Three months ago I wrote a review of the PBS documentary The Central Park Five, which chronicled how five young black men in New York City were wrongfully and shamefully convicted of a violent assault which they did not commit. At the time I felt that it was one of the worst examples of police and prosecutorial misconduct I had ever seen. Sadly, it now has to take a back seat to West of Memphis, a documentary which the late Roger Ebert called "one of the most heinous cases of wrongful conviction in American judicial history."
Distributed By: N/A
Video Resolution and Encode: 1080P/AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1
Audio: English 5.1 DTS-HDMA
Subtitles: English, English SDH, French
Run Time: 2 Hr. 27 Min.
Package Includes: Blu-ray
Disc Type: BD50 (dual layer)
Release Date: 08/06/2013
Every time an innocent person is convicted, the individual who really committed the crime is out there, committing more crimes. - Barry Scheck, The Innocence ProjectThree months ago I wrote a review of the PBS documentary The Central Park Five, which chronicled how five young black men in New York City were wrongfully and shamefully convicted of a violent assault which they did not commit. At the time I felt that it was one of the worst examples of police and prosecutorial misconduct I had ever seen. Sadly, it now has to take a back seat to West of Memphis, a documentary which the late Roger Ebert called "one of the most heinous cases of wrongful conviction in American judicial history."On May 5, 1993, three eight-year-old boys who lived in West Memphis, Arkansas - Stevie Branch, Michael Moore, and Christopher Byers - were reported missing. A search that night turned up nothing, but the following afternoon their bound, naked and partially mutilated bodies were found in a drainage ditch in a section of West Memphis known as Robin Hood Hills. The police soon surmised that the murders had been Satanic in origin, and investigators began to focus upon an 18-year-old young man named Damien Echols, who had been known to dabble in the occult. Echols repeatedly denied any involvement, so the police turned their attention to two of his friends, 17-year-old Jessie Misskelley and 16-year-old Jason Baldwin. Misskelley, who reportedly has an IQ of 72, was questioned by police investigators for twelve hours on June 3, 2003 and eventually confessed to the murders. Only a small portion of the interrogation was recorded, but what remains demonstrates numerous instances of the police feeding him details about the injuries and asking leading questions. In addition, Misskelley frequently gave incorrect and/or contradictory answers. Nevertheless, the police were convinced that the confession gave them sufficient evidence to arrest Misskelley, Echols and Baldwin.Misskelley recanted his confession, which was given without the assistance of legal counsel and without the presence of his parents. Echols and Baldwin continued to assert their innocence, so Arkansas law required that Misskelley be tried separately because his confession could not be used against the other defendants. All three eventually were convicted. Echols was given the death penalty and the others were sentenced to life in prison.In 1996 HBO aired a documentary about the case, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, which was directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky. That film covers the murders and the trials while pointing out the inconsistencies and unproven assumptions made by the prosecution. The film also points out that the community is strongly evangelical Christian and that the people of West Memphis were all too willing to accept the dubious assertion that the murders were part of a Satanic ritual. Two sequels were made as more exculpatory evidence began to surface.The new publicity given to the case inspired some celebrities to take up the cause of the defendants, among them filmmaker Peter Jackson, singer Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, and singer Natalie Maines of The Dixie Chicks. Those people and others helped to finance the years of investigation and appeals which were to follow. Expert criminologists discounted the once-prevalent belief in ritual Satanic murders. Several witnesses recanted their testimony, citing intimidation by the police and improper promises made by the prosecution. There is evidence that a knife which supposedly was used to mutilate the victims was planted by the prosecution and that in fact no knife was involved in the attacks. It was learned that during the deliberations of the Echols-Baldwin trial the jury foreman brought up the Misskelley confession, even though the prosecution had not been allowed to mention it. Most significant were advances in DNA technology, and modern testing proved that no DNA from any of the defendants was found at the scene.One might think that such revelations would cry out for new trials, but the authorities in Arkansas dug in their heels and fought the appeals at every turn. It seems like every story of wrongful conviction includes prosecutors and police who will never admit that they make a mistake, and West of Memphis is no exception. In a remarkable comment, Arkansas prosecutor Scott Ellington asserts confidence that the defendants are guilty and would be convicted in a new trial were held, but in his next breath he admits that he hasn't even reviewed the evidence in the case.Virtually everyone involved in the case plays a part in West of Memphis, either in new interviews or archival footage. Among the defendants, the focus is primarily upon Damien Echols, who is remarkably intelligent and erudite. He also has the most to lose, as he is facing a death sentence. The families of the victims also get a great deal to attention, in particular the mother and stepfather of Stevie Branch. Under the solid direction of Amy Berg the film unfolds like a well-plotted mystery, and by the end you almost certainly will have a strong belief about who actually killed the boys, even if it cannot be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.West of Memphis is a haunting, disturbing, and eye-opening documentary which will not soon be forgotten by anyone who views it.
