I went alone, but the great thing about seeing documentaries like this in a theater is you're not alone. I sat next to a friendly couple and we fell into an easy conversation about tattoos, the case, our hometowns, anything and everything. Patrick Benca, Damien Echols' local attorney, introduced the film and offered to host a Q&A after the film. Minutes later, the theater went dark and the film began.
I've seen all of the Paradise Lost trilogy, but West of Memphis brings in some new-old footage as well as tons of new-new footage. For example, I had never seen the footage of Jessie Misskelley Jr.'s trial that showed witness after witness taking the stand, giving Misskelley an alibi. One friend even had a photo of them, including Misskelley, at a widely publicized event that night. How scary is that? You can have people say "Yes, I saw him," "Yes, I was with him," "Here is a photo of all of us together on that night at that event," and still be sentenced to life in prison.
I also found it incredibly interesting that officials in law enforcement, directly involved with the case, now come out saying they never really thought the crime was a satanic ritual. They made it up. They made it up because they knew what people in the small town of West Memphis, Arkansas would be afraid of. They knew what people were ignorant about, and they preyed on that to get the community and jury to find three teenagers guilty out of fear. I honestly don't understand how there can be any nay-sayers at this point... If some people involved with the case are saying it was all a lie, there's no argument.
The recap of the case and trials was brief. I believe it's complete enough for anyone unfamiliar with the case, but the Paradise Lost documentaries are more thorough. The new footage is mostly post-2005, when Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh became involved with the case. It centers on all the efforts put in to getting the three new trials, though the focus is mostly on Damien Echols, since he was on death row.
The film points a finger at Terry Hobbs; information and speculation about this has been floating around the Internet for a few years now. I'm hesitant to say anything on the issue since the Paradise Lost documentaries were effective at pinning the blame on John Mark Byers. Anything can be skewed and unfortunately it's hard to know what the truth is so long after the fact, but the footage in the film is incredibly compelling.
Just as with Damien's book, Life After Death, the film is incredibly emotional, even though the events are common knowledge. Watching the footage, getting a glimpse into behind the scenes of that life-changing day, I again sat in suspense waiting for Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley Jr. to be released from prison.
There wasn't a dry eye in the house as footage was shown of the three men trying to fit back into real life after being in jail for eighteen years. Sniffles were heard as the final scene of the movie faded into words that thanked everyone for their support, whatever it was, throughout the years, that it made all the difference.
The vast majority of the theater filed out as the credits rolled. Maybe they had forgotten about the Q&A, maybe the film had run too long for them (I think it was about 2.5 hours). Less than a dozen of us remained as Benca came back out. The theater had already started playing the "between-movie" music. He waited until his microphone came on, and then, once there was silence, introduced the man sitting in the front row, the man who had hugged Benca when he spoke before the film.
Christopher Byer's stepfather, the one the Paradise Lost documentaries highlighted as the prime suspect. He was questioned and cleared by the police, and has since changed his tune from damning the West Memphis Three to hell to saying they are innocent.
Benca introduced John Mark Byers as Christopher Byers' father, and then a man in the front of the theater spoke up. "Stepfather," he clarified.
"You're just a sperm donor!" Byers yelled back. The other man was Ricky Lee Murray, Christopher Byers' biological father.
Byers stood up and started towards Murray, but thankfully two tough biker friends were with him and held him back. Benca quickly stepped in and began taking questions, but Byers didn't sit back down. Murray never stood up.
A few questions were asked, but silence settled as everyone debated leaving, which meant slipping past Byers, or waiting to see what would happen between the two men. Benca thanked us for coming and ended the Q&A, but no one else moved. Byers began speaking again, saying he was Christopher's real father because he had been there for him, raised him, while Murray only saw him thrice - once being the boy's funeral. Byers' friends told him to hush and began pushing him towards the exit, but not before Byers could yell "You better not come near me, boy!"
Though not as tense, it reminded me of the Paradise Lost 3 screening I saw, where Jason Baldwin was face-to-face with Amanda Hobbs, one of the victim's sisters. Sometimes there's just nothing that can beat hometown(ish) drama.