Witch Trials Reborn: Berg’s Comprehensive Doc a Compelling Achievement
Amy Berg, Oscar nominated director for her first directorial effort, Deliver Us From Evil, returns with the Peter Jackson produced West of Memphis, an expansive, engrossing, and compelling account of the notorious West Memphis Three. Covering a lot of the same ground which Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky covered in their real time documentary trilogy, Paradise Lost, spanning from 1996 to 2011, Berg both references and expands on their considerable work. Sporting a daunting time of 150 minutes, one gets the sense that it could be even longer, as there’s certainly no lack of material in this real life saga of gross injustice, not to mention its standing as a chilling case study of bias produced by fear.
Beginning with extensive introduction of the circumstances that led to the 1993 trial and conviction of Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley Jr. for the brutal murder of three young boys, we get introduced to all the major players, namely the prosecution and the families of the victims. After watching the first Paradise Lost, a woman by the name of Lorri Davis becomes enamored with Damien Echols and opens a line of written communication with him. After developing feelings for each other, they marry while Echols is in prison, and so Davis begins an arduous journey to strike an appeal for the wrongly imprisoned men, eventually catching the attention of Peter Jackson and his longtime partner Fran Walsh. A multitude of other famous names rallied behind their cause, including Henry Rollins, Johnny Depp, Eddie Vedder, and Natalie Maines. With this extra money, Echols’ lawyers in San Francisco were able to hire investigators in Arkansas, eventually compiling DNA evidence to not only prove the innocence of these three, but incriminating that man that may be the real culprit, Terry Hobbs, stepfather to one of the boys, whose history of extensive domestic abuse wasn’t made apparent at the time of the trial.
Additionally, forensic evidence disproves the prosecution’s sensational motive for the killings, asserting that the boys were slain in a satanic ritual, genitals mutilated, etc, when, in fact, these post mortem wounds instead match the bite marks of snapping turtles inhabiting the swamp water where the bodies were thrown. And, not to mention, several key witnesses that have since recanted their testimony over the years, originally either coerced or bribed to lie. Other witnesses, whose testimony wasn’t in line with the prosecution’s flimsy case, were simply not called to testify. But, in late 2011, the State of Arkansas at long last agreed to let the West Memphis Three go free if they agreed to the Alford Plea, which basically forces them to plead guilty but maintain their innocence, allowing the state to avoid admitting it made a mistake. Additionally, this also resolves the case, meaning, the State is not obliged to pursue other suspects.
After an exhausting two and half hours, West of Memphis ends with a tempered triumph as we witness the three wrongly imprisoned men go free. But due to Berg’s effective presentation, which virtually gives us the probable prime suspect from evidence culled from investigations that should have been conducted by the police, one can’t help but feel anger at the injustice and ridiculousness still being perpetrated. As Echols points out, this is just one of many cases where something like this has happened. Berg has made a painstaking documentary that manages to be chilling, tragic, hopeful, and overall, compelling.
For those overly familiar with the details of the case, there’s a lot of information presented that they may already know, but up to a week or so before premiering the film, Berg was able to add even more relevant footage with two friends of a Hobbs family relative making statements that quite a few of the Hobbs are well aware that Terry was indeed the murderer of these three young boys in 1993. This may perhaps be information that will inevitably leave to another chapter in this story, but for now, the actual murderer still remains free. Additionally, since Berg’s film, Echols has published a novel, and filmmaker Atom Egoyan has commenced with a fictional feature, Devil’s Knot. There’s a tragic sensationalism to this case that’s managed to generate excessive public interest. It’s just a pity that people, incapable of doing the right thing, consistently impede others from doing it. But much more than a saga of injustice, West of Memphis is a weighty expose of human nature, and Berg proves herself once again to be a master of her craft.