Movie review: West of Memphis (2012)

This movie is a well-crafted indictment of the judicial system. Three eight-year-old boys were murdered in 1993 but the lives ruined rippled far beyond them. To their families. To the boys convicted of the crimes. To friends and loved ones of everyone involved.

The State’s disregard for finding the truth, for examining all evidence, for questioning all assumptions is appalling. From the expert medical testimony on the state of the murdered boys’ bodies and story about how they were mutilated and raped. To timelines and alibis not being considered, timelines and alibis that didn’t place the convicted teenagers near the scene of the crime at the time of the murders.

Then despite new DNA evidence that called into question everything that had been presented in the case years before, the State refused a new trial. The three teenagers convicted eighteen years previously were released through a deal. By using the Alford plea, they pleaded guilty but maintained their innocence. (I’m still trying to wrap my head around that legal double-speak.) Then they were allowed to walk free.

They never had a chance to clear their names with the new evidence. The community never found out who the killer was. A new trial could not be convened unless the State agreed to it. And the State most certainly did not.

The only assumption I can make is that the representatives of the State knew that they could not win a retrial. That the evidence was not good enough to convict these three men again. And they were fine with not pursuing the truth. Not pursuing justice. Those representatives of the State were either stuck in their convictions about who the murderers were. Or they could not admit to potentially holding erroneous beliefs. They could not be wrong.

I have a radically different expectation of lawyers, judges, and others in our judicial system. I hold public servants to a higher standard. They need to be open, listening, reflective. They are seeking truth. Justice. They hold the welfare of the community in their hands. And the fate of those accused. As such they should be interested in the truth and in examining the evidence, following it down whatever path it takes them. Regardless if they agree with the outcome. Regardless if they have to reassess their beliefs or assumptions.

With these naïve ideals, I sat in awe of the attitude reflected in the words of the District Prosecuting Attorney for the Second Judicial District of Arkansas, Scott Ellington. In discussing the State’s lack of interest in a retrial and in examining the new evidence and re-examining the older evidence, he stated, “We didn’t want to show weakness in maintaining the judgment.” He was worried about a change in the judgment. Showing weakness. Being wrong with the initial judgment.

It was the right thing for them to do, Ellington claimed, to refuse a retrial, refuse to look at the evidence, refuse to question their beliefs. The right thing politically. I couldn’t believe it when I heard that come out of Ellington’s mouth. As though he didn’t realize what he was saying. The right thing politically. Meanwhile, the truth about the murder of three young boys remains unknown. The family members and friends are left without closure. The convicted men haunted by years behind bars and the stigma of conviction. And the community remains unsafe with a killer still free.

This movie does nothing to build your confidence in government or our judicial system. Both of which are, after all, made up of people. People with biases and flaws just like you and me. But the hope is that checks and balances exist to help overcome these biases. That in the end justice will be served.

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