Saturday, March 31, 2012

Paradise Lost: The Story of the West Memphis 3

This will be simultaneously a review of the three extraordinary documentaries, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996), Paradise Lost: Revelations (2000) and Paradise Lost: Purgatory (2011), directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, and my personal opinions on what is revealed about the case of the West Memphis 3 and the profound effect that this baffling, maddening and tragic case personally has had on me. While I want to examine the success of each film, I think it is hard to ignore the emotional impact created by this case, and in extension these groundbreaking documentaries.



The first film in the series, released in 1996, was Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills. The film is an extraordinary achievement in objective documentary filmmaking, as Berlinger and Sinofsky interview numerous people connected with the case, including the parents of both the victims and the accused, members of the West Memphis Police Department involved in the investigation and the judge and most of the attorneys and legal counsel involved in the trial.

The film opens with some amateur footage (likely not taken by the documentarians) of the crime scene – and we learn that the naked and hogtied bodies of three 8 year-old boys have been discovered in a ditch in a wooded area of West Memphis, known as the ‘Robin Hood Hills’. The three victims were Christopher Byers, Michael Moore and Stevie Branch – with Christopher Byers’ discovered with his penis severed off. Approximately a month after investigations commence (and this information is revealed in Purgatory and was not disclosed in the first two installments) three teenage boys, Jessie Misskelley Jr., Jason Baldwin and Damien Echols were arrested on suspicion and eventually put on trial for the crimes.

Almost the entirety of the strongly Evangelical Christian West Memphis community, fueled by the definitive assurances of the detectives (one declaring that their guilt was an ’11’ on a scale of 1-10) that they had arrested the true culprits, were convinced that the murders were a part of a Satanic ritual. Never once do the victim's parents doubt that the wrong people have been arrested and tried – despite the evidence (and it is almost entirely based on speculated character) being very thin, and what we assume, as we watch the trial take place from the privileged position of inside the walls of the courtroom, is too thin to convict.


The case is a modern day witch hunt, with the boys suspected and arrested due to their character – the fact that they wore black, listened to heavy metal music and were rumored to be a part of a Pagan cult. These rumours were false, with Damien openly acknowledging to follow the Wican religion, and an interest in literature about alternative religions. The basis for their conviction, and the only evidence that seemed to be considered, was this profiling – and it was extraordinarily weak. Essentially, it is a case of being guilty until proven innocent. 

The first trial covered in the film is the one of Jessie Misskelley – separate from Echols and Baldwin due to the fact that Misskelley had submitted a confession. There is plenty of controversy surrounding this confession – with an expert brought in to try and convince a jury that it was false and coerced by the detectives. Jessie Misskelley, who has a low IQ, was the subject of 12 hours of interrogation, but only 45 minutes of the interrogation (his alleged confession – which to me sounds like he is reading some written text) is recorded. There are no transcripts as to what took place earlier, and some of the dubious techniques that may have been used by the detectives to coerce a confession are brought to light in the trial.

Jessie Misskelley was found guilty. In his confession, which made it seem like he was directly involved in the death of Michael Moore but secondary to the murders of the other two boys, names Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin as the chief perpetrators. In their trial, which is separate to Misskelley’s, this confession tape could not be used as evidence – but it is later discovered (in Purgatory) to have played an illegal role in convincing the jury of their guilt, explaining their shocking decision to convict them. Damien, the most outspoken of the three and always the most willing to give interviews, was considered the ringleader. Believed to be the most likely to have planned the murders, he was placed on Death Row.


Years later, after so much support and fundraising has been thrown at the West Memphis 3, and new evidence has been brought to light that should have them exonerated, the detectives and the State prosecution still adamantly believe that the rightful culprits are behind bars, and as far as they are concerned, the case is closed. Due to the support of sympathetic strangers (and celebrities like The Dixie Chicks and Johnny Depp have been forward with their support), their continued fight to have their name cleared, and the generous offer by attorneys and field experts to work on the case for free, has resulted in a continued investigation.

There is clearly something extremely wrong with the Arkansas judicial system if such a miscarriage of justice can occur. It is horrific that such an atrocity can happen to these three boys, but just as tragic is the fact that these young men were found guilty for a crime they obviously had no role in – and the incompetence of the Police Force for dismissing any involvement by the victim’s families, and overlooking several potential leads. Years and years later, a by-chance interview with one of Terry Hobbs’ neighbours, reveals that he was seen with the children on the night of the murders. Perhaps even the last person seen with them.

There is so much evidence that was incorrectly examined, including the knife found in a lake behind Jason Baldwin’s house that was allegedly used in the murders. At the Echols/Baldwin trial, it is initially testified that the castration of the penis was the work of a skilled physician – meaning that these youngsters (in the dark, and in the water) could not possibly have accomplished such a skilled task. Accepting this evidence, this is a pretty glaring feature. Over a decade later, when further expert analysis is brought in to re-examine the wounds, they are discovered to have been caused by animals, and there was in fact, no castration at all.


The crime scene is one of the most interesting aspects of the case – and one that should have immediately proven that the boys were innocent. There was no blood found at the crime scene, and if the castrations and injuries were to have taken place there, then blood evidence would have been located. It is very likely that the site was just a place to dump the boys, who had been killed elsewhere.

