Arkansas. May of 1993. Outside a trailer park, near a truck stop. In a wooded creek-bed between two interstates. In poverty-stricken West Memphis, the remains of three eight-year-old boys (Steve Branch, Michael Moore and Christopher Byers) were found by police. They had been missing for about a month. Their bodies had been beaten, mutilated and hog-tied with shoelaces. Despite a lack of physical evidence, the trials of teenagers Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr. resulted in three convictions: a death sentence for Echols and life in prison for Baldwin and Misskelley.
Bizarre allegations of Satanism stemming from the teens' propensity for long hair and black clothing, their interest in the occult, horror novels and heavy metal music (all apparently uncommon and suspicious tastes in the early 90s in this small county in Arkansas) seemed to be enough to condemn the three teenagers. These men, now in their late 30s, are known collectively as The West Memphis Three (WM3).
Maybe I'm a little late to reach my conclusions, but after viewing each of the four documentaries about the WM3 in sequence recently--Paradise Lost: The Child Murders At Robin Hood Hills (1996); Paradise Lost 2: Revelations (2000); Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (2011); and West of Memphis (2012), it’s difficult to argue against the innocence of these three men who spent 18 years in prison for terrible crimes I am convinced they did not commit. But then again, how much can one really know about a complex criminal investigation by merely watching four documentaries? Regardless of what you know about the case or what you think you might know about the WM3, I would recommend all four films highly. The story is absolutely riveting and difficult to shake, as you can see here.
After hearing about the story and the arrests of the three local teenagers accused of the crimes, filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky traveled to West Memphis in 1993 to make a documentary for HBO films, setting out to learn more about the alleged teenage murderers, assuming that the local papers and police were right—that the killers had been collared. Berlinger and Sinofsky wondered what could drive three young men to commit such terrible crimes and decided to make a film about it.
What they discovered soon convinced them that the accused young men were innocent and that they had a very different story on their hands. They ended up befriending the WM3 and felt a responsibility to stick with the case until all three young men were exonerated. Berlinger and Sinofsky made three films about the case in the following two decades. A fourth film about the WM3 (this one by Amy Berg and produced by Peter Jackson and Damien Echols) was released recently on DVD, so I decided it would be a good time to review all four documentaries in sequence.
In a 1998 college course on documentary film, I saw the first movie, and I felt some kinship with the young men who were about my age. I was 22 during that class, but the WM3 were teens in the first film. When I was a teenager, I also had a stupid haircut that hung down in my eyes, listened to Metallica and Slayer, wore black T-shirts and combat boots and was mad at the world. I too read Stephen King novels and acted like a smart ass. I cut that hair 20 years ago, and I'm not quite as angry as I used to be, but I guess I haven't really changed all that much. I know what it feels like to be a teenage outsider in a small town that doesn't seem to have much for you, but it's a lot easier to feel different as an adult than it is when you're 16, 17 or even 18 or 19, when the stakes of everything in life seem so much higher. For the WM3, they actually were. Spoilers ahead.
Aside from the testimony of two drug-addicted criminals who claimed they had either heard Baldwin admit to the murders or seen Echols conduct a Satanic ritual with animal sacrifices; (both witnesses have since recanted, publicly admitting that they had lied while abusing drugs and under police coercion, hoping to receive a lighter sentence for their crimes), the prosecution’s case rested primarily on the last few minutes of what appeared to be a coerced confession from a 12-hour police interrogation of Mr. Misskelley, who had logged an IQ score of 72.
This testimony was enough to convict Misskelley at his trial, but he refused to testify against Baldwin and Echols during theirs. According to assertions made by individuals involved in the trials and interviewed in the most recent of the four films, Misskelley's testimony was illegally (and clandestinely) introduced to jurors in the Baldwin/Echols trial that followed Misskelley's, resulting in their convictions.
