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Thursday, March 5, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 7.0° F  Fair
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West of Memphis raises tough questions about filmmaking's role in criminal justice
Documenting the evidence
A town's anxiety led to a hasty death sentence.
A town's anxiety led to a hasty death sentence.

Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky saved Damien Echols' life.

That wasn't their intent when they started making a documentary called Paradise Lost, about three murdered 8-year-old boys and the hasty trials where three teens were deemed responsible. Echols was sentenced to death at one of these trials. Thanks to the film, strangers spent years trying to clear his name.

Amy Berg (Deliver Us From Evil) recognizes Paradise Lost's significance in her own documentary, West of Memphis, yet she asks whether the case needs more coverage. Over the course of 15 years and three documentaries, Berlinger and Sinofsky have presented nearly eight hours of material about the trials, the subsequent publicity and the new evidence that points to other suspects. What could Berg possibly have to add? Not a ton. But she taps into what made this story so fascinating in the first place, and what has made films about it so troubling at times.

Berg lays a comprehensive foundation for viewers unfamiliar with the case, describing the 1993 crimes that horrified the small Arkansas community of West Memphis. She shows how the prosecution used the jury's fear of satanic rituals to convict Echols and two of his friends. But her main focus is the events of the mid-to-late 2000s, as forensic experts and DNA testing challenged the trial's conclusions and raised hopes that a new evidentiary hearing would be granted.

Berg crafts a compelling story with this material. Lo and behold, hair testing could link Terry Hobbs, stepfather of one of the murdered boys, to the crime. Berg dwells on his criminal history, questionable alibi and an eyewitness who identifies him as the person most likely to have last seen the boys alive. Some great behind-the-scenes material from the trial reveals how the plea deal almost fell apart.

All in all, West of Memphis feels like a true continuation of the Paradise Lost story, though in a more complex way than Berg probably intended. You have to wonder if the change some advocacy films bring about is as worrisome as the problems their makers seek to address. If documentary filmmakers can influence the outcome of a trial, then what is the role of attorneys, judges and juries?

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