In May 1993, three eight-year old boys were found dead in a creek in West Memphis, Arkansas. They had been savagely murdered – beaten, stabbed, and their legs and wrists had been bound with rope. It was a sickening crime, and the community demanded that the authorities bring those responsible for the deaths of Stevie Branch, Michael Moore, and Christopher Byers to justice swiftly.
And the authorities stepped up. Jessie Miskelly, Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin were arrested and convicted of the murders. The trio (now known worldwide as the West Memphis 3) were local teenagers – poorly-educated misfits who'd had run-ins with the law before. Judgement on them was quick and harsh: they had killed the three boys during a satanic ritual. Miskelly and Baldwin received life sentences and Echols was to be put to death by lethal injection.
In August of 1996, Lorri Davis met Damien Echols in prison and began a relationship with him. She soon became convinced of Echols' innocence. And she wasn't the only one: filmmakers Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh (makers of the Lord of the Rings films), and people like Henry Rollins and Eddie Vedder all took up the cause of the West Memphis 3.
An independent investigation, instigated by Davis, soon began to unravel the strands of the state's case. The West Memphis 3 had no motive, they had been coerced during interrogations, and there was no substantial evidence linking them to the crime. Expert after expert all agreed: they were innocent.
West of Memphis follows on from the Paradise Lost trilogy, an earlier documentary series about the case. But this film, directed and produced by Amy Berg, gives the most comprehensive version of events. It begins with the disappearance of the boys, moves to the arrests and trials, and then focuses on the campaign for the release of the West Memphis 3. It patches together crime-scene footage, local news reports and original interviews.
It also goes beyond just exonerating the West Memphis 3 – it contends that there is a much more likely suspect in the case. The DNA of Terry Hobbs (ex-wife of Pam Hicks and stepfather of Stevie Branch) was found at the murder scene. His lack of a credible alibi and violent past behaviour adds to the theory.
The film builds to its crescendo with the West Memphis 3 offered a chance at being released from prison – if they offer an Alford plea, a ridiculous American legal manoeuvre where you are found guilty but maintain your innocence. After serving a combined 54-years in prison will they take their chance? Even if it means they will be considered guilty by the state of the Arkansas?
West of Memphis is an extraordinary film. It's about the wrongful conviction of three young men, and a legal system gone haywire – a system that wanted the case closed regardless of who actually committed the murders. But the film is about much more; it's about those people who see injustice and stand up against it. And fight it.