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Sunday, March 10, 2013

West of Memphis

Framed for murder

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The local media called it “the break the police were waiting for.” In 1993, three teenagers were arrested for the murder and sexual violation of three eight-year old boys, their bodies fished from a trickling creek in West Memphis, Ark. The archival footage in the latest documentary on the case, West of Memphis, shows the suspects tried by television, even before the jury was empanelled, and led under heavy guard through a taunting, hateful mob. The accused ringleader, Damien Echols, was condemned to death; Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, his alleged minions, were sentenced to life.

The case of the “West Memphis 3” was open and shut as presented in court, but discrepancies caught the attention of celebrities and a worldwide audience of people who related to the trio as victims of unreflecting prejudice; the boys were oddballs in their evangelical Protestant small town and from families without influence. Because of his fascination with the occult and penchant for black clothes, Echols was deemed the leader of a satanic cult holding unhallowed rites in the woods. The eight-year-olds were cast as human sacrifices in a blood ritual. The WM3 were convicted largely on the confession of Misskelley, a mentally disabled adolescent fed leading questions (along with their answers) over many hours by interrogators determined to fit him and the others accused to the crime. Misskelley recanted, but too late. The police and the DA were determined to convict the WM3. The trio sat in prison until 2011, when the persistence of defense counsel brought their release (but not their acquittal).

Their story has already been chronicled on camera, starting with the 1996 HBO documentary “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills,” which drew public interest to the case, and a pair of “Paradise Lost” sequels that recounted developments through the WM3’s release from prison. West of Memphis’ director, Amy Berg, covers the same ground from different angles, touching lightly on the hobgoblin mentality of fundamentalist West Memphis, but going deep into the chain of bad evidence against the WM3 and the wealth of exonerating information uncovered in later years by their defense team.

While it may have been possible early on to give the authorities some benefit of the doubt—to think that in their pursuit of justice they saw only those details that matched their preconceptions—West of Memphis shows that the prosecution deliberately twisted evidence and probably suborned perjury. Two West Memphis residents apologize on camera for their false witness. Perhaps some elements of the prosecution’s case resulted from sheer incompetence. The alleged sexual mutilation of the victims was actually—and obviously to skilled pathologists—the work of snapping turtles in the creek where their bodies were tossed.

West of Memphis
draws firm conclusions on the identity of the actual perpetrator, and as is common in murder cases, he was someone close to the victims. The eventual release of the WM3 provides a good example of that much-maligned phenomenon, the “celebrity cause.” An A-List of familiar names, headed by Eddie Vedder and including Johnny Depp, Patti Smith and Henry Rollins, raised the money and awareness that kept the appeals process alive. The frightening thing, however, is that what happened to the WM3 could happen again in any place where politically ambitious authorities seize upon a notorious crime as a chance to advance their careers.

Opens Friday, March 15, Oriental Theatre.

Home Movies/Out on Digital

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