West of Memphis screening pulls heartstrings, piques curiosity
The cramped state of Ledbetter C in the Donaghey Student Center showed that this 20-year-old murder case refuses to die. Almost 100 people gathered Oct. 23 to watch a screening of “West of Memphis,” a documentary that chronicles the case of the West Memphis Three. The 2012 film was directed by Amy Berg and produced by Peter Jackson, and the screening was hosted by the Department of Mass Communication.
The evening’s screening was especially gripping because it featured a question and answer session with former defendant Jason Baldwin, activist Holly Ballard and Pam Hobbs, mother of one of the victims.
Liz Dailey, a senior psychology major, said she attended the screening to receive extra credit for her film class.
“It was interesting,” she said, “I enjoyed listening to the commentary.”
At least four security officers were present at the screening.
“Because it’s a popular story and because there is a possibility for hecklers or acts against the parties involved and because UALR likes to be on top of things, they wanted security here just in case,” said one security officer, who would only identify herself as Badge Number 64.
To call the case well-known would be an understatement. Still, it warrants a retelling.
The West Memphis Police Department found the naked, hog-tied bodies of three 8-year-old boys on May 6, 1993. The police linked the murders with cult activity and brought in three local teens as suspects: Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley and Baldwin. Misskelley and Baldwin were given life sentences, while Echols – the supposed mastermind behind the killings – was sentenced to death.
After their imprisonment, questions began to surface about the handling of the investigation and trial. Two HBO documentaries, titled “Paradise Lost” and “Paradise Lost 2: Revelations,” and the book “Devil’s Knot” by Arkansas Times journalist Mara Leveritt brought these questions into public consciousness. This exposure also brought support from celebrities like Black Flag, Johnny Depp and the Dixie Chicks. Then, new technology for analyzing DNA found no connection between the defendants and the crime.
A 2010 Arkansas Supreme Court decision allowed the new evidence to be submitted for consideration, and the defendants made a deal with the prosecution. In 2011, the three entered Alford pleas, which allowed them to plead guilty while maintaining their innocence, and after serving more than 18 years, they were freed.
The documentary pieces together photographs and video clips from the investigation, trial, appeal and effort to free the defendants, and also includes some discussion by people involved in the case. Although the actual murder has not been determined, the film strongly suggests the killer was Terry Hobbs, Pam Hobbs’ ex-husband and stepfather of victim Stevie Branch.
“It’s evident that the film has a slant or bias as to who perpetrated the crime,” said Brad Pierce, who teaches an introduction to motion pictures class. “Just because it’s controversial doesn’t mean we shouldn’t watch it or talk about it.”
But Baldwin did not seem eager to accuse Terry Hobbs.
“As soon as the finger of suspicion is pointed, it’s automatic – even if you didn’t do it, people think you’re guilty,” he said. “I don’t want to put another innocent person in prison.”
The film was cut about ten minutes short because of technical difficulties. Nonetheless, it made a definite impression on the audience. In the darkness, people could be heard giggling at distinctive rural phrasing and scoffing at gaping holes in the investigation. When the lights turned back on however, the atmosphere turned heartfelt and contemplative.
About 15 questions were asked during the 40-minute Q&A. Baldwin was well-spoken and upbeat. He said that throughout his ordeal, he never lost hope, because he had to stay strong for his mother and brothers. He also said he is enjoying life now.
“For people who survive a tragedy, it’s a double tragedy if you allow anger and bitterness to steal your heart,” he said. At that, the audience exploded in applause.
Ballard, Baldwin’s partner who advocated for his release and now works with the Washington Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, stressed the importance of reopening the now-closed case in order to prove the defendants’ innocence and find the real murderer.
“The sad truth is that this happens all the time. If we don’t talk about it, who’s going to talk about it?,” she said. “It’s not just about this case; it’s about preventing this from continuing to happen in our justice system.”
Pam Hobbs was comparatively reserved and barely audible in the densely-packed room. Some of the most heart-wrenching questions asked of her came from mothers in the crowd. She said that she had learned to forgive the men who she once accused of killing her son, and that she now wanted other parents to be aware of the case.
“My biggest goal is for people to always be aware that this was a real live happening. It’s not Hollywood,” she said. “I pray for Arkansas to step up, man up, and look at the evidence in the case.”
“This case affected so many people,” said one commenter, who said she had grown up following the case because she was 20 and lived near West Memphis when the murders occurred. She said it had influenced her career path. “My dad always taught me to fight for the underdog,” she added.
“That’s always heartwarming to me, when I meet people who have been inspired to do good things because of this tragedy,” Baldwin said.