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The Agony and the Ecstasy
on August 6, 2013
I have to give this documentary 5 stars because it was even more riveting, thought-provoking and devastating than the original Paradise Lost film which I saw on HBO when it first came out in 1996. Though a bit long and drawn out in parts (should have been edited down to make it a neat 2 hours) I simply could not stop watching. I have never been convinced one way or the other about this case. On the one hand, I thought the evidence against the WM3 as presented in Paradise Lost and several of the books written about the case was minimal, I don't think I ever lost sight of the fact that 3 beautiful little children were viciously ripped from the world by someone and, putting the evidence together as it was presented by the prosecution, I could understand why the 3 were found guilty. This film doesn't gloss over that evidence or pretend it didn't exist but carefully and precisely dissects that original evidence presented in the prosecution's case to illustrate how it was misinterpreted, misrepresented and used to paint a picture of what they thought likely happened, NOT what was, in fact, the truth.
Motivated by electoral pressure, hearsay and ignorance, the state of Arkansas concocted a scenario (which ends up being proven wrong in this film) fueled by Jerry Driver, a 'Satanic cult' specialist and an unlicensed medical examiner who worked for the prosecution. Putting these things together, the prosecution produced this satanic scenario and made Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley fit this profile along with the so-called ritualistic wounds that were purportedly present on the victims. These wounds were misinterpreted to be evidence of sexual assault and ritualized murder from the start, based on the penile mutilation of one of the victims. West of Memphis analyzes these wounds and proves that they were post-mortem and NOT inflicted by the killer or killers. This fact alone puts the kybosh on the theory of satanic sacrifice altogether and demonstrates that not only were investigators jumping to conclusions from jumpstreet, but also that they didn't rule out any other possible explanation for what had happened to these boys if it did not fit their Satanic vision.
On the other side of this, before I saw this film, I still had my doubts about the innocence of the WM3. Again, based on hearsay and others' interpretations of evidence, I still felt it was possible that they were, in fact, guilty. Years ago when I heard that many celebs were coming forward to support these men and I saw all the new-found interest in the case I wondered if all the public support and outcries about injustice were based on celebrity involvement. (Wow, Eddie Vedder believes these guys are innocent and I love Eddie Vedder so they MUST be!! or Johnny Depp is friends with Damien Echols and I LOVE Johnny Depp and he must be right because he's so famous and hot and I want to be involved with what he's involved with etc. etc.) I didn't want to be one of these people who were jumping on some new pop-culture band-wagon so I remained neutral in my stance that the WM3 might be innocent but then again, they might very well be guilty.
Watching this film, changed that for me. West of Memphis breaks down the case bit by bit and points out exactly where the major mishaps occurred within the prosecution's original case. Some of these 'mishaps' were the result of bad politics, lousy investigative protocol and plain old ignorance. These errors could be considered similar to the messes that were made of the Simpson and JonBenet Ramsey investigations and deemed as products of human error. But, in this case, it is obvious that there was much malicious intent on the part of the prosecution, illustrated best by the prosecution's insistence that the knife found in the lake behind the Baldwin home was the murder weapon, when they knew for certain that, in fact, it couldn't have been. This film has many of these a-ha moments where you come to realize that these 3 men weren't victims of circumstance but of blatant and deliberate prosecutorial misconduct.
Yes, I've been online and have read through the West Memphis Three facts site that claim to have scores of evidence proving the 3 to be guilty. The only problem there is, how do we know ANY of that is true? More lies, more hearsay, more people talking about what they heard someone said or what they heard was found in Damien Echols' bedroom etc. etc. This film on the other hand, displays the facts and truths of this case that so many of us haven't heard. For instance, Jesse Miskelley's confession is scrutinized step by step and shows without question that he was coerced and led towards a confession by investigators hell-bent on getting an admission of guilt. Jessie's story is 100% hogwash and this film proves that.
The investigation done by WM3 supporters into the questionable character of Terry Hobbs paints a very disturbing picture of what is a much more likely scenario about how these boys were murdered. An abusive step-father accidentally beats his step-son to death and does it while his two friends are either present or somewhere in the house as eye or ear witnesses. The father has to get rid of them or they will tell what he did to his step-son. The father kills the other two, ties them up and dumps their bodies and bikes in the river. However, though this all does make sense and does point the finger at Hobbs, the only evidence that he was involved is a piece of his hair found entwined in one of the boy's ligatures. He may actually have been the one who did this to these children but then again, maybe not.
The state of Arkansas could care less about justice for these murdered boys. They are indifferent to the fact that 3 men spent 20 years in prison though they were innocent. They are simply concerned with pleasing the public and not looking like Mayberry morons for grossly manipulating the law. The Alford Plea takes care of all that. The WM3 get their freedom, the state can say that they got the right guys because they 'plead guilty' to the murders, they can wash their hands of all future lawsuits and they don't have to investigate or look for the real killer, which makes Hobbs, guilty or not, basically immune to investigation by the state of Arkansas.
To be fair though, I still would have liked to have heard a definitive cause of death for these boys. At one point, John Douglas (FBI profiler) says that they were put into the water alive. I'm not sure I buy that. If it is true, then I would have liked a certain explanation of what they believe happened. I never heard that these boys had water in their lungs. In fact, I thought it was later a universally agreed-upon fact that the boys were murdered elsewhere and the river was simply a dumping ground. This doesn't jive with that. So yet another question that should have a simple answer but does not. Not sure why.
In the end, this film is heart and gut-wrenching and disturbing to say in the least. It sheds new light on a story you may think you already know well and will make you sick to your stomach when you find out exactly how the wheels of justice in this country often turn. The gratification of seeing the WM3 finally see freedom makes it all worth it, although you won't watch the end credits with any sense of true justice here. Three little boys were murdered 17 years ago. Three other little boys spent their youth and young adulthood behind bars and lost a quarter of their lives for nothing. Prosecutors were re-elected, judges moved higher up on the political ladder, none have accepted or acknowledged their role in any wrongdoing and still, we have no justice for three little boys. Sadly, this film's greater message is that the state of Arkansas lost sight of their duty to ensure justice for three little boys and blundered on all levels of ethics and politics when their focus became not on Stevie, Michael or Christopher but on a different set of 3 who will, according to the state of Arkansas, now always be considered murderers.