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January 3, 2013

'West of Memphis' brings fresh eyes to story

The saga of the “West Memphis Three” reaches a thrilling, if somewhat anticlimactic, conclusion in “West of Memphis,” a documentary financed by Peter (“Lord of the Rings”) Jackson and directed by Amy Berg.

Berg, who directed the damning Catholic priests and child abuse documentary “Deliver Us from Evil,” pulls together a riveting story built on one of the most notorious murder cases of recent history.

In 1993, three very young boys were murdered and dumped in a ditch in West Memphis, Ark. The West Memphis Three, socially outcast teenagers, were caught, tried and convicted and spent nearly two decades in prison despite rampant evidence of medical examiner incompetence and police and prosecutorial misconduct.

The case was kept alive and in the public eye largely on the strength of a trio of documentaries by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky. Their “Paradise Lost” films inspired ongoing media interest in a case that seemed both sensational — allegations of ritual sexual abuse and Satanic/ occult murder — and closed thanks to “the finality of judgment.”

One of the teens confessed. Witnesses came forward alleging one of the boys, aptly named Damien, was into the occult. The state of the bodies seemed so awful that only devil worshippers could be responsible, or so the theory went.

“We’ve got a story that is very, very believable,” one interview subject recalls hearing. “So believable, it’s almost perfect.”

That story, manipulated by the local police and trumpeted by an ambitious prosecutor, is the one lead they pursued. It worked and won convictions.

Berg, working with a private investigator Jackson and longtime companion Fran Walsh hired, interviewing a retired FBI profiler Jackson & co. put on the payroll, and interviewing the victims’ families (who were, the closing credits tell us, compensated for the interviews), weaves this tortured tale into a compelling narrative that has twists and turns, blind alleys and lots of interviews with Damien Echols in his jail cell.

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