West of Memphis tells the story of one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in modern US history. In 1993, the bodies of three young boys were found bound, mutilated and drowned in a drainage canal in West Memphis. A month later, three local teenagers were linked to the crime after one of them confessed. The prosecution, jumping on the fact that the suspects were ‘weird’ heavy metal fans who often wore black, claimed it was a satanic cult murder – a theory which was seized upon by the media and local residents.
- You can read an interview on www.thejusticegap.com with the film’s director Amy Berg HERE
Following a witch-hunt-like trial based on little more than a dubious confession and fabricated witness evidence, all three teenagers were convicted of the murders in 1994. Damien Echols was sentenced to death, and the others – Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley – were sentenced to life in prison.
Fast forward two years to 1996 and former landscape architect Lorri Davis became incensed when she heard about the case and began to correspond with Echols in prison. Davis subsequently gave up her job in order to lead the campaign to free the West Memphis Three. After managing to secure the financial assistance of Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson and his partner, Fran Walsh, Davis’ campaign brought to light compelling evidence to undermine the trio’s convictions.
In the film, we hear an audio recording of the interrogation of Misskelley, who is – we are told – ‘borderline mentally retarded’. It is clear that most of the details in the confession were suggested to the youth by the police and, after hours of interrogation, he was going along with everything they said.
Jackson’s deep pockets also enabled him to hire the country’s most respected criminal investigators and forensic experts to shed more light on the case. Independently, the experts reached almost identical conclusions, asserting, for example, that the ‘sexual mutilation’ on the children’s bodies was, in fact, evidence of animal activity on the bodies post-mortem – dispensing with the theory that the murders were linked to ‘satanism’.
After a prolonged legal battle, supported not only by Jackson and Walsh, but also Johnny Depp, Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder and American country band the Dixie Chicks, the West Memphis Three were released from prison in 2011.
But the tragedy of the case lies not just in the fact that three innocent men spent 18 years in prison for a crime they didn’t commit. Despite the lengthy and detailed campaign to free them, and ample evidence to prove their innocence, the three men were far from exonerated when they left prison. Instead, the state of Arkansas offered the prisoners an opportunity to enter ‘Alford pleas’, allowing them to assert their innocence while acknowledging that prosecutors had enough evidence to convict them.
Whilst Jason Baldwin did not want to give up without having his name cleared, pressure from the campaign group meant that the three accepted the plea bargain – shielding the Arkansas state from the possibility of subsequent civil claims for compensation.
So although the West Memphis Three are now deservedly free, the film’s real message is dark, and the outcome bittersweet. West of Memphis is a damning indictment of not just a legal system but a society that is quick to make judgements based on cultural prejudices and social inequality. As Echols himself described it in the film, the Arkansas state scapegoated ‘three kids who were bottom-of-the-barrel poor white trash’, and if it weren’t for the financial support of Peter Jackson, and the other celebrities who backed the case, the West Memphis Three would likely still be languishing in prison today.
Author: Mary-Rachel McCabe
Mary-Rachel McCabe is a pupil barrister at Doughty Street Chambers. She tweets @MaryRachel_McC