Damien Echols should not be famous, but after West of Memphis he will not be easy to forget.
By SARA SMITH
Neither will Jessie Misskelley Jr. and Jason Baldwin, who were teenagers when convicted, along with Echols, for the 1993 murders of three 8-year-olds in West Memphis, Ark.
Though its just the latest documentary to tell the outrageous story of the men known as the West Memphis Three, West of Memphis is a powerful film whose makers have rewritten the ending to a shameful American injustice.
West Memphis was in a state of terror and hysteria after the bodies of Stevie Branch, Chris Byers and Michael Moore were found naked and submerged in a creek. West of Memphis shows Stevies mother collapsing in grief as she hears the news, in just the first of many heartrending moments we spend with her.
The towns desperate police force manufactured and coached witnesses, manipulated all-too-willing local media, dismissed abundant alibi affidavits and failed to interview the victims families and neighbors. Instead, authorities focused on a misfit kid with long hair, black heavy-metal T-shirts, dark journal scribblings and a problem with authority.
Despite a lack of motive, eyewitnesses or physical evidence, the West Memphis Three were arrested after the 12-hour interrogation of Misskelley. The few portions that were recorded are a clinic on eliciting a false confession. Misskelley, a 17-year-old with an IQ of 72, kept repeating, I want to go home.
It took Misskelley all day to repeat the script detectives had fed him, adding details and correcting the time line for him. Police immediately leaked the confession to the Memphis Commercial Appeal, where potential jurors read it on the front page.
The trial was worse, with a parade of self-appointed occult experts and an uncertified medical examiner smugly contorting logic to paint the crimes as a sadistic, sexual satanic ritual with Echols as ringleader. West of Memphis becomes a greatest-hits concert of prosecutorial misconduct, and youll agree when the film asserts that prosecutors knew they had the wrong guys.
But it was another documentary that was a literal lifesaver for Echols. The first in a trilogy of HBO projects, 1996s Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills got peoples attention. There was a book. Then rallies, websites, billboards and a tip line. Rock stars threw a concert in Little Rock. And Echols married supporter Lorri Davis, who quit her job to work on the case full time.
Then Peter Jackson called. After he and Lord of the Rings collaborator Fran Walsh signed on to help, supporters decided to hire their own investigators. The case was dissected by FBI profiling pioneer John Douglas, who never works as a hired gun.
Forensic experts demonstrate a little too vividly how the post-mortem injuries to the child victims were caused by wildlife. The team did what the police had never done: look into other suspects.
When they had every available shred of crime-scene evidence tested for DNA, a familiar name popped up.
That evidence put the case in front of the Arkansas Supreme Court, which ordered an evidentiary hearing for a possible retrial. Before that could happen, the state offered the men an Alford plea, which let them sign guilty pleas and leave jail while maintaining their innocence.
Baldwin initially refused, wanting to accept nothing less than total exoneration. A phone call from Pearl Jams Eddie Vedder may have helped change his mind. Its was an all-or-none offer, and Echols was running out of time. After all, Baldwin said at the Aug. 19, 2011, hearing before he walked free, Theyre trying to kill Damien.
West of Memphis, produced by Echols and his wife and directed with vehemence by Amy Berg (Deliver Us From Evil), details the evidence and revelations that led to freedom, but it also takes time to tell the tale of two very different families. Davis and Echols spent the first several years of marriage on speakerphone, and the movie is undoubtedly their story.
But its also the story of Stevie Branch. Its was Stevies stepfather, Terry Hobbs, whose DNA was consistent with hair found inside one of the shoelaces used as ligatures to hogtie Michael Moore.
Hobbs wasnt questioned by police until 2007 but has actually been deposed under oath about the murders because he sued Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks, a West Memphis Three supporter, for defamation. He lost after Team Echols handed their file on Hobbs over to Maines lawyers.
Its just one instance in which West of Memphis verges on meta-documentary, a Russian nesting doll of successful, unapologetic advocacy with tangible results. Its also a reminder of how Echols, while sitting on death row for a crime he didnt commit, was a lucky man.
This case is nothing out of the ordinary, said Echols, who wears tinted glasses to protect his damaged eyes after not seeing the sun for years. This happens all the time.
Or, as musician Henry Rollins puts it, It coulda been me.
The police, original prosecuting team and trial judge are unmoved. As far as theyre concerned, the case is closed. But after admitting on camera that he accepted the Alford deal to avoid hassle and lawsuits, prosecutor Scott Ellington has been forced to reopen the investigation.
To reach Sara Smith, call 816-234-4375 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.