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April 11, 2013 - 10:16am

'West of Memphis' a complex account of tragedy


Sony Classics

There’s a lot more than paperwork and profiling that goes into the investigation of murder. Documentation merely provides a record of the facts — of statistics and testimonies — and offers a straightforward, non-biased overview of tragedy. The case file documents are drawn up, checked over, distributed and stowed away with a million others. People can read summaries of summaries in the paper, they can watch the local news coverage and they can even research the murder themselves. But no number of papers, portfolios or posters can sufficiently capture the ugly venom of death. As “West of Memphis” shows, nothing can tell the story of horror or struggle like the faces of the people involved.

On May 6, 1993, in West Memphis, Arkansas, the bodies of Stevie Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore were found naked and hogtied after the three young boys were brutally murdered overnight. The scene was so grisly, in fact, that speculation began about the involvement of Satanic cults. Investigators pursued Damien Echols and his two close friends Jason Baldwin and Jessie Lloyd Misskelley Jr. as the prime suspects. Dark, disturbed and distant, the trio was sentenced: Echols received death while Baldwin and Misskelley Jr. received life imprisonment.

As the investigation continued, and despite the accumulation of condemning evidence, many people — including celebrities like Johnny Depp, Eddie Vedder and Peter Jackson — started coming to the defense of the convicted boys. Concerts and rallies were held to promote and propagate the innocence of the boys. With an alarming quickness, the state’s case buckled beneath them, eventually losing leverage to the outcry of the public. Witnesses, forensic evidence and public opinion took a dramatic shift toward the favor the convicted three. In 2011, under the condition that they admit to having substantial evidence posed against them, the three boys were released.

Other suspects were half-heartedly pursued, including Steve Branch’s stepfather Terry Hobbs, but the state demonstrated a lack of interest in any development. Despite new evidence and leads being brought forward, nothing more was done to deliver justice for the murders.

“West of Memphis” approaches this travesty of justice with honesty and a special focus on the state officials. Many scenes are occupied with detailed proceedings of the trial, including a few brief on-camera statements made by the prosecution and defense teams. Lorri Davis, who read about the case and eventually married Echols, enjoys a prominent feature. Harrowing images of the murder scene are shown early on to effect a bitterness in the viewer, which is ultimately solidified through the trial’s dissolution.

Though the film makes no definitive conclusion about the trial or the direction of the case, it succeeds in illuminating the complex collapse of justice in the Arkansas system. As difficult as it is to swallow, the three victims will go unredeemed until a change is made to the system of justice, which, it seems, will not happen anytime soon. However, the truest evidence of the case remains: the deceit written across the faces of the accused, and the embittered, incessant pain colored on the faces of the victims’ family.