Amy Berg’s West of Memphis tells the story of the West Memphis Three’s wrongful conviction in the 1993 murder of three children in West Memphis, Arkansas, and their exoneration in 2011, but this isn’t a celebratory portrait. Not only does the film focus on the continued absence of justice in the horrific crime that sent the trio to jail, it also, by taking a disturbing and sometimes conflicted look at the prejudices that led to their imprisonment, asks murkier questions about how people could get something so wrong for so long.
When it comes to the original case against Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley Jr., and Jason Baldwin, West of Memphis presents so much proof of compromised evidence, conflicted testimonies, false confessions, and other grievous errors that one wonders whether anything about the trial could stand up to inspection today. The embarrassing incompetence of those handling the case and the sometimes willful distortion of evidence has already been well documented by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s Paradise Lost trilogy, but West of Memphis provides an excellent primer for anyone unfamiliar with this story.
The film’s predominant focus on Echols neatly frames the argument that the West Memphis Three case was consistently set back by people who let appearances guide and cloud their judgments. Today, Echols is a Buddhist, meditating regularly and often citing Freud and The Master and Margarita in interviews and letters. His image is a far cry from the one put forth by the prosecution in the original trial of three raving Satanists, led by Echols, using children for horrific rituals. That false characterization, which received heavy media coverage, made the West Memphis Three easy targets for conviction. The movie also criticizes the second Paradise Lost documentary, made in 2000, for similarly accusing the rough and rowdy-looking father of one of the dead children of being the real murderer—yet another example, the film argues, of focusing only on those who seem like “the sort of person” who could commit such crimes.
West of Memphis puts forward its own theory of who killed the three children: Terry Hobbs, stepfather of one of the boys, Stevie Branch. A long stretch of the film both lays out the case against Hobbs and reflects on the lingering effects of the murders, which caused the Hobbs family to become irreparably divided and, in some cases, beset by drug abuse. When they come, the facts against Hobbs, supported largely by DNA evidence and testimonies from close friends and family, are drawn out neatly and convincingly, though the many family pictures we’re shown, in which Hobbs looks cold and menacing, are problematic considering the film’s strong warning against reductive vilification.
Ultimately, it’s not up to the public or the filmmakers to decide Hobbs’s guilt, even if the doc makes a good argument for reopening the case and investigating the man more closely. Before anything else, trying Hobbs would require that the court fully absolve the West Memphis Three. They were freed in 2011 based on a legal loophole that required them to affirm their innocence, but plead guilty out of their own best interest. At that hearing, the judge commended those who had worked with the defendants for years to see “that justice is served to the best that we can do.” That the case remains unresolved and no official investigation exists to change that makes the words ring hollow, and West of Memphis has a resounding response to this: that the best we can do in the present cannot be the best that we will ever do.