January 16, 2013

Swampland (West of Memphis/Into the Abyss)


After two and a half hours of West of Memphis (Amy J Berg, 2012), the compelling but slightly overlong fourth documentary on the so-called West Memphis Three and the child murders at Robin Hood Hills, I realised that the person I really wanted to hear more from was Jason Baldwin. To recap: Baldwin, Damien Echols (above, with wife Lorri Davis) and Jessie Misskelley, then teenagers, were found guilty of the murders of three boys in West Memphis, Arkansas, in 1993. The dead boys were naked, hog-tied and drowned. The first half of West of Memphis is a clear and systematic destruction of the prosecutors’ flimsy case against Baldwin, Echols and Misskelley, which was based on a dubious confession obtained from Misskelley, who is said to be of below average intelligence. Judging by the interview excerpts in West of Memphis, Misskelley seems to have been steered helplessly towards his confession – the interviewing techniques had alarming parallels with those in the infamous and more or less contemporary Christchurch Civic Creche case, where echoes of 80s “Satanic Panic” also played a part. Someone says of Misskelley that, “It’s like interviewing a three or four or five year old child”. Snap.

The campaign to free the West Memphis Three, which eventually happened in 2011 via the mixed blessing of the Alford plea, has been described as the first crowd-sourced innocence campaign in history. It was an internet-age phenomenon and has continued to be one since their release, which also means that you don’t have to go very far online to find noisy opposing camps, including those who still believe that the three men are guilty, and the website of “quiet, laid-back” Terry Hobbs, stepfather of one of the murdered boys and seemingly identified by the makers of West of Memphis – co-producer Fran Walsh, in particular – as the most likely suspect. The second half of the film therefore shifts into a more detailed exploration of Hobbs and his milieu, a world of intergenerational trauma, abuse, drugs and everyday violence that is not dissimilar to the context of Werner Herzog’s recent death row doco, Into the Abyss. This is a world that is less bizarre and more routine than the initial scenario of teenage devil-worshipping killers carving up naked bodies, but surely it’s problematic, or maybe even just plain irresponsible, for the documentary makers to be so clearly identifying the person they believe is the guilty party, especially after the second West Memphis Three doco – Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s Paradise Lost 2: Revelations – implied a different suspect and got it wrong. Even more ironically, that wrong suspect – Mark Byers – also jumps on the Hobbs-is-guilty bandwagon in the new film.


The crimes in Werner Herzog’s Into the Abyss (2011) were more straightforward and less ghoulish than those in West of Memphis. Three people were shot dead over a car in Texas in 2001. That doco’s mood is tragic and philosophical, and Herzog is not attempting to solve a crime, or clear someone’s name. Instead, he is communicating his abhorrence of the death penalty, and the Herzog style is more muted and restrained than usual – the na├»ve yet effective interview technique remains but Herzog opts not to appear on camera. Its central character, the since executed Michael Perry (above), comes across like the much less pleasant, distinctly uncharismatic inverse of Damien Echols.

As a documentary, Into the Abyss is only partially successful. Still, it has at least one theme in common with the West Memphis Three story: the one about a woman who falls in love with a convicted killer, initially by post, and helps with his cause. In Into the Abyss, it is the wife of Jason Burkett, Perry’s accomplice, who is doing life; in West of Memphis it is, more famously, Lorri Davis, who married Echols and also became a co-producer on the film. Her efforts attracted Fran Walsh and Peter Jackson in New Zealand, and she and Walsh became email pen pals. Walsh and Jackson saw the first, groundbreaking Paradise Lost doco and funded a campaign to free the West Memphis Three, which already had celebrity support (Henry Rollins, Johnny Depp and Eddie Vedder have all been associated with it). But why did Echols – and to a much lesser extent, Baldwin and Misskelley – become such a cause? Rollins argues that they were victimised for nothing more than being teenage outsiders – dressing in black, listening to metal, reading books about witchcraft. (An unexplored parallel here is Walsh’s earlier interest in teenage outsider killers Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme.) Arguably, the West Memphis Three were people that the rock world could identify with, and had even created. Echols became the charismatic and attractive spokesperson for that part of the story – now he and Johnny Depp have matching tattoos.

West of Memphis is strongly focused on the Echols and Davis relationship, with the ensuing Jackson and Walsh-funded investigation creating one of its narrative threads. It is a film in which the producers are key characters and are interviewed sympathetically (although Walsh doesn’t appear on camera, her emails to Davis are quoted). The Jackson/Walsh money paid for DNA testing and new experts, such as FBI profiler John Douglas and a turtle specialist who suggests that the “Satanic” knife marks on the boys’ bodies may have been something more ordinary and yet still horrifying. Jackson and Walsh also commissioned the doco itself from Amy Berg. Good on them. But while the Echols story differs a little from the others – he was on death row, the other two were looking at life in prison – it has also overshadowed them. So I came to admire what I heard about Baldwin and his personal integrity. As a 16-year-old he refused to testify against Echols for a shorter sentence, because that would be lying, which was not how he was brought up, as he is quoted as saying in the film. Equally, he agonised over the Alford plea, which let the three go free while also technically leaving them as guilty (a solution that lets the state of Arkansas save face). Baldwin would have preferred to wait for a retrial that would find the three not guilty and lead to a pardon – surely the best outcome – but caved in to help his friend, Echols, whose health was apparently worsening on death row. To me, Baldwin is the hero of this story. Since the doco wrapped, he has co-founded a non-profit called Proclaim Justice, aimed at clearing others.

One last thing: how much of the interest in this story is based on prurience and prejudice about what goes on in the unsophisticated or backward South? Not just the culture that created the killers (whoever they really were) but the apparently corrupt and/or inept law enforcement? I’ve been reading John Jeremiah Sullivan’s superb collection of essays, Pulphead, and some lines jumped out from an essay called “American Grotesque”. Sullivan, who knows the South and lives in North Carolina, goes to Kentucky to write about a murder that has attracted national attention from “entitled outsiders … who remember that your state exists only … when something fantastically horrible happens”.