Written and directed by Amy Berg, this documentary about a notorious miscarriage of American justice often beggars belief. Such is the chilling nature of both the crime and its (wrongful) punishment that it has already been exposed in three HBO-produced documentaries, under the title Paradise Lost.
The case goes back to the small town of West Memphis, Arkansas in May 1993, when the bodies of three eight-year-old boys were found, mutilated and hogtied, in a drainage ditch. Soon after three teenagers – Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley – were arrested and convicted, their guilt entwined with hysterical allegations of satanic ritual, not to mention their status as "bottom-of-the-barrel poor white trash".
All three went to prison, with Echols facing the death penalty, though it gradually became apparent that the police investigation had been mismanaged, testimonies were contaminated and key witnesses proven to be liars.
The body of the film is the long and bitter campaign to prove the innocence of the West Memphis Three, which entailed the marshalling of new evidence by an independent investigation. It was backed by the loyal support of celebrities (Eddie Vedder, Henry Rollins) and friends including director Peter Jackson and partner Fran Walsh, who produced the film along with Echols's wife Lorri Davis.
This would be extraordinary material on its own, but West of Memphis goes a step further in unveiling information about Terry Hobbs, a stepfather of one of the murdered boys who trailed a history of domestic violence. His alibi on the night of the killing is revealed to be very dubious, and the substantiated talk of the "Hobbs family secret" gives another twist to the tale.
The advances in DNA notwithstanding, the case looks likely to remain unsolved: somewhere out there the murderer walks free. Director Berg lays out the film with clarity and persuasiveness, and brings it as close to a happy ending as the tragic squalor of the case will allow.