Does the justice system fail us? Can wrongs be righted? Who really killed the three little boys found in a creek in West Memphis in 1993?
These are questions posed by Amy Berg in her documentary 'West of Memphis', a film, not for the fainthearted, that speaks of a horrific murder and a horrific miscarriage of justice.
One afternoon in 1993 in Robin Hood Hills, West Memphis, Arkansas, three 8-year old boys set out on their own to play together and never returned home. Their bodies were found the next day in a small creek, tied up and mutilated. Not surprisingly, the town was in an uproar. Police believed the murders to be related to a satanic ritual and soon after arrested three teenagers, Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr. The boys were purported to have satanic leanings and Misskelley gave a damning statement that put them at the scene of the crime. The truth seemed clear and Echols received a death sentence, with Baldwin and Misskelley being given life sentences.
However, as is so often the case with murder trials, the truth is never clear. This was something to which I had grown accustomed after watching Werner Herzog's documentary TV series 'On Death Row' and film 'Into the Abyss'. People lie on the stand, evidence can be misconstrued or incomplete and those deemed guilty might in fact be innocent.
Such as with the 'West Memphis Three', as Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley came to be known. Berg takes us back to the past, starting with the murders, and leads up to the present, through the murder trial, appeals and new investigations. In 2006, after Echols' wife Lorri Davis had exhausted most appeal options, Peter Jackson (yes, of 'Lord of the Rings') and Fran Walsh funded a new enquiry into the case and a DNA appeal.
Photograph: Olivia Fougeirol / Sony Pictures Classics
Berg weaves together the broken fragments of the story with new evidence: expert pathologists shed new light on the cause behind the boys' mutilations, previous witnesses recant their statements and Echols', Baldwin's and Misskelley's DNA is not found at the scene of the crime. Although Berg's bias is evident, she shows us that there is no one definite side to this story, by including interviews with the original judge, prosecutor and a jury member who still believes the West Memphis Three to be guilty. There are still conflicting stories being told, which is unsurprising when we keep in mind the fragility of memory.
It seems ridiculous that three people could have been locked away for almost 20 years for a crime they did not commit, hinting at deeper problems within the American justice system and even within the fabric of our society. The finger is pointed at a few different people as being the culprit behind these crimes, however, a strong case is made for one person in particular. The film's power lies in presenting a cohesive and thorough argument that leaves you with an unsettling feeling, long after you've left the cinema. Mainly because there's still a murderer at large.