On 6 May, 1993 the naked and mutilated bodies of three eight year old boys - Stevie Branch, Michael Moore and Christopher Byers - were found in a watery ditch in West Memphis, Arkansas.
Under significant pressure to solve the crime and in the midst of satanic panic hysteria, three local teenagers - Damien Echols, his friend Jason Baldwin, and Jesse Misskelley - were arrested, charged and then convicted of the brutal murders.
The case of the West Memphis Three was controversial from the start. It immediately drew the attention of the media. Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky (who also directed Brother's Keeper) made three films about the murders - the Paradise Lost trilogy.
The story would also come to the attention of another pair of filmmakers - Fran Walsh and Peter Jackson. They believed that the convictions were a devastating miscarriage of justice and felt compelled to use their resources to help free the West Memphis Three.
Time was of the essence. Echols was 18 when he was convicted and, as a result, had been given the death penalty and was on death row. In 2006, Walsh and Jackson focused on DNA evidence to support a legal argument for a new trial.
Incredibly, the judge dismissed the evidence. Walsh and Jackson were devastated. What could they do? What stronger weapon was there to prove Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley’s innocence than hard science? And then they realised what they had left in their arsonal - the ability to galvanise public opinion.
Walsh and Jackson decided that a documentary was needed to present their position and raise awareness about the West Memphis Three. After watching her film, Deliver Us From Evil (about sex abuse cases in the Roman Catholic Church), they approached director Amy Berg. They felt that she could handle both the sensitivities and the complexity of the case.
Berg did not commit to the documentary project until she had met Damien Echols and his wife, Lorri Davis. She was inspired by their experience. Berg made sure that Echols was integral to the making of the film - she wanted to give him the chance to tell his story.
"We spoke for hours; I heard about the promising developments and outrageous
disappointments that they had lived through, day after day, and year after year," Berg recalls. "After I met Lorri and Damien in person, and experienced first-hand their strength of character, poise, and love for each other I knew I wanted to make this film."
Berg spent over two years conducting research and chasing leads. "Rarely had I
come across a failure of justice with such profound consequences - three young men falsely
convicted of crimes for which they were still imprisoned; six families lives forever destroyed
while the real killer of three eight year old boys remained free," she explains.
"A combination of poverty, corruption, political ambition and religious bigotry had collided in this case to create a horrific illustration of how wrong things can go for everyone when we, as a society, fail to do all in our power to discover the truth."
The end result, West Of Memphis, is a devastating examination of a judicial culture where innocence does not seem to matter.
The documentary is an extremely tough and upsetting watch. Berg does not shy away from the brutality of the murders (a scene of a mother in extreme distress and crime scene photographs of the boys will always haunt me).
However, Berg does not exploit what happened to Stevie Branch, Michael Moore and Christopher Byers. Instead, she builds a compelling and gripping argument why justice was not - and never will be - served in the case of the West Memphis Three.
True Crime Documentary Recommendations
West Of Memphis is part of the filmmaking sub-genre of Documentary 7.
If you enjoyed this movie, I would also recommend:
The Thin Blue Line
Do you have any true crime documentaries that you would like to recommend? If so, do let us know in the comments section below or over on Twitter. You can find me @500DaysOfFilm.