Title: WEST OF MEMPHIS
Sony Pictures Classics
Director: Amy Berg
Screenwriter: Amy Berg, Billy McMillin
Cast: Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, Jessie Misskelley Jr., Lorri Davis, Eddie Vedder, David Burnett, Blake Sisk, Cody Gott
Screened at: Sony, NYC, 10/23/12
Opens: December 25, 2012
Justice delayed is justice denied, an aphorism quite applicable to America’s judicial system considering how many innocent people have been incarcerated and later freed based on new evidence such as DNA testing. Some folks have spent virtually a lifetime in jail, deserving the large, albeit inadequate monetary settlements they have received from the states. The three young men who have lost eighteen years of their lives holed up in a maximum security prison in Arkansas may not have lost as much of their lives as some others. However the stubbornness of figures in authority who had refused to take action when DNA samples have pointed to innocence is appalling. Thankfully there are people who have dedicated considerable time to seeing that fairness remains an American watchword—the founder of the Innocence Project, for example; of lawyers who have worked pro bono; and most of all people all over the world who have chimed in on the need to see three innocent people convicted despite insufficient evidence and testimony by at least one witness that she lied on the stand.
I don’t know how director Amy Berg was able to accumulate a vast array of tapes—pictures, reams of testimony, incisive videos from parties concerned—but “West of Memphis” features a stunning array of documents, written, pictorial and videos, enough to convince everyone in the theater audience for her film that a tragic injustice was done.
“West of Memphis” is not the first doc about this celebrated case. Joe Berlinger’s “Paradise Lost 3,” for example, was nominated for an Oscar but even that film did not exhaust the possibilities of the case. What was missing principally from that but revealed largely in the second segment of “West of Memphis” is that Terry Hobbs, stepfather of the murdered eight-year-old Steve Branch, is probably the guilty party though he has never been put on trial. DNA evidence points to his guilt as well as his lack of an alibi, testimony in this film that he washed his clothes for the first time in his life (presumably to remove the mud from the river in which the victims were dumped), and because one witness saw him with the boys just before the killing. Further, director Berg cites Hobbs record of domestic violence. What’s more, friends of Terry Hobbs’ nephew, notes that they had heard Terry speak of a Hobbs family secret.
The three hapless men found guilty of the crime—Jason Baldwin, Damien Echols and Jessie Misskelly Jr.—were brought to trial resulting from a statement by one of the three, called by principals in the case to be borderline-retarded, that the trio murdered the three eight-year-olds in a Satanic ritual. A knife was found in the water, alleged to the cause of cuts to the bodies, but in the film’s most riveting moment, we get a live demonstration that huge turtles inflicted the wounds and that the victims were alive at the time they were dumped into the river.
Aside from the chief (suspected) villain in the case, Terry Hobbs, other bad guys include David Burnett, the judge who tried the case and who perhaps to maintain a reputation refused to grant new hearings to the trio; and Scott Ellington, a prosecutor, who blindly asserts even now that the three are guilty. As if all this does not boggle the mind, the trio were unable to walk out of jail until they all agreed to plead guilty while insisting they are innocent, an oxymoronic concept known as the Alford plea in which subjects acknowledge that there was enough evidence to find them guilty. Bizarre.
Maryse Alberti and Ronan Killeen supply the bright lensing for the project which is edited cogently by co-scripter Billy McMillin. Let’s hope that the film succeeds not only in alerting us to the corruption of the judicial system, an indictment of the public for jumping to false conclusions, but serves to re-open the case and to put Terry Hobbs on trial for capital murder. The film opens here in NY appropriately enough on Christmas day.
Rated R. 150 minutes © 2012 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – B+
Acting – B+
Technical – A-
Overall – B+