Movies: West of Memphis

On May 5,1993, eight year-olds Stevie Branch, Michael Moore and Christopher Byers were reported missing from their West Memphis, Arkansas homes. Three neighbors later said in sworn affidavits that they saw them playing together at 6:30 that evening and saw Stevie Branch’s stepfather Terry Hobbs calling them. A brief search by police and neighbors that night yielded no results. The next morning a search began in earnest and, that afternoon, after a searcher spotted a boy’s shoe floating in a ditch, the three boys’ bodies were found. They were naked and had been hogtied with their shoelaces. It was a horrific crime and led to a wave of fear and panic in West Memphis.

(From left) Director Amy Berg, Johnny Depp, Damien Echols and Lorri Davis meet at the premiere of their film about the aftermath of a murder in Arkansas.
Photo: © 2012 Matt Carr

Ultimately, West Memphis police arrested Jessie Misskelley, Jr., 17, Jason Baldwin, 16, and Damien Echols, 18. All three were known to the police from past incidents. While Echols and Baldwin were close friends sharing common tastes in music, Misskelley was an acquaintance. He ultimately confessed and implicated Echols and Baldwin.

Misskelley was tried separately and was sentenced to life plus 40 years. Echols and Baldwin each received the death sentence.

After the trials, talk of police misconduct, ineptness and errors, kept the case alive. In New York, a young woman named Lorri Davis began corresponding with Echols and, ultimately married him.

The case was the subject of a trilogy of HBO documentaries and interest about it spread. Ultimately, Johnny Depp, singers Eddie Vedder and Natalie Maines joined the chorus of those seeking justice. Eventually, some of the victims’ family members did, too.

Ultimately, On August 19, 2011, after DNA evidence was admitted, the three were allowed to take Alford pleas, whereby they could plead innocent at the same time acknowledging that there was enough evidence to prosecute them.

A suspect is named in the film.

Director Amy Berg had help from producer/director Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings) and his wife, Fran Walsh. They funded private investigations and experts. Berg and co-writer Billy McMillin have made a superb film, engrossing, infuriating and a genuine indictment of the justice system in some places.

It’s important and should be seen. To do so in Las Vegas, you must go to the Suncoast.