Life after death (row) for the West Memphis Three
It all began with a lone child’s shoe in a muddy ditch, and evolved into what is now seen as the first nationally investigated case.
On May 5th of 1993, three 8-year-olds — Christopher Byers, Steven Branch, and Michael Moore — went for a bike ride, toward an area of West Memphis, AR that was known as the Robin Hood Hills. The next day, their lifeless bodies were found floating in two feet of water.
Since the 1996 release of Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, three names have defined injustice in the so-called child murders at Robin Hood Hills: the three men arrested, tried, and convicted in the case, Jessie Misskelley Jr., Jason Baldwin, and Damien Echols. Known collectively as the West Memphis Three, the then-teenagers, now men were finally freed in August 2011 after accepting an Alford plea, but the real murderer, according to West of Memphis, is still at large despite mounting evidence against him: victim Stevie Branch’s stepfather Terry Hobbs.
The murders occurred in a Bible-belt town, a community just learning via media reports about Satanic crimes like human sacrifices and devil worship. Hence, when the three youths were tied up and sexually mutilated before being thrown in the water, the police and prosecutors soon turned to this trend for an explanation, and settled on black-cloaked Damien and his friends.
The case evidence, a word we could put in quotation marks, consisted primarily of recordings of a day-long “interview” with Misskelley. Misskelley had a well-known mental handicap, yet was not allowed a parent or lawyer during what amounted to an interrogation; said interrogation was also tainted by guidance from the interviewing officer, who framed his questions to give Misskelley facts of the case only the murderer could have known. This interrogation and Misskelley’s statements therein are the only thing connecting the three teenagers to the crime, if we can call the results a connection — police pushed Misskelley to change his stated beliefs on what time he got to the Robin Hood Hills area, as well as what was used to bind the children.
The movie is a point-by-point explanation of both the innocence of the WM3, and the guilt of Hobbs. The story centers on the miscarriage of justice suffered by three men who lost two decades of their lives behind bars, while other players in the legal tragedy moved on with their careers, and even have attempted to ride on the coattails of the case. (The presiding judge ran for State Senate, and prosecutors Scott Ellington and John Fogelman have sought spots on the bench; Ellington has even run for Congress.)
The film covers the evidently compromised testimony from individuals such as a drug-addicted convict and a young woman who was placed in an impromptu undercover scenario to get close to Damien; the items of evidence incorrectly (and knowingly so) presented by the prosecution, including the now-infamous jagged knife, which sat in the same water it was found in for a year before the murders were committed. Even “experts” were mislabeled as such; the Satanic expert, for instance, completed his “studies” via mail order.
We also learn about what the lawyers may have known, or believed, at the time of the trial — Prosecutor John Fogelman stated at least once the tragedy was “not Satanic, just a murder” — as well as the nature of the “savage” injuries to the boy’s bodies. These injuries, which to many sealed the boys’ fate, especially Damien’s, and helped evolve the theory of Satanic involvement, were revealed to be postmortem bites and scratches from the water’s turtle population.
In fact, a new investigation has reported that the crime was in fact a “personal cause homicide” by a person or persons who knew the children, indicating that the investigation should have focused more closely on family members initially. Here, West of Memphis makes the case that the real murderer is Terry Hobbs, using interviews (including with Hobbs himself), DNA evidence, and other objectives.
While the subject matter is compelling, viewers may wonder what sets the film apart from the Paradise Lost series. West of Memphis involves different individuals, like Stevie Branch’s half-sister, and there is some difference as to the suggested guilty party; the assessment of Terry Hobbs as the murderer has much more evidentiary stature, while the previous villains were, as one commentator in the film notes, chosen for the same reasons the victims were chosen: their personalities.
The film is produced by, among others, Damien Echols — a great plus for the narrative. The audience can sense a bit more emotional involvement and connection to the story. The conclusion is also more personal; the movie ends with the three men enjoying their freedom and reflecting on the differences between the world they spent two decades in and the one they live in now.
And it’s easy to follow, thanks to the movie starting literally at the beginning of the story (i.e., the murders and the courtroom debacle that resulted). Anyone walking into the theater without having seen the previous documentaries would still come out understanding the injustice, and react to the need to learn from the many faces of this tragedy, finding real justice and allowing the Three to move on as well.
Watching the film is a bittersweet experience. Misskelley, Echols, and Baldwin are free, but three boys are still dead, decades are still lost to jail, a murderer is still free, and three families are still awaiting justice.
Heather Piedmont, known for her no-nonsense responses to political issues, is now turning her attention to the courts. A former White House Intern and New Policy director, currently Piedmont is an adjunct professor for Liberty University and head columnist at BachmanontheBench.com, as well as legal commentator for NewsBlaze.com.