Saturday, January 26, 2013

West of Memphis

(Left to right) Damien Echols, Jesse Misskelley and Jason Baldwin speak to the media after being released following an 18-year imprisonment in the murder of three boys in 1993 in West Memphis


WEST OF MEMPHIS             B             
USA  New Zealand  (147 mi)  2012  d:  Amy Berg                   Official site

WEST MEMPHIS THREE is a film that has the luxury of twenty year hindsight and a bankroll of celebrities, that was originally brought to the world’s attention on HBO TV by filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky in an astonishing film PARADISE LOST:  THE CHILD MURDERS AT ROBIN HOOD HILLS (1996), a film with a limited budget that outlines the details of a gruesome triple murder in 1993 of three 8-year old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas, including the arrest and subsequent trials of three accused teenagers, best friends Damien Echols (18) and Jason Baldwin (16), along with Jessie Misskelley (17) from the same high school, who were all supposedly involved in a Satanic cult.  Based on the horrific brutality involved, where the boys were sexually mutilated, the region was in an uproar, stirred into a hysteric frenzy vowing blood, demanding the electric chair for whoever did it, eventually convicting all three in an atmosphere resembling a public witch hunt.  Berlinger and Sinofsky went on to make two follow up films, PARADISE LOST 2:  REVELATIONS (2000) and PARADISE LOST 3:  PURGATORY (2011).  It’s impossible to separate this new film from the earlier Trilogy, as they’re all dealing with the same subject matter.  What’s unique about this film is the active involvement of the producers, specifically New Zealand filmmaker Peter Jackson and his partner Fran Walsh, where Jackson actually hires a private detective to uncover background evidence that the police overlooked, also hiring a forensic team in 2007 to examine the existing DNA on the case, while Walsh is an unseen narrator heard throughout the film.  In addition, co-defendant Echols and his wife Lorri Davis are co-producers, so there is nothing to suggest this film is remotely impartial.  While the forensic tests reveal there is no DNA evidence whatsoever connecting any of these three defendants to the crime, a motion filed to have the case reconsidered in 2007 was denied, as the state of Arkansas refused to consider new evidence, including one of the primary witnesses, Vicki Hutcheson, who in 2003 recanted her original testimony that a Satanic ritual was involved, claiming she made it up in exchange for local police dropping suspected credit card theft charges against her.   

It was only then that the case drew public attention, not only LORD OF THE RINGS (2001–3) director Jackson, but high profile actor Johnny Depp, the Dixie Chicks, and Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder, all raising money and drawing public attention.  Questions raised about the original trial reveal the State brought in an expert on the occult to testify the murders were in fact a Satanic ritual, while a knife was brought into evidence as the murder weapon, though the prosecution had prior knowledge that it had been thrown into the river a year before the murders took place.  Perhaps most egregious was the biased testimony of the Medical Examiner, a supposed forensic specialist that in the state of Arkansas works for the office of the prosecution, so no independent inquiries were ever conducted, concluding the knife was responsible for the sexual mutilations and the large quantities of blood on the victims’ bodies.  It was Peter Jackson who hired 7 of the top forensic experts in the nation to examine the evidence, all of whom concluded there was no evidence of a knife at all in the murders, that there was instead inflicted head trauma where the cause of death was drowning, suggesting the mutilations occurred after death, most likely animal bites, specifically snapping turtles that were known to be in the vicinity, leaving various bite wounds on the body consistent with animal bites.  A more considered approach to examining the evidence instead reveals none of the 3 defendants were present at the murder scene, there was no Satanic cult, and there was no sexual mutilation inflicted by human hand, which is certainly a different scenario than what was presented at the trial.  Even the parents of the children were beginning to believe the three convicted kids had nothing to do with the killings, but they continued to languish in prison anyway, as Arkansas refused to grant them a new trial. 

In a highly unorthodox documentary approach, Jackson himself unleashes his own investigation, which uncovers two other potential suspects whose DNA was present at the scene of the crime, including Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of one of the boys killed (Stevie Branch) as well as his alibi witness.  While Hobbs informed police of nothing but marital harmony, the private investigator revealed otherwise, uncovering battery charges against both a former spouse and the murdered child’s mother, who years later divorced Hobbs due to the inflicted beatings.  In fact, he has a trail of uncontrolled violence and possible sex abuse, as he likely abused his stepdaughter from a young age, but she’s so acutely damaged by drugs she can hardly remember if it’s real or all in a dream, currently undergoing treatment, but not altogether off drugs yet which she uses to forget the nightmarish things that happened to her.  Hobbs inflicted plenty of brutally harsh punishments, especially to Stevie, inducing welts from a belt, where he often hid in the closet due to his extreme fear of Hobbs.  Nonetheless, even after this uncovered information, the State of Arkansas has never really brought Hobbs in for serious questioning, as in their eyes, they already convicted the killers.  Raising many of the same questions as The Central Park Five (2012), where convicted teenagers spent as many as thirteen years in prison for crimes they never committed, these three spent 18 years behind bars for crimes they never committed before they reached a deal with Arkansas prosecutors in August of 2011, a somewhat archaic and questionable agreement called Alford pleas, where they have to admit guilt while still pleading innocence, but are immediately released from prison, where the State has a guilty plea on the books and is not liable for subsequent lawsuits.  Perhaps the most devastating revelation is hearing the Arkansas prosecutor Scott Ellington gloat afterwards about their all-important guilty plea, which will be hoisted on a law and order banner of honor come election time, where political ads will run showing a prosecutor who gets tough on crime, where wrongful convictions hardly seem to matter to an uneducated electorate in Arkansas that will be sold a bill of goods.  This kind of win at all costs mentality lacks any moral authority and is a hollow charade parading around as justice.  There wasn’t a hint of remorse or contrition for sending three innocent men to prison for 18 years, so the real crime is he’d do it all over again in a heartbeat, and probably has already several times over, where it’s the State that is a repeat offender.

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