Friday, January 25, 2013

"West of Memphis": putting mob justice to the microscope

I actually spent a Friday night in a motel in West Memphis, AR in December, 1992, on a personal trip, anticipating what the Clinton years could bring, having no idea of what would happen there is a few months.  I did think that “Nothing ever happens in West Memphis Arkansas”.  The motel clerk even said that.
The new documentary “West of Memphis”, by Amy Berg and produced in part by Peter Jackson (LOTR), played at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival and I wonder why it took Sony Pictures Classics a full year to get this important film about apparently wrongful conviction into major release.  This is one of the longest “mainstream” documentaries ever made, running 147 minutes.

The film gives the (so far) definitive account of the “West Memphis Three”, Damien Echols (sentenced to death), Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, Jr., both sentenced to life, for the murder of three eight year old boys near a drainage canal in the Robin Hood Hills area, in May, 2005.  There were initial reports of sexual aspects to the crime. Quickly, the police focused on widespread rumors about the three teenagers who had dabbled in witchcraft.  It appears that the police obtained confessions through relentless interrogations. 

Over the years, various investigations began to uncover inconsistences in the stories, and finally DNA evidence would establish a strong case for their innocence.  The three entered an Alford Plea in 2011,  Jason actually wanted to refuse the plea on principle, feeling dishonored, but finally agreed to accept; had he refused, perhaps none of the three would have been released.  The trial judge still insists that guilty pleas or “confessions” are final and need not be questioned.  The film highlights the political pressure on the police and courts to convict “somebody”. 

There have been three other films on the case: “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills”; “Paradise Lost 2: Revelations”, and “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory”, directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky. 

The factual history is well explained in a Wikipedia article here

The film seems to implicate a middle-aged adult connected to the families of the boys.  While in a movie review, it isn’t really appropriate to try to judge that inference,  I felt very outraged that the three teens had paid for someone else’s crime.  It goes beyond injustice; it is degrading. 

The documentary (rated R) is rather graphic in the way it describes the investigations.  For example, it maintains that the sexual damage could have come from animals in the canal, particularly large turtles.  There is a scene where a middle aged reporter allows his forearm to be bit by the turtle.  Later, one of the other family associates describes be required to surrender “thirty pubic hairs”, removed completely from the root one at a time, for DNA evidence, and most humiliating, almost ritualistic, procedure on its own.

I saw this in front of a moderate crowd at Landmark E Street in downtown Washington on a cold, snowy Friday night.

The Alford plea arrangement would mean that the three freed men cannot sue the state of Arkansas.  It is helpful to the freed  men for members of the public to buy full-priced film tickets (or later purchase DVD’s) rather than wait for inexpensive (if legal) replays .  They do need the income.
The film captures the flat scenery of the Mississippi River plain, and then some of it takes place in Little Rock, with some Ozark scenery and bluffs.  The film uses freight trains as a metaphor (possibly suggesting a Holocaust) and has a surprising amount of winter footage with snow for this southern area, despite the fact that the crime occurred in May.

The film also has a lot of low-def original footing of the trial, the defendants as teens, and other principals of the story in 1993. 
The official site from Sony is here.  The other production companies are Disarming Films and WingNut films.

I felt that this film was even more engaging and compelling than “The Central Park Five” (reviewed here Dec. 15, 2012), in giving the detailed rendition of mob justice.   The Arkansas case started in 1993, the NYC case started in 1989.
Wikipedia attribution link for Little Rock, AR picture    My own visits occurred in 1979 and 1988 (when I lived in Dallas). 

See also TV Reviews blog, Dec. 6, 2012 for account of film presented on ABC's "The View".  

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