The sensational new docu-thriller “West of Memphis” is a true-crime story that begins with a notorious murder case and grows into a chilling indictment of the American justice system. It’s the fourth in the landmark documentary series exploring the fate of the West Memphis Three.
In 1993, teenagers Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr. were charged with the savage murder of three 8-year-old boys in West Memphis, Ark. The crime was framed as a Satanic cult ritual in a community where many believe in a literal devil, and rumors about the children’s deaths, fueled by inaccurate police assumptions, inflamed public opinion.
Interrogated without a lawyer, Misskelley confessed. The trials hinged on the confession, which was shown to be inconsistent and coerced. Nevertheless, the jury was quick to convict, giving Misskelley a life sentence and Baldwin 40 years. Echols, a goth fan of horror novels and Metallica, who was viewed as the instigator, went to death row.
Examining the conviction, HBO Documentary Films’ “Paradise Lost” found serious legal and procedural flaws in the prosecution. As the passage of time revealed new suspects, two sequels re-examined the evidence, casting further doubt on the verdict.
Amy Berg’s “West of Memphis” details the remarkable outcome of the prisoners’ long-running appeals. It’s a riveting story of justice perverted, new evidence ignored to protect earlier errors, and small-town monsters living in plain sight. Her camera acts like a therapy couch, prompting people to say things they normally wouldn’t. You needn’t have seen the earlier films to follow the plot, or to be infuriated.
The politically ambitious judge, the prosecution’s self-styled expert in Satanic crimes, the children’s relatives who have at times been suspects themselves, all emerge as vivid characters. Berg assembles her interviews and crime-scene visits with journalistic rigor, turning a mine field of complexity into a lucid and engaging nonfiction mystery story. It has the intellectual heft of fact and the emotional impact of fiction.