West of Memphis
The powerful “West of Memphis” 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 film is a tribute to numerous people, not the least of which was Lorris Davis, a New York landscape architect who married one of the lads. Astonishingly, she was able to garner the support of Johnny Depp, Eddie Vedder and Natalie Maines, the lead singer of the Dixie Chicks. The brilliant filmmakers, Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, produced this exposé, 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 focuses on the defense attorneys who fought this case for so long. One of them was the original trial counsel, and he appears in the film as a decent lawyer who simply refused to give up.
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 five years of a 110-year sentence before his conviction was reversed on appeal by Ms. Foster. 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.
Thereafter, the prosecutor told us that if our client pleaded 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 Bonner 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.
“Emperor” opens a window into our past as you follow the quest of American intelligence officers who are given but 10 days to determine if Japanese Emperor Hirohito should be prosecuted as a war criminal at the end of World War II. Their task is profoundly difficult, particularly given the sad fact that much of urban Japan has been devastated by B-29 incendiary raids that killed hundreds of thousands of people.
The movie is seen through the eyes of U.S. General Bonner Fellers, played with gripping compassion by Matthew Fox. Interrogating individuals like former Prime Minister Hideki Tojo, Fellers is forced to confront the enormous contradiction of condemning the military expansion of Japan while ignoring the history of brutal western colonization.
But as Fellers wrestles with his conscience, he is helped by the fact that he spent time in Japan before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. What privately torture
s him is the agony flowing from the tragic fact that he has long been in love with a Japanese girl. He met Aya Shimada (a beautiful and charming Eriko Hatsune) in the States when both were attending college in the 1930s, and he accepted an assignment in Japan as referred to above in part to resume that relationship.
Fellers tries to determine the emperor’s culpability by day while spending his nights desperately trying to determine if Ms. Shimada is alive. Discovering that the grade school where she taught was destroyed in an allied attack, he is not helped by the role he previously played in identifying bombing targets.
Tommy Lee Jones gives an expected superior performance in his role as General Douglas MacArthur. More to the point, you quickly see MacArthur’s profound intelligence and incredible vanity.
As noted in Max Hastings’ great book “Retribution,” a story of the battle for Japan in 1944-45, the atmosphere surrounding MacArthur’s headquarters was considered profoundly unhealthy. Though MacArthur’s demeanor throughout the war became ever more autocratic, Mr. Jones does not ignore MacArthur’s fervent commitment to rebuild Japan. While the allies could not whitewash the prior conduct of the emperor, he appointed Fellers to the task because he needed a man who recognized the difference between vengeance and justice.
What made “Emperor” so compelling is that it follows a beautiful love story through frequent flashbacks. Two people whose hearts had bonded were forced apart by conflicting societies that simply did not understand the other. Forces were at work that were destroying much of the world, and how could they hope that their relationship would survive with them living in this monstrous environment.
Finally, I must note an emotionally mesmerizing scene where Fellers visits his lover’s family home after the war. In the process, he is reduced to tears as he talks with her father, a Japanese general who served at both Saipan and Okinawa. I wasn’t the only person in the theater fighting back those same tears, and you probably won’t be either.•
Robert Hammerle practices criminal law in Indianapolis. When he is not in the courtroom or working diligently in his Pennsylvania Street office, Bob can likely be found at one of his favorite movie theaters watching and preparing to review the latest films. To read more of his reviews, visit www.bigmouthbobs.com. The opinions expressed are those of the author.