In 1993, the bodies of three eight-year-old boys were discovered in a creek in West Memphis, Arkansas. They were naked and hogtied, and had possibly been sexually mutilated before being murdered. It’s hard to believe that a situation could get any worse from there, but it did. Three teenage boys were put on trial for the crime. None of them had anything to do with it. They might have been victims of the system, had their case not caught the attention of documentary filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky.
The pair traveled to Arkansas to film the trials of the so-called West Memphis Three. When the resultant film, Paradise Lost, aired on HBO in 1996, it kicked off an international outcry at the clear injustice on display. It was the beginning of a nearly two-decade quest to prove the young men’s innocence. And as new twists and turns arose in the case, Berlinger and Sinofsky returned to West Memphis to document them. They made two more movies, which, together with the first, chronicle the long, bitter fight over the West Memphis Three.
The Paradise Lost trilogy is one of the most important pieces of documentary filmmaking of the modern era. For one thing, it’s a powerful demonstration of how cinema can move social change. Were it not for these movies, one of the West Memphis Three would most likely have been executed by now, with the other two rotting in prison for the rest of their lives. The trilogy can be seen as a sort of true crime counterpart to Michael Apted’s Up series. While Apted’s docs follow the course of normal life, Berlinger and Sinofsky’s show what happens in the long run to people who suffer disastrous upheavals in their lives. Over the course of these three films, we develop an extremely personal understanding with the various players in the West Memphis Three case.
Now, another documentary filmmaker has tackled this subject matter. Amy Berg, best known for Deliver Us from Evil (which explored the Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandal), has directed West of Memphis, which will be released in theaters this Christmas. Whereas the Paradise Lost films were made alongside all the developments in the case, this one was made mainly with hindsight. Some have questioned what the point of yet another film about this case is, but I believe there’s value in using what is now known about the facts to condense all that’s needed to understand the West Memphis Three into one film, rather than three. But then, I am unusual in having viewed West of Memphis before any of the Paradise Lost movies. Now, I’ve finally amended this oversight in my cinematic knowledge, having marathoned all three. Let’s see how they measure up.
Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills
The events depicted in this film are The Crucible writ true. Although Arthur Miller would likely look at the behavior of the citizens, law enforcement, and legal figures and think that it was too over-the-top to be believable. They were enraptured by the satanic Panic that gripped America during this time. Devil worshippers were supposedly running rampant, conducting blood rituals and orgies. None of it was true, but since when has the truth ever been a barrier to human stupidity?
So when the bodies of Stevie Branch, Michael Moore, and Christopher Byers were found in Robin Hood Hills, the focus of the criminal investigation was on satanic ritual, even though nothing about the crime scene suggested that the murders were ritualistic in nature. Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelly, and Jason Baldwin were considered strange enough to fit the bill. Damien in particular seemed suspect. He liked to wear black, listen to heavy metal music, and had an interest in Wicca. In lieu of performing any kind of proper police work, the WMPD went after these teenagers instead. They drummed an inconsistent, inaccuracy-riddled “confession” out of the borderline-retarded Misskelly through a twelve-hour interrogation. This confession, rather than any physical evidence, was held up as the chief evidence of their guilt.
The only thing more pathetic than the investigation, or the fact that the state considered it strong enough to prosecute with, was how willfully the public ate it up. Blinded by their outrage over the deaths of the boys and their fear of an Other, they bayed for the blood of Misskelly, Baldwin, and especially Echols. It’s incredibly disconcerting to watch. As Berlinger and Sinofsky film the two trials (the first for Misskelly, who was tried separately due to his “cooperation,” and the second for Echols and Baldwin), they present a portrait of a community gone mad with grief, fear, and prejudice.
Given the documentary’s reputation, I expected it to be passionately partisan on the behalf of the Three. But it doesn’t directly advocate for them much at all, instead allowing the situation to speak for itself. And really, Berlinger and Sinofsky don’t have to do much ideological pushing when the facts so powerfully point in one direction. The two were both of the Maysles brothers’ cinema verité school, and even with a Metallica soundtrack blaring*, this is very much in the vein of that kind of work. This style values the small moments, finding profundity in people performing casual actions, and revealing themselves through natural talk rather than prompted questions.
While the two trials dominate the story, in a two-and-a-half hour runtime, there are many diversions to visit around West Memphis. We meet the three defendants, as well as the families of the young victims, members of both legal teams, and people from the community. Echols, Misskelly, and Baldwin all wear near-perpetual deer-in-the-headlights looks. They don’t quite comprehend the their circumstances, so enormously absurd are they. They’re lambs for the slaughter, which is ironic, since they’ve been accused of performing ritual sacrifice. In contrast, the families of Branch, Moore, and Byers paradoxically emerge as sinister figures, despite being victims. They just cry out so viciously but blindly for justice. They don’t really care about guilt or innocence. They just want someone to pay. And the legal system is only too happy to accommodate them.
