West of Memphis
When you see this film you will be reminded that fundamental fairness disappears when Lady Justice peeks under her blindfold.
Seeing West of Memphis should be required at all law schools in this country. Additionally, multiple CLE credits should be given to any lawyer who takes it in. It is a fundamentally evocative film about the cost to human beings when the criminal justice system loses its focus.
While many of you know this already, the film details the wrongful conviction of three Arkansas teenagers for the killing of three 8-year olds found submerged in a small creek in 1993. The three convicted kids, all loners and misfits, were subsequently incarcerated for close to 20 years before being released upon the discovery of new DNA evidence among other things. Justice was perverted, not served, and the film shines a spotlight on a small community that temporarily lost its collective mind.
The evidence to link them to the crime was appallingly weak, and largely nonexistent. One of the three, who was borderline mentally unstable, was alleged to have confessed after repeatedly changing his story and then largely following the suggestions of his interrogator over a 9 hour period.
But the prosecutor was desperate and looking for blood. An emotionally charged jury largely relied on the preposterous testimony of another inmate, the bizarre testimony of a coroner who was not certified and the strange discovery of a serrated knife in a lake that was orchestrated by the prosecuting attorney. On top of that, the prosecutor called a goofy local investigator who identified himself as a Satanic expert, and he proceeded to identify one of the teenagers as a member of a local cult.
The film is a tribute to numerous people, not the least of which was Lorris Davis, a New York landscape architect who fell in love and married one of the convicted lads. Because she refused to quit, she was able to garner the support of Johnny Depp, Eddie Vetter, and Natalie Maines, lead singer of the Dixie Chicks. All of them appeared in the film, along with the brilliant film makers, Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh. They produced this film, and I could only think of their phenomenal trilogy that began with The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001).
Such fellowship existed here, and the film also focuses on the defense attorneys who fought this case for so long. One of them was the original defense trial counsel, and he also appears in the film as a decent lawyer who simply refused to give up.
What is profoundly disturbing about West of Memphis was the willingness of judges and prosecutors to turn a blind eye to the possibility of innocent people being convicted. Good Lord, one of them was sentenced to death row, and it was a wonder that any of them maintained their sanity while incarcerated for so long.
Even when the Arkansas Supreme Court eventually ordered a new trial, the elected prosecutor still looked for a reason to save face. In the end, all three innocent men had to enter what is known as Alford pleas in order to obtain their freedom. In other words, they had to plead guilty despite simultaneously maintaining their innocence if they wanted a guarantee of being released from prison.
Quite frankly, I can’t help but wonder if any criminal defense lawyer has not experienced that convoluted moment when a client’s admission to a crime he didn’t commit will avoid an unsure trial and gain his immediate release from jail. My wife, Monica Foster, and I once represented a young man in Indianapolis that resulted in that very sad outcome.
He had served 5 years of a 110 year sentence before his conviction was reversed on appeal. The crime concerned a gas station robbery where the attendant was shot and blinded. We tried it a second time, and the jury hung after voting 9 to 3 for acquittal.
In the end, the prosecutor told us that if our client pled guilty he could walk home without being on probation. If he refused, he would again face the risk of trial. In the end, we had to watch that innocent young man plead guilty to this crime as tears filled his eyes, and I couldn’t forget that moment when I watched West of Memphis.
This is a movie of monumental importance to all lawyers, whether or not you practice as a criminal defense attorney. As said by General Fellers in the film Emperor, “Vengeance is not justice.” Atticus Finch realized that in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), and we lawyers should never forget it.