Three local youths — who later became known as the West Memphis Three — were charged with murder and faced trial before a hostile local jury. Enraged locals attended court each day to vent their outrage. The evidence at trial consisted mainly of the confession of one of the youths, and the admitted involvement of the three in satanic rituals. This was more than compensated, however, by the enthusiasm of the prosecutor, who is shown in this documentary brandishing a serrated fishing knife (the alleged murder weapon) to the jury during the trial. Not surprisingly the West Memphis Three were all convicted of murder.
The documentary (directed by the partner of Damien Echols, the alleged ring-leader in the murders) follows the events after the imprisonment, leading up to the release of the West Memphis Three in 2011. The documentary re-examines the evidence presented at the trial, such as the supposed knife wounds. Forensic experts engaged by the three stated that the wounds probably happened after death, and were probably caused by wild animals living in the irrigation ditch, rather than by human involvement. The alleged ‘confession’ by Jason Baldwin was shown to be the result of his mental deficiency, and clear coaching by police during questioning. The documentary emphasises that evidence from the crime scene actually points towards the guilt of Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of one of the murdered boys. Other evidence was presented of Hobbs’ poor character.
As these revelations came to public attention, demand for the release of the West Memphis Three mounted. Benefit concerts were held to raise founds for the legal case, and celebrities such as Johnny Depp, Henry Rollins and Eddie Vedder lent their support and spoke out publicly regarding the case. Eventually, in 2010, the legal team succeeded in having the convictions set aside and a retrial ordered. Under mounting public pressure, the District Attorney offered a deal which would see the West Memphis Three immediately released and the second trial abandoned. Because this deal involved the three pleading guilty to lesser offences, they would not be entitled to compensation for their 18 years in jail, and Terry Hobbs would not face trial for the murders.
The documentary demonstrates both the dangers and the benefits of public involvement in the criminal justice system. On the one hand, public pressure for a quick conviction meant that important evidence was overlooked (or completely misrepresented) at the trial. The prosecutor, jury and judge all seemed to be caught up in the hysteria surrounding the case, and did not bring appropriate reason and balance to their role. On the other hand, public disquiet regarding the case ultimately resulted in the release of the West Memphis Three.
The making of the documentary raises important issues concerning the dangers of trial by media. Much of the ‘evidence’ presented in the documentary of the guilt of Terry Hobbs would be unlikely to be accepted in court- and for good reason. Hobbs’ alleged ‘confession’ is rank hearsay (although lay viewers may not fully appreciate the importance of the strict requirements for a confession to be admitted as evidence in a criminal trial). In this sense, the documentary does not seem fair or balanced. In fact, when presented to a lay audience, one could say it is misleading and encourages people to draw conclusions which are as impulsive and poorly informed as the initial verdict twenty years ago.
The documentary unfortunately focuses on the sensational side of the events of 1993 and fails to provide any meaningful social and economic context for those events. The images shown of the town of West Memphis are of large areas of residential trailer parks. There are hints that divorce, unemployment and youth crime are widespread. Even documentary makers such as Michael Moore provide some economic perspective to sad and otherwise inexplicable phenomena such as high school shootings. Because the documentary is focused on determining individual guilt, these underlying issues are ignored. This leaves me with the feeling that the full story is yet to be told, and an adequate explanation yet to be provided for the sad events of 1993.
BILL SWANNIE teaches privacy and media law at Victoria University.