West Of Memphis (2012): 'This is nothing out of the ordinary'

When being an Outsider costs you your life

West of Memphis was my first introduction into the stranger-than-fiction case of the ‘West Memphis Three’. I’d just watched Ken Burns’ Central Park Five and was gripped by the idea that the authorities were first and foremost there to protect themselves.  So, with an embarrassing lack of knowledge on the history of the case and the lives it affected, I sat down to watch a documentary that would keep me asking questions long after the end credits rolled.  

West Memphis, Arkansas; a town at the heart of America’s Deep South Bible Belt serves as the backdrop for the tragic story of three boys viciously and inexplicably murdered, a police force and political system obsessed with climbing the career ladder and three teenage outcasts who become the victims of a small town’s witch-hunt. 

Damien Echols, 18; Jason Baldwin, 16 and Jessie Misskelley, then 17, were the three adolescent boys accused of being child murderers. In a decade obsessed with Satanism and the power certain music genres were supposed to have over their listeners; this group of heavy metal loving, low income, school dropouts were natural outcasts in such a small town. 

When arrested, the boys seemed unsurprised, Echols even continuing to sustain his irreverent derision of authority. But look behind the mask of grins and finger flipping and you can see three boys who knew from the moment the police arrived at their front doors, their fates had been sealed. 

The recklessness of the police and the complete lack of integrity or intelligence shown by the judicial system, brought to light in the documentary are too vast and mind-boggling for me to even attempt to explore in this post. There are still plenty of questions left unanswered, and most haunting of all, the true murderer still walks free.  Instead, I can only touch upon a few things that really occupied my mind long after the gripping 150 minute documentary was over. 

The strong reliance on celebrity culture is something that permeates through the main narrative of the film. Peter Jackson, famous for the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, was a producer on West of Memphis, and is known to have poured large sums of money into keeping the case and investigation open and relevant. Similarly, names such as Henry Rollins and Johnny Depp have been intrinsic in raising funds and campaigning to get the names of the WM3 out to a larger audience. 

To make it clear, I’m in no way attacking these celebrities’ motivation or sincerity in being part of campaigning.  It simply really hit home to think that Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley would both still be sitting in a cell, and Damien Echols would most probably now be dead (having been issued the death penalty at his trial) were it not for the platform that such big names gave to the case. It also highlighted the multitude of others who have been wrongly convicted, victims of prejudice and corruption, who hold no hope for an acquittal or any form of redemption, failed by the system that was set up to protect them.

Amy Berg, the Director, also touched upon how high up the political ladder many of the individuals’ key in the prosecution and sentencing of the three young men had climbed. The terrifying acknowledgment that the lives of these financially poor, lower class teenagers became fodder in the power struggles and manipulation of those trying to gain influence, demands the question of who else could be thrown into the lion’s den if the price was right.

A year before the 1993 crime had taken place, the then Governor of Arkansas; Bill Clinton, had made a point of overseeing the execution of a mentally disturbed man, convicted of murdering an officer. A child of the 90’s, I had grown up with the image of Bill Clinton as a slightly naughty, saxophone playing idealist, a newer version of JFK. 

West of Memphis brought home to me that in the murky world of politics, the lives of certain individuals become trivial, only important for the messages they send, i.e. Bill Clinton’s “I’m tough on crime”. For those in power, these ‘criminals’ and their punishments are a necessity, de rigueur on the political trail, met with so little respect or awareness, that they have no real bearing on the character of the man who signs their death warrant. 

These boys were social misfits, ‘weirdos’ in the eyes of the town in which they had grown up, and in the eyes of the law that was enough to convict them. They would eventually be released, some 18 years after they were first put away, but not before the government had manipulated the law enough to cover their own backs when it came to the likes of hefty lawsuits. 

By the end of the documentary, we see the three men trying to commence with life outside the penitentiary walls; returning to loved ones, and old neighbourhoods. But the reality isn’t one with a fairytale ending. Echols moved to New York with his wife, and still struggles to acclimatise to a world that has changed drastically in the two decades he was locked away. Baldwin is now at college and hopes to one day be a lawyer, defending those wrongly accused who don’t have the finances to protect themselves legally; a dream that because of his conviction is currently an impossibility. And Misskelley, he’s now an agoraphobic, never leaving his house in Arkansas and never talking to anyone. It seems the 'West Memphis Three' are still paying for the crime of being an outsider. 

Illustration by Tamara Jade-Kaz