The feature documentary West of Memphis examines the wrongful conviction of three teenagers for the murder of three eight-year-old boys in Arkansas in 1993.
But it is not be confused with HBO's Paradise Lost trilogy by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, the movies that first drew attention to the so-called West Memphis Three.
West of Memphis functions as a kind of summary of the case from its grim beginnings to its tenuous conclusion in August 2011. The filmmakers -- it was produced by Lord of the Rings' Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh -- also become directly involved in the case as they launch their own investigation with the help of a heavy-hitting FBI vet.
Director Amy Berg (Deliver Us from Evil) begins by covering the case as it was first perceived by the Arkansas community where the tragedy occurred.
The bodies of three boys, naked and hog-tied with their own shoelaces, were discovered in a water-filled ditch. Because one of the victims seems to have suffered genital mutilation, the police interpret the murders to be ritualistic and "satanic" in nature, and zero in on suspects Damien Echols, 18, Jason Baldwin, 17, and Jesse Misskelley, 16. The latter suspect confessed to the crime and implicated Echols and Baldwin.
For a public eager for justice, it was enough to wrap up the case. Echols in particular created unease with his troubled past and his goth appearance.
But, as the Berlinger-Sinofsky films demonstrated, the convictions were of dubious merit, starting with the confession. Misskelley, who has an IQ of 72, was questioned for more than 12 hours. It is clear from audiotapes the confession was largely coerced by the detectives, who carefully guided Misskelley to the responses they required.
If this seems far-fetched, remember that the wrongfully convicted Winnipeg-born murder suspect David Milgaard also fell victim to coerced testimony from "friends" who proved malleable to Saskatoon police questioning.
Other aspects of the prosecution's case fall apart under any meaningful scrutiny, particularly the medical evidence from an "expert" who suggested the perpetrator engaged in horrific genital mutilation of one of the victims, when in fact, the post-mortem damage inflicted on the victims was likely the result of animal bites, specifically turtles.
Producers Jackson and Walsh paid for a private investigation by famed FBI profiler John Douglas (the man who inspired the Jack Crawford character in the Hannibal Lecter novels of Thomas Harris), whose inquiry quickly disposes of the satanic angle and suggests the crime was committed by a perpetrator familiar with one or all three of the victims.
In this regard, the film heaps suspicion on Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of one of the murdered children, because his DNA, a strand of hair, was discovered at the murder site. While Berg could make a case that Hobbs' abusive history casts more than reasonable doubt on the convictions of Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley, the film goes a little too far in indicting Hobbs. One of the Paradise Lost films employed that same strategy against another of the victim's stepfathers, John Mark Byers -- wrongly, as it turned out.
Still, the film leaves no doubt the prosecution was fundamentally dishonest and that efforts for retrial were unjustly stymied by a judge who was more interested in preserving his reputation than seeing justice done.
If the film implies this is the kind of justice we should expect from the backwoods hicks of Arkansas, again, recall the case of David Milgaard.
Excerpts of select reviews of West of Memphis:
While the Paradise Lost films captured events as they unfolded in the heat of battle, West of Memphis has the luxury of at least partial closure.
--Ty Burr, Boston Globe
A real-life horror story, made no less shocking by the familiarity of its early scenes.
-- Moira MacDonald, Seattle Times
A true-crime story that begins with a notorious murder case and grows into a chilling indictment of the American justice system.
--Colin Covert, Minneapolis Star-Tribune
West of Memphis
Directed by Amy Berg
31Ñ2 stars out of five