Paradise Lost is a masterwork. It’s a horrifying look at how people will abandon all reason in the pursuit of blood. It didn’t hit me as hard as it should have, since I already knew all the details of the case. But I still recognize its brilliance, and its importance. On it’s own, it’s a dispiriting example of terrible injustice. But that wasn’t the end of the story
*This was, by the way, the first time Metallica permitted their music to be used in any film, so swayed were they by the plight of the Three.
Paradise Lost 2: Revelations
Damien Echols, put on death row for the murders, appealed his sentence, and Berlinger and Sinofsky came back to West Memphis to follow the process. In examining the forensic evidence, Echols’s defense noticed what appeared to be bite marks on the face of Stevie Branch. The imprints didn’t match any of the Three, but Mark Byers, the stepfather of Christopher Byers, had had his teeth removed in 1997. And there were whisperings around the small town that Byers was the true culprit in the murders
Revelations takes a rather drastic turn from the tone set by its predecessor. It’s much more sensationalistic, and that’s due in no small part to its unofficial main character: Mark Byers. Byers is a singularly bizarre human being. Hulking and sporting a thick goatee and thicker mullet, and prone to wild behavior, he plays like a parody of a good ol’ boy. He’s also playing it all up for the camera, which becomes more and more obvious as the film continues to spend time with him and his actions escalate. By the time he’s symbolically digging graves for Echols, Misskelly and Baldwin by the site in Robin Hood Hills where the bodies were found, and then setting the area on fire, it’s plain to see that he’s relishing the attention of the artificial eye.
So why did Berlinger and Sinofsky spend so much time with him in this film? More time, in fact, than they do with any of the West Memphis Three? Because the working theory of Echols defense was that Byers was the true killer, and the filmmakers seem to have been invested in making this look plausible. And then Byers passed a polygraph test, rendering the whole matter moot. You could conceivably view Revelations as a sort of warped character study. Even though they’re pointless, the scenes with Byers are all absolutely riveting in an inability-to-look-away-from-a-wreck way. But it’s also grossly hypocritical. The first movie was all about people unjustly condemned for being strange. What’s so different about casting suspicion on Byers by portraying him as a crazy person?
But this case isn’t about Byers. It’s about Echols, Misskelly and Baldwin, and this film neglects them. The best parts of the doc involve the movement that has sprung up around the Three. In the wake of the first Paradise Lost, people all over the world pooled their resources to do the work that the police wouldn’t do. There’s some fascinating stuff in Revelations concerning how the Internet has changed the face of social activism. People from disparate walks of life, united by a common cause, were able to become a whole that could do more than their individual selves, despite being separated by geography. If the doc had made this its focus, it would have perhaps been able to equal the first installment. As it is, it’s engrossing but mostly hollow.
Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory
A decade passed after Revelations. While the supporters of the West Memphis Three continued to toil on their behalf, within the walls of prison, the Three themselves settled into their lives. They did their best to make the most of these conditions. Echols in particular evolved from an aimless young boy to a thoughtful man. He fell in love with a woman on the outside, Lorri, who knew of him through the movie, and who corresponded with him as a result. They married in prison. Lorri made it her job to get the Three out of jail.
And yet through every new breakthrough, the state stubbornly refused to admit to any wrongdoing. Not even after DNA testing found no traces of the Three’s DNA at the crime scene. Again, the facts don’t matter in cases like this—it’s all about the supposed integrity of the system. If the state admitted to making one big mistake, then it was opening itself up to further probing, which was undesirable (even if it was most likely deserved). This pigheadedness resulted in the eponymous purgatory, as the case became stuck in an endless loop of appeals and denials.
Finally, the law was worn down, and in 2011, there was a breakthrough. Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelly entered an “Alford plea,” which essentially says, “I’m guilty, but I didn’t do it.” They acknowledged that there was enough evidence to convict them (which was, in this case, total baloney, but they had to work with what they had), but maintained their innocence. They were subsequently sentenced to time served and released from prison. That was the culmination of all the years of effort. Not exoneration. The true killer of the three children continues to walk free, free from pursuit. It’s a terribly imperfect solution, but it’s the best that could be done.
Given that all three of these documentaries draw attention to the institutional problems of our legal system, it only makes sense that it would end this way. As much as we would like to hope otherwise, there was never any Hollywood-style perfect happy ending to this case in the picture. This is what Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelly had to settle for: the good enough. There’s a valuable lesson right there.
Purgatory is bogged down in spending its first half hour or so reiterating things that the previous docs went over. But once it gets into the swing of things, it becomes a wonderful study in how people gain maturity. It’s not just Echols, Baldwin and Misskelly who have grown, either. Most of West Memphis looks back at their actions during the original trials ruefully. The majority of the families of the boys no longer believe in the Three’s guilt, not even Mark Byers. We see in this film the healing power of time and reflection.
It’s pretty evident that the film was originally planned to simply be an update on the Three’s status, and that their release caught Berlinger and Sinofsky off-guard. The plea and its aftermath come literally in an epilogue, and the movie itself doesn’t quite feel like it’s working towards it. But on the whole, Purgatory is a fitting conclusion to the series. It’s certainly a step up from Revelations, at least. Taken together, all three movies make a fantastic chronicle of injustice, imprisonment and, finally, freedom.