When should a documentary film maker campaign for justice, rather than simply documenting it? And where does it leave our verdict as a viewer?
In 1993 three young boys are found in a ditch, bound and mutilated. The local police, desperate for a conviction, make a connection between the marks on the dead children’s bodies and Satanic rituals. Before long suspicion falls on three local teenagers, and in particular, Damien Echols, who with his died black hair, stands out from the rest of the community. At the 1993 trial, evidence of Echols interest with Satanic symbols surfaces, which, along with a confession from Jessie Misskelley, is enough to convict all three, and in Damien’s case, bring a death sentence.
Over the following 15 years, doubt over the convictions grows, and fanned by several celebrities taking up the cause (Eddie Vedder, Jonny Depp among them), eventually force the Arkansas state to re-look at the case.
West of Memphis, produced by Peter Jackson, and directed by Amy Berg, is more than just a skilful re-telling of the story, from the original trial through to the eventual final judgement. Far from just reporting the defence campaign, the film-makers get involved in the campaign, helping organise DNA analysis, and setting-up a strong case against another member of the family for the killings.
The film gradually dismantles the original prosecution case, pointing out the lack of the teenagers DNA evidence at the crime scene, explaining that far from sexual mutilation, the dead children’s injuries were actually post mortem, from snapper turtles, living in the creek. In the final third of the film, having done a convincing job of un-picking the evidence, the film makers pull out a final card. Using new DNA techniques, they test the single strand of hair found in the shoelaces used to tie up one of the victims. It’s found to belong to one of the dead children’s step father’s, Terry Hobbs. The film then focuses on Hobbs, using interviews with his estranged wife and family to accuse him of being a child sex abuser, one with a violent temper, and jealous of the attention his step-son was receiving from his partner.
Eventually, in 2012, the District Attorney strikes a deal, that grants the convicted teenagers freedom, in return for their guilty plea, thereby avoiding a costly re-trial and compensation. It’s an un-satisfactory legal outcome, but one that Misskelley, Echols and Baldwin understandably elect to take-up, and finally secure their freedom after 15 years of incarceration.
This is undoubtedly a very skillful documentary, which after a slow start, grows into a riveting story, with twists in the evidence and the legal process with up to the end. But it’s a one sided affair, and the film-makers direct involvement with the campaign, muddies the waters, and asks the viewer to take their side.
While probable that there was mis-carriage of justice, or at the very least, that the convictions were “unsafe and unsatisfactory”, the film and the case leave significant ambiguity behind. Some of the parents of the dead children still firmly believe that the real killers were indeed the ones that were found guilty back in 1993, and Terry Hobb’s is left with the finger of suspicion hanging over him, never to be proved or dis-proved for the rest of his life.