Note: this post discusses child abuse and murder in fairly graphic detail
Back in the mists of time (four years ago) when I was starting college I had a vague notion that I wanted to do a post-grad course in forensics. Then I discovered that forensic scientists work long hours under massively stressful conditions in perpetually understaffed labs and don’t get paid very well. But before my dreams were crushed by the cold hand of reality, reading around the topic on my own time introduced me to The Innocence Project and books like The Innocent Man (possibly the only worthwhile thing John Grisham has ever produced) and the terrifying realization of how broken America’s justice system is.
The facts of the West Memphis Three case are fairly simple: in 1993 three eight year old boys in Arkansas went missing and were found dead in a nearby river, obviously murdered. Three teenagers with a reputation for being oddball loners were arrested for the murder. Jessie Misskelley and Charles Baldwin were sentenced to life imprisonment; Damien Echols, the supposed ringleader of the trio, was sentenced to death. Soon afterward people started looking into the case and realized that the prosecution was extremely sketchy; this led to a widespread movement (which I’m going to refer to as WM3 after the blog wm3.org) to overturn the conviction and exonerate the three men. The story came to a partial conclusion on 2011 as the trio filed Alford pleas allowing them to leave jail in exchange for officially entering guilty pleas while still asserting their innocence. They weren’t exonerated and the real murderer has yet to be caught.
Director Amy Berg uses a low-key style to tell the story of the case, eschewing any narration and allowing the three convicted men, their family members, family members of the victims, members of the movement to free them (including celebrity talking head Peter Jackson, who also produced the film) and the police to speak in their own words, both in interviews recorded over several years and in footage recorded during the initial investigation and trial. The director’s hand is not easily evident in the film, letting the viewer believe, however correctly, that he or she is seeing the facts of the case through an unstained window. Drama is achieved simply by presenting the story through the testimony of those involved; because we get snapshots of the case as it unfolded the strain on many of those involved is readily evident, particularly as Echol’s appeals were turned down one by one and they started to face the realization that he might actually be executed. To the credit of Berg and the producers (one of whom was Echol’s himself) the families of the murder victims are given almost as much camera time as those involved in the main story of the wrongful conviction and the film doesn’t demonize them for their relief at seeing the three teenagers go to jail in 1994 nor for the confusion and anguish their release caused.
That said I did find the film’s mostly unnecessary musical score somewhat emotionally manipulative in places. It never gets syrupy or particularly over the top but the facts of the case were such that tinkly piano music isn’t necessary to give them emotional weight. There film also lingers on photos of the young boys drowned, nude corpses in a way that strikes me as somewhat voyeuristic. I’ve always been a proponent of restraint in non-fiction, and the more sensational the subject matter the more that should apply. The film’s allocation of screen time for the WM3 team and supporters is also skewed a bit oddly. John Douglas, former head of the FBI’s Investigative Support Unit, was brought in to look over the case and quickly concluded that the prosecution was bullshit. I’ve read Douglas’ book and some articles written by him; he’s a staunch supporter of the death penalty and doesn’t strike me as a bleeding heart likely to support overturning a conviction easily. The fact that he came to side with the three defendants despite this, makes him by far the most interesting talking head in the film but he gets the least screen time. The opinion of the former FBI agent is a lot more relevant than what Peter Jackson thought of the case.
The documentary leaves no doubt that the three men are innocent, comprehensively exposing the laundry list of incompetence, bias and police misconduct that led to the convictions. The Innocence Project website lists common factors that lead to false convictions and it was shocking to see almost every single one of them show up in the prosecution’s case- junk science, jurors who had obviously made up their mind about the guilt of the defendants before the jury began (and at least one of whom still believes them to be guilty even now), highly questionable interview tactics used on suspects who were young and in one case known to have developmental problems and ignoring evidence that should have exonerated the three instantly. At one point we see eight people testify that they were with one of the defendants at a wrestling match when the murders were supposed to have occurred. We even see his signature on a sign-in sheet. None of it made any difference. When the jurors notebooks were checked after the trial none of them had made any note of this.