This, however, is but one of a staggering avalanche of unconscionable errors and missteps attributable to the Arkansas police department and officers of state government, including the prosecution's "expert" on Satanism whose mail-order PhD did not require him to take a single class; an assistant forensic pathologist who (in a bewildering conflict of interest) worked directly for the police department and thus was incentivized to convict but whose observations regarding the victims' wounds were deemed absolutely inaccurate and misleading by a team of experts including even the assistant pathologist's mentor, whose book he had held aloft at trial; a judge who was in charge of evaluating the request for appeals on his own rulings; a 12-hour police interrogation of which only the last few minutes were recorded, and much more. Far too many officials given the public's trust appear in the films as inept and much too eager to convict, congratulate and forget.
Obviously what happened to the three eight-year-olds was horrifying and awful. When I saw the first movie in 1998, I felt for the families, and despite my empathy for the kids accused of killing kids without any real evidence presented to support their convictions, I remember being skeptical. I was a critical thinker anyway, but when viewing this film I was hyper-aware of bias, as I was being taught to look carefully at the agenda of every film in the class and analyze it immediately in writing. Despite the uproar over the WM3's innocence and my gut feeling that they were not the real killers, I wasn't entirely convinced. Damien looked a little too pleased with himself on camera, and Jason had no answer whatsoever when asked what he might say to the parents of the dead children. It seemed obvious that if innocent he would say that he was sorry that their kids were murdered but that he had nothing to do with their deaths. Jessie may have had an IQ of 72, but he had actually confessed on tape. These things troubled me.
I caught the second film when it came out in 2000 and remembered feeling fairly convinced that the completely over-the-top, larger than life Mark Byers, adoptive step-father of Christopher Byers, could have been the murderer, as the movie insinuated, but maybe I was just being manipulated by a grieving parent a little too eager to mug for the camera, or a film a little too eager to catch a killer (made by filmmakers who had befriended the defendants).
The controversy over the possible bite marks on the bodies appeared to again back the innocence of the WM3. I felt stronger at this point that the WM3 were innocent, but I remained cautious, aware that all I really had to go on for formulating my opinion were two documentaries made by advocates. What had they left out? How could I be sure that they weren't biased? I couldn't. Film is a manipulative medium by nature, whether it is presented as fiction or not. I wanted to know more, but life got in the way. I lost track of the case after Berlinger and Sinofsky's second film, but I renewed my interest after learning of the troubling, bittersweet legal resolution in 2011 that followed new DNA testing, and I knew that a newer film, West of Memphis, was coming to DVD. I had to watch all four films. I waited impatiently for the last of the four documentaries to become available on disc, which finally happened last month.
Pam Hicks, mother of one of the murder victims, Steve Branch, has publicly stated that she thinks the WM3 are innocent. She has sued the city and police department for access to evidence that she has never been allowed to see. Mark Byers agrees and has apologized to the WM3 for his past belief in their guilt. He called Arkansas' legal maneuvering, which seems designed to save the state the embarrassment of a new trial and overturned convictions, "bullshit." In an excellent interview, Berlinger and Sinofsky would not postulate on who the real killers might be, despite insinuations in their third film (Purgatory) that another of the boys step-fathers, Hicks' ex-husband Terry Hobbs, could be involved, suspicions that are reiterated with gusto in Berg's film West of Memphis.
Though there are plenty of compelling arguments for looking at Hobbs further, many of which are cited in West of Memphis, he has never been officially considered a suspect or investigated by the police, and it is important to remember that circumstantial evidence is what convicted the WM3 in the first place. Some observers have cried foul about the last two films' portrayal of Hobbs, citing the newer film's "dangerous hypocrisy."
Depending on what you read, some sources claim that a hair in the shoestrings used to bind the murdered boys matched Hobbs' DNA; other sources claim that the hair matched a significant percentage of the entire population. West of Memphis asserts a perfect DNA match between DNA found at the crime scene and Hobbs' DNA, which was obtained by a private investigator, without Hobbs' consent, but what does that prove, exactly? Not a lot.
