West of Memphis Offers A Rare Moment of Justice
The new documentary 'West of Memphis' chronicles multiple tragedies visited upon the working class community of West Memphis, Arkansas in 1993. This period was the height of what has become known as "Satanic Panic", when during the 1980s and 90s daytime talk shows sought out the worst stories possible for ratings, and ratings related to ritual sacrifice and devil worship were high. Hack authors and so-called experts expounded on the subject, and school teachers attended special seminars teaching them how to recognize the signs of satan worship.
The initial tragedy beset by West Memphis Arkansas (besides poverty and ignorance) was the disappearance of three 8 year old boys in early May of 1993. They were found the next afternoon while the entire community searched the neighborhood, at the bottom of a creek, naked, hog tied with their own shoelaces, and obviously no longer alive. The local police department, either incapable or unwilling to do real police work, put together a shabby investigation and arrested three teenage boys for the crime. They said it was a "Satanic Ritual Killing" and that the three young men, ages 16, 17, and 18, were guilty based on the music they listened to, the books they read, and the pictures they drew. The three teens were tried and convicted, with one put on death row.
Shortly after their arrest, HBO sent a camera crew to West Memphis to create a "shockumentary" about the so called satanic crime. Instead, the filmmakers grew to believe the young men were innocent and created the film 'Paradise Lost' which followed the case and their subsequent convictions. The film piqued curiosities and got others involved - lawyers, activists, rock stars, and the result was a second trial, a support website, and a legion of supporters.
This new movie 'West of Memphis' is produced by Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh of 'Lord of the Rings' fame, who have been longtime supporters of the three men convicted, now known as the West Memphis 3. It offers an in depth look at the crime, and brings to light a plethora of new findings gathered by some of the greatest experts money can buy, and money can finally buy the best in this case which has been supported by the film's own producers, as well as other high profile donors including Henry Rollins, Johnny Depp, and Eddie Vedder to name a few.
The additional funding allowed for the most modern DNA testing and forensic experts who wrote the book on forensics, literally, and the FBI's top profilers - Far beyond anything the state of Arkansas could or would invest in the case. When one forensic expert's findings contradicted monumentally with those of the state forensic expert, a half dozen more were hired and given the same pieces of evidence. All independently came up with very similar scenarios of the crime, and all were in total opposition of the forensic testimony that was presented in court. In fact, these experts when brought together and offered the states findings, were so offended they marched in on the man and told him what they thought of his work. A great deal of new evidence and perspective is uncovered, witnesses come forward and others recant statements made on the stand. Most important of all, it ends with the three men who have been so long in prison, convicted for a crime, based not on evidence but on the music they liked and the books they read, being let free into the world. Not exonerated, but forced to give an Alford Plea, which basically allowed them to leave prison while making it impossible for them to seek damages from the state or push for further investigation to find the real killer.
The actions of filmmaker Amy Berg are brutal, they pull no punches, and as we left the theater we found ourselves questioning the legalities of some of her footage - She recorded phone calls, recorded therapy sessions, and asked the hardest of questions. In the end, a very direct finger is pointed at a suspect, and quite a bit of evidence is leveled at him, but it is not one of the men who spent decades in prison, it is not even a person under investigation, it is one of the stepfathers of the three boys murdered. While this is the first time major media has pointed a finger at the man, Terry Hobbs, a man who was never even questioned by police when the crime happened, it has been pointed at him once before a few years back.
It was pointed out by two independent journalists during an interview that had no money backing, no network, no sponsors, and is on youtube for free, which is part of the reason I am reviewing this movie. I am one of those journalists, my husband Shane and I interviewed Mark Byers, the stepfather of Christopher Byers, one of the victims in the heinous crime. We sought him out after attending a rally to free the West Memphis 3 in late December 2007 at the Arkansas state capital. This is a case that has been very near to our hearts, and we wanted to do all we could to help Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley. We too came of age during the "Satanic Panic", and being of the Metal persuasion, and I with an interest in the occult, know first hand how prejudiced people can be to those subjects, so we had of course seen HBO's 'Paradise Lost' and felt the pain of all sides in the tragedy, and were infuriated by the lack of evidence that convicted the three teenage boys.
