Film Review: West of Memphis

I have just returned from watching West of Memphis, the latest film in the West Memphis Three saga. This is a case I care about a great deal, and I have been following it for eighteen years, until its surprising ending last fall in an Alford plea.

Those of you who have followed the case and were convinced, as I am, of the defendants’ innocence, may have been drawn to the case by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky series of documentaries Paradise Lost (1996), Paradise Lost 2: Revelations (2000), and Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (2011). What could a fourth documentary possibly add to those?

Plenty, apparently. West of Memphis, directed by Amy Berg and produced by Damien Echols and his wife and staunch supporter Lorri Davis, as well as supporters such as Peter Jackson, offers fresh perspectives on the case that were not highlighted in the previous documentaries. If you thought what you saw in Paradise Lost of the trial was an absolute travesty, wait until you see incredible footage of the trial not seen in the original documentary. This movie also benefits from the passage of time and the discovery of new forensic evidence, as well as recantations by several key witnesses from the original trial.

The film has many strengths, but the most interesting bit, to me, was the blow-by-blow documentation of the Alford plea process, and in particularly the excruciating dilemma faced by Jason Baldwin, who did not want to plead guilty to a crime he did not commit. We got to hear moving words from the judge accepting the pleas (who was clearly convinced of the defendants’ innocence) and some ridiculous statements from prosecutors, present and past.

The weakness of the film is in its overemphasis on the alternative theory, according to which Terry Hobbs, stepfather of one of the children, committed the crime. It is true that some forensic evidence ties Hobbs to the crime, and he is therefore a more convincing suspect than John Mark Byers, who was cast as a possible suspect in Paradise Lost 2. At the time, I thought that the case against Byers was no less a witchhunt than against the original defendants. While these filmmakers have a bit more to support their theory, including DNA from the alibi witness, I can see a talented defense attorney explaining away the DNA evidence. The crime does not necessarily make sense, there is no clear motive, and the hearsay evidence about a late confession could be as problematic as the bogus evidence about Damien Echols’ alleged confession in the original trial. I think we can easily come to believe in Echols’, Baldwin’s and Misskelley’s innocence without casting aspersions on new suspects without conclusive proof.

That said, the film is a masterpiece: Beautifully filmed, fast paced, intelligent, and providing a fascinating perspective into the case and the defendants’. I urge you all to see it.

Ajami, Part One: Between “Security Crime” and “Ordinary Crime”

As I post this, I am en route to Israel, to participate in the Israeli Law and Society Association Annual Meeting. At the conference, I plan to discuss a recent Israeli-Palestinian film, Ajami. The film examines the complex relationships between Israeli Jews, Israeli Arabs, and Palestinian undocumented workers, in the Ajami neighborhood in Jaffa. The plot is incredibly complicated, and throws the heroes of our story into a web of drugs, violence, political turmoil, and neighborly disputes. It is the perfect film for any criminal justice scholar and practitioner who wants or needs a window into the Israeli criminal underworld.

At the talk, I plan to use scenes from Ajami to uncover and dispel two prevalent myths in Israeli criminal justice: The dichotomy between “crime” and “security” and the romanticization of restorative justice. This post will be devoted to the first of those myths.

Israeli newspapers often report of ongoing police investigations, particularly of violent crime, by pointing out whether the investigation is pursuing a “criminal angle” or a “security angle”. The assumption is that these two categories–security crime and ordinary crime–are mutually exclusive, and each requires a different model for understanding and approaching it. These models are different in our perception of them, in our discourse about them, and in the techniques and technologies we apply to them.

“Security crime” is special and takes prevalence over “ordinary crime”. When an act is labeled a “security crime”, it is placed in the context of the permanent state of emergency in Israel. It is seen not just as a threat among criminals or to the “other”, but as a direct threat to “us”, the collective Israeli social fabric. As such, it draws in the army as a primary respondent, as well as the increasingly militarized Israeli police (now governed by the Ministry for Internal Security, rather than its former name, the Ministry of Police). Investigations into security crimes bring to life the dilemma of torturing suspects, supposedly forbidden by the Supreme Court, but alive and well (albeit reduced) according to human rights organizations.

The isolation of security crime above all crime, and the approach that it is somehow special and merits special governing techniques, is a feature of the general, ethnicity-based “divide and conquer” taxonomy Israel applies to its residents and their problems. Among some examples of these approach, we can think of the un-Arabizing of Israeli Druze citizens (some of whom serve in the army as military judges and attorneys); the un-Palestinizing of Israeli Arab citizens; and the supposedly impermeable boundaries between race, religion, and degrees of religiousness.

There are several problems with this rhetoric. The first is that it is false. The Israeli crime map, masterfully exposed and illuminated in Ajami, shows that the distinction between security crime and “ordinary” crime is false. Crime occurs across all categories, and the complex motivations behind the crime cannot be reduced to a national/profit-based dichotomy. In fact, the supposedly impermeable boundaries in society constitute optimal conditions for crime to occur: The Israeli car theft industry flourished due to these boundaries, as seventy percent of all stolen cars in Israel found their way to chop shops in the Palestinian authority. Ironically, what reduced much of this activity was a non-security, specified policing unit dedicated specifically to car theft, and unpreoccupied with the security/crime dichotomy.

Another problem with this dichotomy is that it allows the Israeli public to keep criminal activity compartmentalized and labeled, without making the connections between different types of marginalization. That the occupation creates undocumented labor markets plagued by illness and poverty, which in itself gives rise to “regular crime”, is conveniently hidden from the overt discussion of “security crime”. Moreover, while “security crime”, such as the kidnapping of a soldier, serves a Durkheimian function of galvanizing and uniting us, “ordinary crime”, especially in the context of organized crime or drugs, creates a sense of alienation and indifference. Not only is this harmful to law enforcement efforts, it is harmful to our national psyche. This approach of alienation reminds me of a phenomenon that Darnell Hawkins discusses in the context of African American crime: While crimes perpetrated by Black offenders against White victims are seen as threatening, crimes within the Black community are treated with relative leniency and indifference.

Some of the implications of this dichotomy can be seen in the realm of criminal courtroom practices and sentencing. Research consistently confirms that Arab defendants are treated worse by the Israeli law enforcement system, starting with arrest rates and ending with sentencing. Is this mere ethnic discrimination? Or does it stem from the suspicion that any crime involving an Arab or Palestinian defendant has some security overtones that require attention and special severity?

But one of the most harmful effects of the dichotomy is related to Jonathan Simon’s Governing Through Crime. In the book, Simon argues that one of the perversities of modern society is seeing everything through a lens of crime and victimization. Citizens come to see themselves primarily as potential victims, which affects our modes of living, our choice of vehicles, our recourse to situational crime prevention, and our demonization of cities, urban youth, and the poor. Simon makes the suggestion to shift from models of “war on crime” to “wars” on something else, such as cancer or natural disasters. My critique of Simon’s argument builds on the Israeli experience. As opposed to the U.S. experience, in which crime is a metaphor for anything else, in Israel war in itself is the metaphor, for crime among other things. While the boundaries between “security crime” and “ordinary crime” remain in place, the prestige, urgency and importance of security-related concerns creates a warped social universe in which, to gain priority for one’s issue, the issue needs to be framed in terms of national security. And so, the police becomes increasingly militarized, in discourse as well as in approaches and technologies; and we launch war against environmental pollution, obesity, and other harms that are analogized to the security survival threat. This survivalist approach creates a culture of fear that magnifies, and sometimes exceeds, its counterpart in the United States.

More on this in our next post.