Movie Review: West of Memphis

Movie Review: West of Memphis

The disturbing crime documentary

By Mark HadleyMonday 4 Feb 2013MoviesReading Time: 3 minutes


RELEASE DATE: February 14

West Of Memphis is not for the feint-hearted – a documentary about a disturbing triple murder and the serious miscarriage of justice that took place as authorities moved to calm community fears. However it also highlights the sort of justice we long for as human beings, as well as our inability to deliver it.

West Of Memphis centres on the murder of three eight-year-old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas in 1993 and the eighteen years of debate, investigations and controversy that followed. The bodies of Stevie Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore were found submerged in a ditch, naked with their arms and legs tied behind them. Their wounds included bite-marks and lacerations that police eventually described as mutilations consistent with some form of satanic ceremony. Shortly after, three teenagers – Jessie Miskelly, Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin – were arrested and charged with the boys’ murders. They received sentences ranging from life imprisonment to the death penalty. As Stevie Branch’s mother puts it:
“It’s like the community was relieved that someone was behind bars and they didn’t have to feel afraid any more.” 
However the documentary makes clear that the community’s confidence was sadly misplaced. As the years passed it became clear that the wounds the boys suffered occurred after their deaths and were due to animals, witnesses had been lying, the accused were clearly elsewhere at the time of the crimes and there was no basis at all to suggest the involvement of a satanic ritual. In fact new evidence suggested that the actual killer was still free and living in the community that rallied around him.
West Of Memphis contains some very disturbing pictures that make it hard to watch, particularly if you are a parent. The photos of the three murdered boys after their discovery are very moving, though they serve to explain why everyone longed so desperately for justice, even revenge. Not so strangely the supporters of the three accused also longed for justice, though in their case it centred on the botched investigation and prosecution carried out by the Arkansas justice system. Both sides could equally be represented by the words of producer Peter Jackson, who tells the camera:
“I believe that justice should be done – and should be seen to be done.”
This is clearly part of the image of God inside every human being. No animal species is moved so powerfully over questions of right and wrong. The murder of three eight-year-old boys makes a mockery of the fashionable postmodern chatter that suggests every lifestyle and viewpoint are equally valid and true. But what West Of Memphis also makes clear is just how incapable we are of achieving the justice we long for. The clearly innocent teens are eventually released on a mere technicality. And a former FBI profiler called in to examine the case tells viewers he thinks it very unlikely that the murderer would confess, even if the evidence could be marshaled to convict him:
“He has had eighteen years to work out answers to every question.”
– and so the door would always remain open to doubt. 
The only thing that could truly put the human heart to rest would be an eyewitness who had seen every dark deed involved, whose integrity was beyond question so that no one could challenge his or her testimony. This is what our all-seeing God provides. He was there in West Memphis that day.

What’s more, He presides over a courtroom that is the source of our inherent sense of justice and is not prone to any legal subterfuge because its looks straight on the hearts of all involved. Finally, God promises to level a judgment that is both unbiased and above appeal. Everyone will be treated equally and receive the punishment justice requires. I for one am glad that He will ensure the ones responsible for the death of those three boys will not escape, though I understand that this might not comfort some who are grieving now. You can’t be consoled by God if you don’t trust in His compassion as well as His justice. But I remind myself that our God lost His Son too, and so that we might avoid our own day in court.