By far the most ludicrous moment in the trial came when the (not board certified) county medical examiner confidently presented a fantasy scenario involving satanic ritual abuse to the jury, alleging that Damien Echols had tortured the boys before killing them and drank their blood. Years later the WM3 crew got nine expert medical pathologists to testify that the horrific “torture wounds” alleged to have been inflicted by one of the defendant’s knives were caused post-mortem by the large carnivorous turtles that lived in the river the boy’s bodies were found in (this part of the film is a little weird as it includes footage of turtles ripping into a dead pig complete with over the top slicing noises and sinister jump cuts to bits of torn flesh; I started to wonder if we were supposed to suspect the turtles of committing the murders).
The private investigation conducted by the movement to free Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley wasn’t just aimed at punching holes in the state’s case. They also wanted to try and find the real murderer and it’s here that the film gets into muddy waters. The investigation focused on the fathers of the three boys of the three fathers and eventually came to the conclusion that Terry Hobbs, the step-father of one of the boys who had for some reason been completely passed over by the police is likely the real culprit (the irrational fixation of the police on people who seem to look or act the way they expect the culprits to to the point of ignoring the obvious prime suspect is a common feature in false convictions) . It’s not hard to see why- his account of his movements on the day of the murder falls apart under the most basic scrutiny and he acts cagey as fuck during interviews. But the “Terry Hobbs totally did it” part of the film, which makes up a good chunk of the run time, spends a lot of time on circumstantial episodes of shitheadedness, delving into his criminal record and allegations from multiple that he beat his wife, whipped his children with a belt on numerous occasions and harbored an irrational hatred of his son, who he is alleged to have emotionally, physically and sexually abused over the course of several years leading to his murder. That last set of accusations in particular would theoretically give him motive for the crime, the theory being that he accidentally killed his son after getting angry at him for not coming home in time then murdered the other two boys to cover it up. But none of this can actually be proved so far after the fact and even if true, doesn’t mean he’s the murderer (although obviously guilty of child abuse regardless). As the film spent more and more time going through material that’s only tangentially connected to the murders I started to wonder why so much emphasis was being placed on what is essentially a character assassination. I have to conclude that the film makers realized the actual evidence against Hobbs isn’t very compelling on its own.
The investigation’s supposed big slam dunk moment came when a hair found in the middle of the ligature used to bind Hobb’s son’s hands was “matched” (in the words of the film) to Terry Hobbs. But the boy’s hands were tied using their own shoelaces and it’s not particularly unusual to find a father’s hair on his own son’s clothing, something Hobbs himself brings up and which is never addressed.
The film’s shakiest moment comes with an interview with two men who called a hotline set up by the WM3 effort to try and dig up anyone who might have information about the murders. They claim that when they were teenagers a relative of Terry Hobbs told them that Terry had committed the murders and that knowledge of his guilt was a “Hobbs family secret”. No evidence is ever given to support any of this apart from two successful polygraph tests- but polygraph tests are extremely unreliable and easy to fool. This is never brought up.
The entire Terry Hobbs sequence is extremely shaky and probably should have been cut entirely. It’s undeniably a blemish on the film but I don’t think it ruins the entire endeavor. The tragedy and senselessness of the false conviction and the wasted police resources that could and should have been spent finding the real culprit is conveyed with a quiet, understated sense of outrage.
There is no final condemnation of the authorities who allowed the injustice to occur beyond allowing them to hang themselves with their own flimsy rationalizations and excuses. In a sense they hardly matter- West of Memphis demonstrates that the problems with America’s justice system lie not with corrupt and incompetent public officials but with a mindset of small-town parochialism; a rigid moral system that demands retribution for wrong-doing at all costs and which views the pronouncements of a court as determining reality rather than reflecting it, and an absolute trust placed in authorities who view themselves as infallible.