If Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky's scathing Paradise Lost trilogy somehow failed to convince you that West Memphis, Arkansas, was a pus-dripping ass pimple on the American judicial system, you have one more shot at getting your mind right: Amy J. Berg's deeply resonant new documentary, West of Memphis.
In unpacking the legal endgame that finally freed the West Memphis Three in 2011 (with an Alford plea, ensuring no expensive lawsuits; see "Free Three" in our October 11, 2012, issue), Berg retraces Berlinger and Sinofsky's steps, deepening virtually every impression left by the previous films without repeating or borrowing more than necessary. Her documentary also adds something new: a clear — and depressing — picture of how much time, money and intervention are required to address an unjust criminal conviction in this country.
In this case, the time spent was more than a decade and a half. The West Memphis Three — Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr. — were convicted in 1994 of the murders, the previous year, of three 8-year-old boys in the Mississippi River town. HBO broadcast the first Paradise Lost documentary in 1996, after which many more people, some of them famous, began to question the hasty investigation and shaky prosecution that led the WM3 to prison (and Echols to death row).
One of those people was Lorri Davis, a New York landscape architect who began writing to Echols in 1996 and married him in 1999. Davis is central to Berg's film, as she was to the campaign to free the WM3, but the director wisely doesn't overplay the couple's relationship. By the time Echols and Davis married, a first appeal had been denied. Eventually, witnesses recanted testimony, experts had begun to take apart the state's case, and new evidence emerged. No local authorities took action, but support for the WM3 widened and grew louder.
The money and intervention included contributions from New Zealanders Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, makers of another trilogy, the Lord of the Rings movies. Jackson appears on camera throughout West of Memphis, a calmly baffled outsider recounting the evolution of his interest in the case. In 2005, he and Walsh contacted Davis and asked how they could help. Berg doesn't cite numbers, but Jackson and Walsh (along with Davis and Echols) are among this movie's named producers, and there's little doubt that the WM3 case is where some of the Rings fortune went. (West of Memphis makes it hard to be too grumpy about The Hobbit.)
There are other big names on camera here, including Eddie Vedder, Johnny Depp and Dixie Chicks member Natalie Maines. But for all the awareness and funds generated by those and other celebrities, it's the lawsuit filed against Maines by Terry Hobbs — stepfather of victim Steve Branch and the last person known to have seen the three murdered children alive — that leads to some of Berg's tensest moments. Without it, we might not know as much as we do about Hobbs, a spooky figure who appears at ease with his own violent history.
Among the people who never asked Hobbs the right questions are Scott Ellington, the original prosecutor, who says he still believes that Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley are guilty. Original trial judge David Burnett, now a state senator, also lets Berg know that he's uninterested in altering his opinion. Setting aside the host of evidence, old and new, supporting the WM3, it's this institutional stubbornness that makes West of Memphis so upsetting. Ellington and Burnett know, as intimately as anyone can, the limits of a system that disfavors people as poor and undereducated as the WM3. They know that there have been more than 130 exonerations of death-row prisoners in the nearly four decades since the Supreme Court re-established capital punishment. And we know that they want to keep their elected offices. Guess which knowledge matters more, most of the time? Four documentaries on the same case might sound like a lot, but arguably it's not enough.
Berg, a former CNN producer whose hair-raising first feature, Deliver Us From Evil, looked at the Archdiocese of Los Angeles' abuse scandal, takes her time here. Over West of Memphis' nearly two and a half hours, she and her editor and co-writer, Billy McMillin, trust the audience to keep a complex set of dates and people straight. Their accumulation of detail and on-camera interviews builds suspense, revulsion and anger. There could have been no easy way to present all of this case's shifting characters and all of the data involved, but Berg's brief comes close. And it comes with a tough reward: It feels good to see these men walk free, but they're not out because the system worked. It's still failing.