[WEST OF MEMPHIS opens in Cleveland Friday March 8th exclusively at the Cedar Lee Theatre.]
Review by Pamela Zoslov
Review by Pamela Zoslov
After a shoddy investigation, suspicion centered on Damien Echols, a troubled 18-year-old with arrests for shoplifting and vandalism and an interest in the occult. Despite the lack of physical evidence linking him to the killings, Echols' reputation among law enforcement was enough to earn him suspicion as the "mastermind" of the murders, and a prosecution theory based on "expert" testimony about Satanism provided a storyline jurors willingly bought. The horror of child murder and zealous prosecutor's ghastly narrative about how the boys were mutilated guaranteed there would be no acquittal of Echols, Jason Baldwin or Jessie Misskelly, a borderline mentally retarded kid who was interrogated for 12 straight hours and whose solid alibi placing him 40 miles away at the time of the murders was ignored by jurors.
After separate trials marked by false testimony, coerced confessions, police, prosecutorial and juror misconduct and the electoral ambitions of the prosecutor and judge, Echols was sentenced to death, while Baldwin received a 20-year sentence and Misskelly life plus 40 years. Following a prolonged campaign for a reexamination of the evidence and a retrial or exoneration – with the help of celebrity activists including Eddie Vedder, Henry Rollins, Patti Smith, Johnny Depp and film director Peter Jackson -- the men were released in 2011 on an Alford plea, a legal maneuver by which they maintained their innocence but pled guilty in exchange for release from prison. It was far from an ideal resolution – the young men still bear the stigma of murder convictions – but given the decay of evidence and the case's lasting notoriety, it was probably the best outcome the supporters could have hoped for.
The film also recounts the unlikely romance of Damien Echols and Lorri Davis, a pretty, intelligent young woman who started writing to Damien after seeing him in PARADISE LOST. She quit her job, married him and devoted herself to working full-time on his case, laboring tirelessly against long odds to have the evidence reexamined by top forensic pathologists. (Damien and Lorri are producers of the movie.) After the HBO documentaries, a movement arose to free the West Memphis 3, with celebrity benefit concerts and marches. One interview subject calls it "the first crowd-sourced criminal investigation.". Alternative scenarios emerged – the injuries to the boys' bodies may have been caused by postmortem animal predation rather than mutilation with a knife. (The movie vividly demonstrates this scenario with a huge snapping turtle biting a man's arm.) Witnesses recanted their testimony, admitting they lied under duress or to escape prosecution for other crimes. Still, it was not enough to overcome local corruption. A hearing on a motion for a retrial was presided over by the original trial judge, David Burnett. Not surprisingly, he denied the motion.
The film convincingly demonstrates that the state of Arkansas had everything to gain and nothing to lose by throwing away three poor white teenagers. The crimes were the kind that society demands avenged, and assistant prosecutor and the judge were both elected to higher office after the highly publicized convictions. Seeing the three men walk out of prison and begin to adjust to their hard-won freedom is exhilarating. But in the U.S., that freedom-loving land that imprisons far more of its citizens than any other country, there are countless innocents who languish, forgotten, in prison and on death row. Most of them will not have celebrity supporters or benefit concerts held on their behalf. And most of them will barely see daylight again. 3 1/2 out of 4 stars.