Lost trilogy, which presented ongoing events throughout the ordeal, Berg’s film examines the case from original crime and throughout the fight to have the three men released.
One May evening in 1993, a horrific triple homicide was committed in West Memphis, Arkansas. Three young boys was brutally murdered and within a month, a trio of teenagers were charged with one providing a lengthy, though clearly led, confession. The crimes were said to have been satanic in nature due to ritualistic and sexualised wounds suffered by the boys. Local teenagers Jessie Misskelley, Jason Baldwin and ‘ring-leader’ Damien Wayne Echols – a young man enamoured with the occult – were clearly the perpetrators; at least within the maelstrom of public opinion and outrage that surrounded the case.
West of Memphis does a fantastic job of combining archive footage and interviews with a swathe of individuals involved to present a fascinating account of what occurred. They were tried and convicted, with Echols receiving the death sentence. What emerged over time, however, was the rather more convincing position that these three were not, in fact, guilty. This position was vociferously endorsed by a whole team of campaigners including celebrities (including Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh) and legal professionals who worked tirelessly to convince the state of Arkansas that Misskelley, Baldwin and Echols needed a retrial. It’s their unswerving support that makes them the real heroes of the piece.
As an indictment of political manoeuvring and bureaucracy it is excellently served-up providing context to seemingly strange decisions by officials; a prosecutor claims he stills believes the three to be guilty but agrees to appear in the film to be heard by his voters. The one area in which West of Memphis strays a little is in its dogged pursuit of the man that the filmmakers believe to be the true culprit.
This slightly undercuts the more triumphal ending; sticking the craw by serving as a stark reminder that justice will never be done for those boys and their families. They may well be fingering the right man, but it also indulges in supporting the sort of witch-hunt that got the ‘West Memphis Three’ imprisoned in the first place. Still, as a compelling, well-constructed indictment of the American legal system, Berg’s West of Memphis is certainly admirable.