Since the mid-1990s, West Memphis, Ark., has been growing world famous as a place of willful ignorance and belligerent injustice. That reputation is mainly because of "Paradise Lost: the Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills."
Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky's documentary and its two sequels remain a riveting account of the conviction of teenagers Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley for the murders of three young boys in the backwater city. Even today, their story seems too far-fetched to be real.
All three were tried and convicted in 1994, a conviction based on what the documentary reveals to be a mixture of hearsay, prejudiced and often irrelevant expert testimony, and appeals to belief in satanic cult practices. The documentary's most damning revelation is that prosecutors predicated their case against all three on a confession by Misskelley, who is mentally challenged. His taped confession comes across as coerced, prompted and frequently contradictory to the facts. His defense proved he was miles away at the time of the murders.
The prosecutors, judge, jury members and many West Memphis residents ignored all of these facts. Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley spent the next 18 years in prison, with Echols on death row.
The more the years passed since the release of "Paradise Lost," the more difficult it's become to believe that Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley remained behind bars. Arkansas even denied them a new trial when DNA testing eventually cleared them of all contact with the victims and crime scene. That supreme, sad sense of injustice pervades the fourth and latest documentary on the subject, Amy Berg's "West of Memphis." That's what keeps it compelling despite its length and lack of big surprises. While "West of Memphis" sometimes seems like a rehash of Berlinger and Sinofsky's films, the characters keep it vital, from the mother of murder victim Stevie Branch, still despondent decades after her loss, to Echols, whose attitude remains unbelievably positive for a person incarcerated half of his life for listening to Metallica and dyeing his hair black.
For those with limited or no awareness of the case, "West of Memphis" is stunning. It begins by bringing viewers up to speed with a recap of the trial, conviction and ensuing appeals of the West Memphis Three, alternating original trial footage similar to that in "Paradise Lost" with more contemporary interviews of the victims' relatives, prosecutors, witnesses and others involved in the case. Most powerful about the new film is its grasp of the story in its totality and ability to arrange it as the previous three, made as events unfolded, could not.
Berg's documentary moves from the original trial to a systematic dismantling of the state's case. The West Memphis Three's notoriety prompted many individuals, including prominent celebrities, to take action. But Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley received perhaps their biggest break when Echols' wife, Lorri Davis, received an email from Fran Walsh, the writing partner of "The Lord of the Rings" director Peter Jackson. Walsh and Jackson's involvement helped bring in a retired FBI investigator and many other experts who systematically debunk and make risible the state's original evidence.
Berg also addresses the second board in the eye of the state: If Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley didn't commit the crime, then the guilty party remains at large. As Berlinger and Sinofsky attempt in their films, Berg turns her attention to other West Memphis residents who might be more likely suspects. The evidence presented, though not necessarily new, is highly persuasive if not convincing.
Equally absorbing and maybe even more disheartening is the justice system's concerted effort to deny even considering the possibility that the three convicted might be innocent, stonewalling any attempt to present new evidence. Officials' actions and statements reveal a grotesque lack of humility and responsibility, as when the original trial judge, David Burnett, calls new evidence "hoop-di-la."
But by far the most spellbinding individuals are Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley, who have remained remarkably determined and rational despite their long ordeal. Baldwin, the film reminds us, refused a tempting plea agreement at age 16 to testify against his friend Echols, balking at a similar offer 18 years later. Echols provides what might be the film's most frightening confession in a country where too often those in authority equate poor with powerless. "People think that this case is extraordinary, spectacular in some sort of way, and it's not," he says, choosing to see the big picture rather than wallow in his individual plight. "This case is nothing out of the ordinary. This happens all the time." (R) 150 min. S