Before viewing West of Memphis this morning, I had never really explored the case of the West Memphis Three. I knew of the "Paradise Lost" documentaries and I had heard of the heinous crimes which sent these three young individuals to prison, but aside from that, I was completely ignorant in regards to the whole phenomenon. As I sit and reflect on Amy Berg’s latest documentary, I can hardly find the words to express the emotions that flooded over me as I witnessed the events unfold in this extraordinary case.
In 1993, Jessie Misskelley, Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin are arrested and sentenced to life in prison for the murders of three eight year old boys - Christopher Byers, Steven Branch, and Michael Moore. The murders are horrifying, leading some to believe that they are satanic in nature. The evidence seems to confirm that the teenagers are responsible for the crime; however, many remain skeptical.
Eighteen years pass as new evidence comes to light, most of it pointing to Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of victim Steven Branch. As Terry Hobbs is interrogated, his true character is gradually exposed. Various family members and former neighbors begin to reveal disturbing details which link Hobbs to the case, and the realization dawns on many that the three grown men sitting in prison have been wrongfully accused. Further investigation is initiated, led by Damien Echols wife and filmmaker Peter Jackson, as well as many others. Eventually, a movement called “Free the West Memphis Three” begins, and thousands of people around the world - including many celebrities, such as Johnny Depp, Patti Smith, and Peter Rollins - unite to fight for freedom. Amy Berg’s meticulously constructed documentary is a chilling exploration of manipulation, the abuse of power in the legal system, and the harm that follows as a result of judging others based on their interests, backgrounds, or physical appearances. It is a testament to the kindness of others and of hope fulfilled. Your faith in humanity will be renewed as a result of viewing this film, which I believe is one of the most important films of the year and one that must be seen. It is not an easy film to endure. The details of the murders are graphically displayed in pictures and archival footage. These images are not easily forgotten.
West of Memphis is a challenging and maddening experience on every conceivable level, but it simply cannot be ignored. I highly recommend it.