In June 1993, Damien Echols, 18, Jason Baldwin, 16, and Jessie Misskelley, 17, who would come to be known as the “West Memphis Three,” were wrongfully arrested for the murders of three young boys in the small Arkansas town of West Memphis, just across the Tennessee border.
You may be familiar with HBO’s Paradise Lost three-part series on the case, which helped expose the gross injustices that led to the convictions against these three young men – and a death sentence against Damien – for crimes they did not commit. Now, a new, powerful documentary,West of Memphis, tells the story from the defense team’s perspective as the prosecution’s case against the three teenagers unravels.
West of Memphis highlights many of the problems that plague our criminal justice system not only in Arkansas but across the country: the use of false confessions, junk science, and prosecutorial misconduct to obtain convictions and a death sentence. The list goes on and on.
Law enforcement believed from the start that the boys’ murders were part of a satanic ritual. With little more than a hunch, they turned to Damien, Jason, and Jessie – three teenagers in the community who were extremely poor, “different,” and wore black clothing. The tunnel vision of law enforcement and prosecutors over the years led them to ignore critical signs that the teens were not responsible for the murders: DNA evidence that pointed to another killer, witnesses who saw the boys in their last moments but were never interviewed by police, the teens’ alibi witnesses and records.
The police first obtained a false confession from mentally disabled Jessie Misskelley, after an intense 12-hour interrogation without his parents or an attorney present. Once out of the pressure of law enforcement, Jessie immediately recanted and refused to testify against Damien and Jason. Though some people question why anyone would confess to a crime he did not commit, we have seen over and over again that false confessions are one of the leading causes of wrongful convictions, especially among vulnerable populations like youth and the mentally ill.
In building a case against the teens, the prosecution also relied on the testimony of the state medical examiner – a doctor who had never even passed his board exam – who claimed that the victims had been mutilated by a serrated knife before they were killed. Once other forensic scientists reviewed the evidence after the trial, the doctor’s entire theory was debunked. The scientists concluded that the marks could not have been caused by a knife. They weren’t even caused prior to the boys’ death. Unfortunately, all too often we have seen the use of junk science to secure convictions and the death penalty.
West of Memphis also chronicles the moving relationship between Damien and his now-wife Lorri Davis, who advocated for his cause early on. (Damien and Lorri also co-produced the film.) Their relationship sustained them despite setback after setback, during Damien’s torturous years on death row and in solitary confinement under threat of execution. Not every innocent man on death row has had such a champion, and if it weren’t for Lorri’s unwavering commitment, Damien may well have been executed.
After their 18-year struggle for freedom, in August of last year, the West Memphis 3 were freed after they entered what’s called an Alford plea. In an Alford plea, a defendant is allowed to maintain his innocence but accepts that a deal is in his best interest. As with false confessions, the idea that an innocent man would plead guilty to a crime he did not commit is a hard pill for some to swallow. But given the injustices the men had seen in the Arkansas courts, and the horrible conditions of their incarceration, it was the only way to guarantee their immediate release. After all, Arkansas obtained three convictions – and one death sentence – against three innocent men. It could do it again. To this day, in fact, Arkansas prosecutors doggedly maintain that the three are guilty.
The tragedy in West Memphis did not end when three young boys lost their lives in May 1993. Given law enforcement’s rush to judgment, three young men unnecessarily lost 18 years of theirs, and the real killer still has not been brought to justice. But the film also documents the healing of the community in the wake of these terrible tragedies: some of the same folks who rallied outside the courthouse during the original trials rallied for the men’s release 18 years later.
Damien, Jessie and Jason are now free, but they have not yet been exonerated. West of Memphis reminds us that their quest for justice – and justice for the victims – continues. It also reminds us that it is well past time to end the death penalty in this country when we continue to put innocent lives at risk. When lives hang in the balance, we should never value finality over truth.
The film opens in New York and L.A. on Christmas Day and will be in wide release in January.
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