Pleading Innocent, by David Bax
In the years since the 1994 conviction of teenagers Jason Baldwin, Damien Echols and Jessie Misskelley, Jr. for the murder of three eight-year-old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas, the case has become a sort of cultural signpost. The injustice of three kids being pilloried based solely on their being and looking weird strikes an impelling chord in a certain subset of the population. Amy Berg’s new documentary on the case, West of Memphis, examines the polarizing effect these boys had on their community and, in some ways, the culture at large, all while never losing sight of the three young men at the center of the circus.
On May 5, 1993, three young boys were murdered. Soon thereafter, the teens that would come to be known as the West Memphis Three were arrested. Largely due to Echols’ interest in heavy metal and its requisite satanic imagery, the prosecution insisted that the murders were the result of some sort of cult ritual. They were found guilty. A 1996 documentary called Paradise Lost aired on HBO and gained Baldwin, Echols and Misskelley the attention of some notable celebrities, including Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, who would become one of their most tireless advocates. More people of means, more evidence and more documentaries piled up until August of 2011, when the men who had been imprisoned for nearly 20 years agreed to a plea deal wherein their guilty verdict would remain a matter of public record but they could continue to insist on their innocence.
While those celebrities are, in many ways, responsible for the eventual release of the West Memphis Three, Berg is not starstruck. On the contrary, she is most interested in how Baldwin, Echols and Misskelley made such an impact on people as diverse as Vedder, Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks and filmmaker Peter Jackson (the lattermost of whom is a producer of this documentary). While those three and the other famous folks who rallied around the case may not have spent their youths doodling pentagrams per se, there is a commonality in the otherness that leads people to be both creative and ostracized.
That implied equation between artists and the imprisoned young men plays out naturally, in that the three of them become celebrities themselves, after a fashion (I’ve never seen the three Paradise Lost films but I could have told you the subjects’ names before seeing West of Memphis). Echols immediately is most comfortable with the attention but that’s not to say he welcomes it. He allows himself to be the spokesman for the case while never pretending to speak directly for the other two. It’s a fine intellectual line that takes brains and sensitivity to negotiate and he proves himself admirably equal to the task. When Echols has been released and we are able to see, side by side, his mental growth and his arrested development, his wrongful imprisonment takes on a new level of infuriating tragedy.
While the plight of the three young men brought out the best in the many people, famous and otherwise, who offered support, it seemed to have the opposite effect on some others. Those with power who held disdain for the boys’ weird looks and tastes allowed the evidence to fit the story they’d already created. In some cases, they intentionally pursued evidence that had nothing to do with the murders because it bolstered their bogus narrative. These people then riled up the citizens of West Memphis (for whom Berg shows a commendable sympathy), prodding them to gather in crowds outside the courthouse, screaming for the blood of the teens. Most upsetting – though not surprising – is the refusal of many authorities to consider that they were wrong when faced with new evidence.
Berg’s only misstep – and I hesitate to call it even that – is to spend a lot of time (the film is nearly 2 1/2 hours long) not just on the new findings that exonerate Baldwin, Echols and Misskelley but also on making a case for a more likely suspect. The procedure of presenting evidence that appears to indict the stepfather of one of the murdered children is compelling and interesting in its own right but it distracts from the main thrust of the film; the innocence of the West Memphis Three.
In relating the account of a specific case, that of Jason Baldwin, Damien Echols and Jesse Misskelley, Jr., Berg undertakes some massive questions about the what and why of justice, human capacity for kindness or selfishness and the dangerous side of the status quo. What makes West of Memphis so watchable, though, is that she wraps it all up in a fantastic and moving yarn.