The Production Rating: 4.5/5
Video Rating: 4/5 3D Rating: NAThe 1.78:1 1080p image utilizes the AVC codec and is excellent in every respect. Because the film contains a considerable amount of archival imagery the quality naturally is variable, but all of it looks as good as current technology allows. The producers of the film wisely decided to present the old television footage in 4:3 rather than stretching the images to fit the screen. The recently-filmed scenes are sharp and highly detailed, and there are some very nice shots of the east Arkansas countryside.
The English 5.1 DTS-HD MA audio is entirely satisfactory. The spoken word is clear and understandable, except for short periods when recorded conversations are being played, at which times English subtitles helpfully appear automatically. Evocative music by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis is given a pleasingly wide soundstage. The soundtrack also includes performances of "The Times They Are A-Changin" and "Satellite" by Eddie Vedder and "Anything Made of Paper" by Bill Carter (the latter song is featured in a deleted scene).
Audio Rating: 4/5
Special Features Rating: 4.5/5The extras on this Blu-ray disc are outstanding.West of Memphis includes a commentary track by director Amy Berg, Damien Echols and Lorri Davis. Lorri Davis is a woman who became interested in the case and started writing letters to Echols while he was in prison, and they were married in prison in 1999. She was as instrumental as anyone in keeping interest in the case alive.Seven deleted scenes clearly were cut for reason of time, as the film runs for 147 minutes as released. However, they work very well as supplements.
- [*]"Vicki & Aaron" focuses on Vicki Hutcheson and her young son Aaron. Aaron was questioned relentlessly by the police, and like Misskelley he gave confusing and contradictory responses while being prompted by his interrogators.[/list]
- [*]"The Confession" is a look at a legal seminar on the subject of false confessions in general and the confession of Jessie Misskelley in particular. One of the astonishing aspects of the case is that Jessie had a solid alibi for the night of the murders, but the jury disregarded it.[/list]
- [*]"West Memphis Three Panel Discussion" is a discussion of the case among four lawyers, a writer and a West Memphis businesswoman.[/list]
- [*]"Jeffrey Deskovic" features attorney Barry Scheck discussing how wrongful convictions occur and focuses on the case of Jeffrey Deskovic, who was arrested for murder and rape when he was 16 years old. He was coerced into making a confession after being promised that he would be allowed to go home if he just admitted that he did the crime. Deskovic eventually was exonerated when DNA testing proved that the rape was committed by a man who killed another woman while Deskovic was in prison.[/list]
- [*]"Anything Made of Paper" contains a performance of the song by singer-songwriter Bill Carter, a Damien Echols supporter. He wanted to send something to Damien in prison, and he was told that Damien could receive anything which is made of paper - hence, the inspiration for the song.[/list]
- [*]"Pam Revisits Crime Scene: shows Pam Dobbs, the mother of victim Stevie Branch, returning to West Memphis and visiting the crime scene in Robin Hood Hills.[/list]
- [*]"Jury Misconduct" is a segment in which Barry Scheck discusses the fact that the jury foreman in the Echols-Baldwin trial improperly brought up the subject of the Misskelley confession during deliberations.[/list]There are two featurettes which show a Q&A session and a press conference at the Toronto International Film Festival."Damien's Past" is a retrospective look at Damien Echols' life through re-created scenes.Sony also has included the original theatrical trailer, as well as previews of The Company You Keep, At Any Price, Searching for Sugar Man, The Gatekeepers, Amour, and the Emmy Award-nominated series House of Cards.
Overall Rating: 4.5/5It is hard to imagine that anyone could watch West of Memphis without having your faith in our criminal justice system shaken. The film does not offer up any remedies, but it does suggest that one problem is jurisdictions where the position of District Attorney is subject to popular vote. Whatever your feelings about that, there seems to be no question but that there are many innocent people behind bars in the United States, and more needs to be done about it.
Reviewed By: Richard Gallagher
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