5 Movies to Watch About the West Memphis Three

August 18, 2017
By: Mike McPadden

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Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, Jason Baldwin

Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, Jason Baldwin

Photo by: Damien Echols, Jessie Miskelley, Jason Baldwin [West Memphis Police Department]

Damien Echols, Jessie Miskelley, Jason Baldwin [West Memphis Police Department]

Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, Jason Baldwin

The world-famous (and infamous) case of the West Memphis Three stands one of the modern crime era’s most notorious miscarriages of justice, as well as, ultimately, a definitive triumph for the ever-expanding field of DNA exoneration.

The horror commenced on May 5, 1993, when three eight-year-old boys went missing in West Memphis, Arkansas. In the following days, searchers unearthed the naked, hogtied, sexually mutilated bodies of Steve Branch, Christopher Byers, and Michael Moore from a ditch in a nearby drainage canal.

The small town’s suspicions fell fast upon three teenagers who wore black clothes, listened to heavy metal music, and had previously gotten into trouble for fighting, shoplifting, and vandalism: Jason Baldwin, 16; Jessie Misskelly, 17; and Damien Echols, 18.

In time, that trio of misfits accused and convicted of killing those little boys as part of a Satan-worshipping ritual came to be known as the “West Memphis Three” (WM3 for short).

The Paradise Lost Trilogy

The Paradise Lost Trilogy

Photo by: DVD front cover image

DVD front cover image

The Paradise Lost Trilogy

Despite a lack of evidence and copious amounts of missteps among cops and prosecutors — and to say nothing of the simple fact that the West Memphis Three were innocent — juries quickly found the teens guilty in 1994. Jessie Misskelley got life plus 40 years. Baldwin got life. Echols, because he was over 18, was sentenced to death.

Over the next 17 years (the average age the suspects were upon conviction), a multitude of exonerating evidence emerged. Lawyers, celebrities, and huge swaths of the public advocated for the WM3 receiving at least a new trial, if not immediate emancipation. Regardless, Arkansas courts shot down one appeal after another.

Eventually, DNA technology proved without a doubt that the West Memphis Three could not have committed the atrocities for which they had been sent to prison.

On August 19, 2011, Baldwin, Misskelley, and Echols each entered an Alford plea, a legal declaration in which a suspect can proclaim his innocence while acknowledging that the state has a strong enough case to get a guilty verdict. The now middle-aged men, who spent their entire late teens and 20s behind bars, finally walked free.

En route to that freedom, documentaries proved crucial in turning the general tide in favor of reexamining the West Memphis Three tragedy. More movies followed after they got out. Here’s a look at five such powerful motion pictures.

Directors: Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky
Cast: Jason Baldwin, Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley

HBO largely introduced the world to the West Memphis Three case in 1996 upon airing Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills. The brilliantly dramatic nonfiction film places viewers directly into the rural, Deep South atmosphere where the crimes went down, and never blatantly dictates that the three suspects were innocent. The facts, as they do, speak for themselves.

Paradise Lost profoundly shook up viewers and galvanized private citizens and public figures alike, planting the seeds that would ultimately bloom with liberty for the wrongly convicted.

The movie also announced the arrival of master documentarians Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky. The pair would later helm the acclaimed true-rock chronicle Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, as well as the next two powerhouse Paradise Lost films. [HBO]

Directors: Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky
Cast: Jason Baldwin, Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley

Paradise Lost 2 picks up with Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley locked up for more than a half-decade, even as explosive new evidence comes forth — all of which repeatedly gets botched or dismissed.

The second documentary does strongly imply a case to be made against John Mark Byers, the adoptive father of murder victim Christopher Byers. While such suspicions never led to any real answers, the questions raised seem eminently potent enough to open a fresh investigation. As we know now, no such proceeding would ever happen. [Roger Ebert]

Directors: Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky
Cast: Jason Baldwin, Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley

Released to theaters prior to its HBO premiere, Paradise Lost 3 earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary Feature. It also turned out to have a surprise ending.

Directors Berlinger and Sinofsky completed a cut of PL3 in anticipation of a November 2011 debut. The movie continued the story of the innocent trio fighting for freedom after 17 years behind bars and, for Echols, on Death Row.

When the opportunity for Baldwin, Echols, and Misskelley to submit Alford pleas arose suddenly, the filmmaker flew into action and recorded that moment of agonizingly won, bittersweet (to say the least) victory. [AV Club]

Director: Amy J. Berg
Cast: Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, Jessie Misskelley

Damien Echols himself coproduced West of Memphis, a fully encompassing WM3 documentary expertly rendered by New Zealand filmmaker Amy J. Berg. The result is a scalding indictment of prejudicial mindsets along with the inept or even purposeful mishandlings of justice that can result from them.

In addition, West of Memphis indicates that Terry Hobbs, yet another stepfather to one of the murdered boys, is a figure that police should have been looking hard at along.

Roger Ebert, an outspoken champion of the Paradise Lost trilogy, wrote of West of Memphis, “Do we need a fourth film? Yes, I think we do. If you only see one of them, this is the one to choose, because it has the benefit of hindsight.” [The Guardian]

Director: Atom Egoyan
Cast: Colin Firth, Reese Witherspoon, James Hamrick

Devil’s Knot is the big screen’s first dramatic take of the West Memphis Three case. Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan (The Sweet Hereafter) adapted the nightmarish tale from a 2002 book of the same name by Mara Leveritt.

Reese Witherspoon leads a top-notch cast as Pamela Hobbs, the mother of victim Stevie Branch. Devil’s Knot truly belongs, however, to Colin Firth as Ron Lax, a private investigator who continuously works to free the accused killers, only to get stymied by the conflicting discoveries and authorities who come off as simply not interested. [The Mirror]