The case became even closer to us in 2006 when we became the victims of a witch hunt and "shunning" in a small Minnesota town that we had moved to from Chicago. Our interest in Heavy Metal, the occult, and the many controversial books, events, and art we had our hand in over the years did not serve us well in the tiny and closed minded community. We had assimilated into the town and started a business, we loved the small town life and the natural beauty of the area, and the reason we had come in the first place was my father had a stroke and needed help, it just seemed like what we had to do. A year and a half later the town went wild when it was uncovered that we actually knew Anton LaVey, founder of the Church of Satan, and interviews Shane had done, some ten years old were taken off of the internet and used against us - He was sympathetic to school shooters, he'd published obscene and banned books, and he had some spooky sounding websites. At first we laughed off the whole thing, we saw the stares and noticed some people had stopped talking to us, but we ignored it. A few months went by, then came a scarlet letter, then came the death threats, then came the destruction of our business and our ability to support ourselves. Then one day, I noticed all of our kitchen knives were missing, I searched the house, but they were nowhere. If one of those knives ended up in the belly of a tourist or worse yet a townie, we would not even be afforded a trial like the West Memphis 3, we would torn apart by a lynch mob. We knew then we had to leave, and we did, under cover of night. It was devastating.
When we began a year long road trip to document America six months after fleeing Minnesota, the West Memphis 3 were still on our minds. A few weeks before our journey began, new DNA evidence came out regarding their crime, and proving none of the three in prison had left any DNA at the scene. It is virtually impossible that the killers could do this without leaving a single trace, and in fact there was DNA evidence at the scene - a hair tied into one of the shoelaces that bound the three victims, that hair belonged to guess who? The same stepfather that 'West of Memphis' points the finger at, the same one that was never questioned by police, the same one that on our road trip, during our interview, Mark Byers told us had been an informant for the West Memphis Police Department.
This new DNA evidence would be enough to exonerate the three men in most cases, but not in Arkansas. In most cases, this would have been national news, but not in America. In fact, it was hard to find much coverage at all about it. We decided our road trip kick off event in Chicago would be a fundraiser for the West Memphis 3, and found that instead of embracing it, Chicago media turned their back on our event. I even got a letter from one editor I was friendly with saying they would not cover anything about the West Memphis 3.
A little more than a month after our kick off party, there we were in Little Rock filming a "Free The West Memphis 3 Rally", which led to interviews with 'Devil's Knot' author Mara Leveritt, the directors of 'Paradise Lost', and finally somewhere outside of Memphis talking to Mark Byers about the crime, and watching a video of Terry Hobbs being questioned by police about the DNA samples, finally, but twenty years too late.
In the end, the filmmakers of 'West of Memphis' contacted us to buy a bit of our footage, which was a great honor for us, we were glad to help. This brings me back full circle to why it was so important for us to go and see this movie the first chance we had, at a screening in Portland, Oregon.
The film 'West of Memphis' is not popcorn fare, it is a disturbing look at how everything a person does can be misconstrued, and how quick people in trouble will lie or do the most underhanded of things to keep from paying the price of their own crimes, how dangerous mob mentality is and how dangerous being an outsider is. It demonstrates how diabolical the system can be when in fear of being proven wrong. It makes it easier to understand how ignorance and intolerance leads to events like the Salem Witch Trials or the Spanish Inquisition. It is the kind of movie that makes every person who sees it a little more likely to self censor anything about themselves that might mark them as even a tiny bit out of ordinary.
I am so thankful to Amy Berg, Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh for shining a light on this very bizarre miscarriage of justice. I would like to say that this is the case of the century, but sadly, it isn't. People are locked up every day for terrible crimes that they did not commit, people are refused work, housing, and a future every day for the way they look, their beliefs, or the interests they have, and meanwhile the real criminals that are out there, the real psychopaths, who often look very normal, very nice, and have a friendly smile, they walk free. They walk free.
You can check out Amy and Shane Bugbee's new book, "The Suffering and Celebration Of Life In America," and documentary at www.usaodd.com.
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Date: Mar 27, 2013
As Reported by: Amy Bugbee
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