Anyone familiar with Bruce Sinofsky and Joe Berlinger’s Paradise Lost trilogy is aware of the gross criminal and social injustice when one mentions the “West Memphis Three” – Jason Baldwin, Damien Echols, and Jessie Misskelley were charged and convicted for the murders of three children in the face of dubious evidence. Amy Berg’s West of Memphis may initially seem like a retread of documented material, but the film’s success rests in its ability to synthesizing material through hindsight and abridging obsolete details. Sinofsky and Berlinger’s pictures (released in 1996, 2000, and 2011) are valuable in their review of time and place but Berg’s project emphasizes fact in the face of scientific advances.
A significant misstep in Sinofsky and Berlinger’s pictures, most notably their second entry into the trilogy, is its contradictory vilification of a victim’s stepfather, John Mark Byers. West of Memphis is critical of this vilification, though this doesn’t stop Berg from launching her own investigation into who could potentially be the true murderer. This leads to the other stepfather of the victims, Terry Hobbs. Previously discussed in Sinofsky and Berlinger’s third Paradise Lost film, the case against Hobbs is remarkably convincing. DNA evidence to testimonials arose as an in-depth deconstruction of Hobbs’ history of violence is uncovered. Still, there’s a similar sense of contradiction to Berg’s attempt to allocate blame on Hobbs, as menacing music swells upon viewing Hobbs in interviews and photos. This conscious decision to point the finger is at odds with much of the picture’s systematic deconstruction of the case and operates to West of Memphis’ detriment.
Still, West of Memphis remains a picture devoted to the inconsistencies and unreliability of the judicial system. As evidence is perpetually presented to establish the West Memphis Three’s innocence, Arkansas state courts shoot down attempts at an appeal. It was only through alegal loophole of sorts that forced the three men to confess their guilt while maintaining innocence.
Having immersed myself in the Paradise Lost films during in my college years and having lengthy discussions with friends and professors on the matter, the West Memphis Three case has left a significant impression on my interpretation of justice. West of Memphis ends with a particularly cold dose of truth – prosecuting attorney Scott Ellington notes that the Alford Plea deal in no way exonerates the West Memphis Three’s guilt, noting that he personally maintains his belief that the three are guilty. In the face of overwhelming evidence that supports the innocence of Baldwin, Echols, and Misskelley, one cannot sway the stubbornness of a judicial system that’s hell-bent on never being wrong.