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Review: 'West of Memphis' makes strong case

The documentary gathers evidence that a 1993 triple murder probe got it wrong.

December 24, 2012|By Michael Phillips, Tribune Newspapers Critic
  • Lorri Davis and Damien Echols of the documentary film, "West of Memphis."
Lorri Davis and Damien Echols of the documentary film, "West of Memphis." (Sony Pictures )

For astonishing injustice put to rest at long last, the holiday moviegoer has at least two options. One: "Les Misérables." And two: "West of Memphis," a strong, blood-boiling documentary from director Amy Berg, who made the similarly fine "Deliver Us From Evil," about a defrocked Catholic priest's appalling crimes and those of his protectors.

In 1993 in West Memphis, Ark., the bodies of three preteen boys were found naked and hogtied in a drainage ditch. One of the boy's genitals had been mutilated. The sinister overtones of the scene suggested a satanic ritual.

Three young men from the area — who became known as the West Memphis Three — were convicted of the murders.

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Jessie Misskelley, Jason Baldwin and Damien Echols were voted "most likely to have done it," as ex-probation officer Jerry Driver says on camera. But does that sound like ironclad evidence? Eventually the wheels of justice began spinning in a new direction.

In 2005, many years into the three convicted killers' sentences, "Lord of the Rings" director Peter Jackson and his partner, Fran Walsh, saw the first of three HBO documentaries ("Paradise Lost," part one, first shown in 1996) arguing that the real killer was still at large. Jackson and Walsh joined a roster of celebrities — Johnny Depp, Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder and Natalie Maines-Pasdar of the Dixie Chicks among them — crusading to free the West Memphis Three.

Dubious evidence; suspicious confessions; conveniently located "poor white trash" (Echols' words) to take the rap: The case stank from the beginning, Berg's film argues. DNA evidence years later pointed to a vastly different scenario, implicating one of the stepfathers.

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Echols and his wife, Lorri Davis, produced "West of Memphis" with Jackson, also an interview subject in the film. While Berg offers a compelling perspective, one wonders if her film appears weaker because of her chosen collaborators.

On the other hand: DNA evidence is tough to dismiss. Coming on the heels of "The Central Park Five," "West of Memphis" caps a provocative few weeks at the movies for stories of the wrong men in the wrong place at the worst possible time.

mjphillips@tribune.com

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