West of Memphis (2012)

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“This is the trial of the century…”

I finally got to see West of Memphis, the latest documentary about the case of the “West Memphis Three“.

In case you are not familiar with this case, it has been extensively documented in 3 documentaries called Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996), Paradise Lost: Revelations (2000), and Paradise Lost: Purgatory (2011).  Each of the 2+ hour documentaries covers different aspects of the West Memphis Three trial.

A very quick summary of the case is that sometime in 1993, three young boys went missing in a small Arkansas town called West Memphis and a couple of days later were found dead, beaten, and sexually mutilated in a ditch. The town was devastated and demanded justice.  The police quickly responded, and arrested three local boys, Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, and Jason Baldwin and charged them with the killings of the children.  The Arkansas justice system swiftly convicted Echols, Misskelley, and Baldwin and sentenced Echols to death, and the other two to life sentences.

One of the things that make this case so fascinating is the fact that the swift arm of justice fell so quick and so precisely.  The West Memphis Three (WM3) were found guilty within days of being arrested and their case came and went with amazing speed and precision.  Too fast, as it turned out.  Over the years, it was determined that several key witnesses that testified for the prosecution were coerced to lie.  Jessie Misskelley was found to have an IQ so low, that he bordered on mental retardation.  In 2013, if Misskelley had gone to trial, the ACLU would have quickly intervened to prove that he isn’t competent to defend himself.  Misskelley’s confession was coerced after almost 12 hours worth of interviews from the police.

Damien Echols was painted as a heavy metal listening Satanist who killed the boys as part of some cult ritual.  Experts were brought in to prove that the markings on the bodies were clearly some type of strange Satanic Ritual, when in fact, many experts came forth to prove that the scratches and injuries on the bodies were done by turtles and other animals found in the swampy ditch where the bodies were found.

Even the alibis of the WM3 were completely ignored during the original trial.  Several witnesses came forth to say that Misskelley wasn’t anywhere near Robin Hood Hills the night of the murders and was at a wrestling tournament 40 miles away.  The other two boys could never be proven to be anywhere near where the boys were abducted or their bodies dumped.

When the first Paradise Lost documentary came out in 1996, the Internet was in its infancy, social media was not heard of, and people got their news the old way.  Through newspapers, magazines, and the evening news.  Paradise Lost wasn’t in theaters and didn’t gain national attention upon its release.  Instead, word of the documentary slowly spread through the early incarnations of the Internet.  I remember renting a VHS tape from the local video store and was enthralled with the case.

West_Memphis_Three_MugshotOver the next 15 years, I heard about the release of the next two documentaries, and in 2011, when all 3 members of the WM3 were released from prison, the case became the world’s first ever case to be overturned through the work and dedication of the general public.  You could say this was the first ever case to be overturned due to “crowdsourcing”.

Over the years, people dedicated themselves to getting to the bottom of this case, including famous people such as Peter Jackson, Henry Rollins, and Eddie Vedder. These people donated time and money to the investigation that went on to further the appeal process.  As each new fact came to light that put more and more doubt into the guilt of the WM3, the Arkansas judicial system refused to budge.  As more and more doubts came forth, they stood behind their initial investigation and held up the guilty verdicts.  Even as some parts of the original boys who were murdered came forth to express their doubts that the WM3 were guilty, the prosecutors didn’t care.

I could go on and on and tell you the complete story, but thats the point of the movie.  Even with all of the facts, there is one shadow of a doubt that Damien Echols was one creepy teenager.  He clearly was disturbed, and even though I believe he had nothing to do with the murder of the three children, its not a stretch to think that he could possibly have been capable of what he was accused of.  His dark sullen eyes and creepy smile as he laughed at the cameras during his initial trial were merely a glimpse into the mind of someone who had some serious issues.

I think that fact is what makes this whole story ultimately so fascinating.  There were so many mistakes, and so many ways in which the prosecution didn’t do a very good job, yet, there still has never been anyone found of the actual murder.  The boys did admit to doing the deed, and when you listen to the things Echols said back then, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to think that maybe he could have done it.

Nevertheless, here we are in 2013, and this is the case of the century.  Forget about OJ Simpson or any other major case that grabbed headlines.  None of those other cases instilled as much passion and emotion from people across the world who came together to support the WM3.  After almost 20 years behind bars, each of the WM3 are now free yet they had to plead guilty to become free is somewhat of a crime in of itself.  Law students should be taught about this case as an example of what NOT to do during a murder investigation.  I understand that any murder demands justice, especially when three young children are involved, but our need for justice cannot overshadow the need to get justice the right way, and that was the ultimate failure in this case.

So while I could recommend you go out and watch all 3 Paradise Lost documentaries  I’ll admit, they’re very long and a tad boring at times.  “West of Memphis” combines all of the info into one single documentary that’s well edited and flows well.  Its still long, clocking in at 147 minutes, but its worth it.  I highly recommend you all go out and see this movie!

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