I am neither homicide detective nor investigative journalist, but it is damn hard to watch these four films without concluding that these young men are innocent. However, even though there is not and has never been any physical evidence linking the WM3 to the crime scene...even though none of the DNA test results from 2011 matched any of the WM3...even though the State of Arkansas has admitted that it could not convict the WM3 if it granted a retrial and considered all of the evidence...even though Steve Branch's mother and Christopher Byers' stepfather both believe they are innocent...even though there are several officially unexplored leads pointing to other suspects...some people still think the WM3 are guilty, including Michael Moore's parents and Steve Branch's biological father.
Some websites still proclaim their guilt, while others revel in their freedom and have seemingly changed focus from "Free the WM3" to "Exonerate the WM3," though this site, the original website built by supporters of the WM3, has remained curiously inactive following their release in 2011. It's great to know that three innocent men are finally free, despite the stain of a guilty conviction that still stands. The sad part is that there doesn't seem to be any ongoing investigation or effort to find the real killer(s), despite a new lawsuit and new suspects.
There is always more to read and learn. I have not read Arkansas journalist Mara Leveritt's bestselling book about the WM3 saga, Devil's Knot (2002), which has been adapted into a new feature film, currently in the festival circuit, starring Colin Firth and Reese Witherspoon. I'm not sure how I feel about this. Yes, it's an incredibly powerful story, but do we really need a feature film for entertainment? I doubt it will be shedding any light on the case.
In another sad twist to their ongoing saga, Baldwin and Echols are no longer speaking to each other as a result of Baldwin's participation in this new film. I found Baldwin's letter about the conflict with Echols to be particularly moving. Leveritt's upcoming Devil's Knot sequel, Justice Knot, will apparently delve deeper into the Alford Plea that set the WM3 free but saddled them with a conviction which remains on their permanent records.
Echols' book Life After Death (2012), also a bestseller, combines parts of his previously self-published memoir and continuing observations on his life as a free man. He continues to write, tour in support of his book and participate in musical collaborations. He wrote the lyrics to a recent Pearl Jam song. Baldwin is starting law school at 36, intending to help others also wrongly convicted, and Misskelley is learning to be a mechanic like his father.
The WM3 received an outpouring of worldwide support, primarily from viewers of Berlinger and Sinofsky’s films who were sickened by the apparent miscarriage of justice. These contributors included thousands of people but also celebrities like Eddie Vedder, Henry Rollins, Johnny Depp and Natalie Maines, who recorded benefit albums and created touring shows to benefit the WM3's legal defense fund. The WM3 had worldwide publicity from critically acclaimed, award-winning films sympathetic to their cause, and high-profile support from movie and rock stars. They attracted enough money to hire world-class investigators and attorneys and probably spent many millions on their defense.
How many other innocent people rot in prison without access to all of these advantages? How many innocent minorities have documentary films made about their innocence? How many of these innocent convicts are poor, with no hope of attaining proper counsel? There are two tragedies here. There is the tragedy of the unsolved murders of three children--their suffering and the suffering of their families--and there is the tragedy of the lives destroyed by a legal system hell-bent on obtaining convictions and saving face for elected judges and politicians, a system that appears to reward swift convictions over determining the truth or prioritizing justice. As Echols has said more than once, "this happens all the time."
In the most litigious country on the planet, with by far the greatest percentage of its population incarcerated, with a deregulated, skyrocketing number of privatized, for-profit prison systems on bed-filling quota, how many innocent people are put to death every year? How many more are left to rot in a cell for decades? We know we need prison reform. We know innocent people are paying the ultimate price far too often.
At least we have The Innocence Project, which has saved the lives of many of those wrongfully convicted. I hope the State of Arkansas finds the courage to exonerate the WM3, offer them financial restitution for time served and reopen the investigation with a new vigor until those responsible for the three murders are finally brought to justice. The families of the children who died deserve that much, and so do the WM3.