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Culture

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West of Memphis

This fourth feature doc on the West Memphis Three offers yet more maddening revelations.

DIRECTED BY AMY BERG
stars-4

In June of 1993, a trio of West Memphis, Arkansas teens were charged with the murder and mutilation of three local third graders. At the press conference announcing their arrests, the chief investigator smugly declared that, on a scale of one to 10, his confidence in their guilt was “11”—this despite a total absence of physical evidence linking the suspects to the shocking crime. So began a perversion of justice so profound that even a trilogy of feature-length documentaries couldn’t achieve a full accounting of its infuriating details. But with the addition of Amy Berg’s West of Memphis to Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s pioneering Paradise Lost series, the actual scale of the travesty at last seems apparent.

If Berg doesn’t supplant Berlinger and Sinofsky as the definitive chronicler of the West Memphis Three, her doc is nonetheless the single most concise summation of the case, serving as both a primer for newcomers and an illuminating addendum to the earlier, HBO-produced films. Berg’s backers are director Peter Jackson and partner Fran Walsh, who also financed a team of experts to conduct an exhaustive reinvestigation of the evidence. Drawing on fresh forensic findings as well as archival materials both familiar and new, West of Memphis takes the prosecution’s ritual sacrifice theory—which had seemed a preposterous appeal to small-town prejudice even in 1996′s original Paradise Lost—and picks it apart from top to bottom.

Berg rearticulates Berlinger and Sinofsky’s assertions of investigative incompetence and institutional intransigence with forceful clarity, and witheringly affirms their intimations of a capital murder case premised in part on callous careerism. She also builds a damning case of her own against a man named Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of one of the victims, who, incredibly, was never so much as questioned by police. As of 2011, thanks to a dubious plea bargain that allowed the State to escape liability in exchange for the trio’s release, the case is officially closed. And if justice is therefore out of the question, at least the efforts of Berg and her predecessors have allowed something approaching the truth to come to light.

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