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Tom Tangney

'West of Memphis' chronicles the real-life stereotypes of small town, Southern justice

A horrific triple murder spawned an almost equally horrific miscarriage of justice. This sorry tale is the subject of a new documentary called "West of Memphis."

It all started in 1993 with the grisly discovery of the bodies of three 8-year-old boys. They were found naked, hogtied, and underwater in a stream that runs through West Memphis, Arkansas. It didn't take long for authorities to zero in on suspects, three teenage outcasts who were anti-social, had long hair, liked heavy metal music and sported an early Goth look.

It appeared the victims had been sexually mutilated. People believed the crimes were motivated by "occult beliefs."

Two of the teenagers were sentenced to life in prison, the other Damien Echols, was given the death penalty. Their appeals took 18 years.

"West of Memphis" systematically reviews and dismantles the prosecution's case against the three teenagers. Step by step. It seems to confirm the worst stereotypes of small town, Southern justice.

The movie takes the sworn testimony of witnesses who testified against the boys and juxtaposes it with their present day confessions they lied on the stand.

One witness said, "Just between me and you - did you do it? and he said yes and he went into detail. Jason told me he dismembered the kid."

Now that witness said at the time he was doing a lot of LSD and couldn't remember why he was doing what he was doing.

Another witness, when asked on the stand if one of the boys invited her to meeting, replied, "A cult, satanic meeting."

But now the woman who talked about the satanic meeting says she was a "just a big liar."

Were the murders part of a Satanic cult, as claimed by the prosecutors? There was absolutely no evidence for that.

How about sexual mutilation? That turns out not to be the case either.

What about the confession from one of the suspects? A case with a confession would easier as opposed to one without direct evidence, law enforcement admitted.

One of the boys, Jessie Misskelley, had an IQ of 72. He confessed to the murders, and implicated Charles Baldwin and Damien Echols. The confession was at odds with facts known by police.

Even the knife supposedly used to torture the kids turns out not to have been used at all - it had actually been at the bottom of a lake a year before the murders even happened.

Thanks to a groundbreaking documentary made a few years after the murders, a film called Paradise Lost, the case got a lot of media attention and caught the eye of a number of celebrities, especially Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder.

"I remember thinking, if we could get involved we could help get them out in one or two years - that's how naive I was," said Vedder. "It's usually on average of 15 to 20 years. If you would have told us that four years in - it could have seemed quite daunting."

Vedder, Henry Rollins, and Johnny Depp threw concerts to raise money for the defense fund of the three convicted murderers. Then "Lord of the Rings" director Peter Jackson and his wife got involved, bankrolling a number of forensic investigations. Over the strenuous objections of the West Memphis prosecutor's office, the Arkansas Supreme Court ordered a new trial. Eighteen years after their convictions, a plea bargain was struck and the three men, now in their mid-thirties, were set free.

An outrageous case. But perhaps the most disturbing thing is this, from the lips of Damien Nichols.

"The person who killed those three kids is out walking on the street."

"West of Memphis" suggests a new suspect, one of the stepfathers of one of the victims, but the case is now so old, and was so incompetently prosecuted initially, getting a conviction against anyone is highly unlikely.

Tom Tangney, KIRO Radio Host, Film & Media Critic
Tom Tangney is the co-host of The Tom and Curley Show on KIRO Radio and resident enthusiast of...everything. As the film and media critic on the Morning News on KIRO Radio, he espouses his love for books, movies, TV, art, pop culture, politics, sports, and Husky football.
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By day, you can hear Tom on KIRO Radio 97.3 FM, and by night, he sits in the dark, making snide comments about what he sees on the silver screen.

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