In Revelations the filmmakers’ access to filming the trial sequences are restricted, and the parents of the victims (with the exception of Mark Byers) refused to be interviewed. As a result, the film is less objective and not as well rounded as The Child Murders, but still does a brilliant job balancing the filmmakers’ interviews with the attorneys of the accused (and several that worked on the case for free), the support groups of the West Memphis 3 who have set up a foundation following the influence of The Child Murders when it first aired on HBO, the experiences of Damien (who was in regular contact with the determined founders of the support groups) and the story of the quite intimidating and outspoken Mark Byers, the stepfather of one of the victims, who had emerged as the case’s primary suspect at that time. Revelations is mostly centred on the post-trial controversy and the trio's attempts to appeal.

In Purgatory, there is some extraordinary new evidence that is brought to light. A number of experts (criminal profiling, DNA and forensics) are brought in to properly examine the evidence. The findings completely change the face of the case. The wounds on the bodies, according to one expert, are the work of animals that would have discovered the bodies lying in the hills. The main reason why Damien, Jason and Jessie were convicted was because the murders were believed to be a part of a satanic ritual. Now it is revealed that the speculated castration, and the bite marks found on one of the victims, weren’t even the work of human hand.

Purgatory, which was nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the 2011 Academy Awards, is released ten years after Revelations and most of the footage used is from the latter half of the decade, so another big shock is realizing how much the three have changed over the years. It is so sad to note that almost half of their lives have been spent behind bars. Damien's son is now almost as old as he was when he was convicted, and it is revealed that Damien has been married for almost the entirety of his imprisonment. Jessie Misskelley is almost entirely absent from Revelations so it really has been about 15 years since we have seen him. He is much stockier, and now has a bald head with a clock face tattooed on. Jason Baldwin, soft-spoken and not particularly well educated (seemingly) when he was convicted, is now very well spoken and understandably has some strong opinions about the justice system that found him guilty. 

Initially, Purgatory was meant to document the three in prison and their appeals following the new evidence. It actually played in cinemas last year, I believe, but a re-edit of the film was made following their surprise release. What was supposed to be a hearing to decide whether a re-trial was to take place within the next 12 months turned into an offer that could allow them to walk free – albeit claiming their innocence but continuing to plead guilty and paying for their freedom with the time spent in prison. Is this justice? Few would think so. Certainly not Mark Byers.



What is striking about Purgatory is how successful it is as a stand-alone film. Recapping the events that have transpired during the first two films – re-using interview footage from the initial trial period - the film fills in viewers who may have little-to-no knowledge of the case, but uses previously unseen footage from the crime scene, and relays the events from a different point-of-view, which gives the film a freshness to it. 

While The Child Murders is a more influential filmmaking endeavour, effectively serving as evidence, Purgatory is a fluent overview of the entirety of the case, while concisely balancing in the new evidence, and proving to be the most shocking and angering of them all. At least at the conclusion of this film, with the trio being released, there is some strong hope for justice to be served and the true killer to be apprehended. At the conclusion of Revelations there did seem to be little hope the decision would be reversed by the stubborn judiciary, whether they were aware or unaware that they had been a part of an unacceptable travesty of injustice or not.

With this new evidence many people who were adamantly convinced of their guilt are asked to think again. Mark Byers, outspoken about their guilt, and for quite a while a suspect himself (even taking a polygraph test to prove his innocence), is now convinced they are innocent and shifts his energy to collecting evidence that suggests that Stevie Branch’s stepfather Terry Hobbs is the true killer. Will we ever know? I believe that Peter Jackson and Damien Echols have co-produced a film, West of Memphis, which played at the Sundance Film Festival earlier in the year. It focuses on the new evidence, which points fingers at Terry Hobbs. Following the life-changing experiences of these three documentaries, it has become one of my most anticipated releases. I highly recommend seeking out these documentaries. They left me shattered.

10 comments:

  1. WEST OF MEMPHIS

    Remember that title. When that doc comes to your town, drop everything and see it. It's all about the investigation, and provides damning new evidence on a certain individual. Saw it at Sundance. It's absolutely incredible!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh, I intend to. I would have had no idea what that film was about if I hadn't seen these. Thanks for the info, Sebastian.

      Delete
  2. Seeing the entire trilogy back in January was a truly haunting experience considering everything that happened and the fact that there's still a killer on the loose. I wasn't happy about the verdict though I know why the three men chose the verdict. I do believe they're innocent but I shared Mark Byers' frustration on the fact that justice wasn't served. It's a true indication of how flawed not just judicial system is in Arkansas but in the entire U.S. It's an absolute mess. I really hope they catch the killer whether or not it is Terry Hobbs. Three young men were accused of something they didn't do and had nearly 2 decades of their life taken away like that.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I agree with all of your thoughts here. They were a truly haunting experience - and like you I am not happy with the justice served. Though, the evidence against Terry Hobbs is pretty glaring, huh?

      Delete
  3. Waiting to see the third one. Great review and now looking forward to West of Memphis. I wish they could just find whoever did this but it seems after so much time, that will be incredibly difficult.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Look forward to hearing what you think of Purgatory. It is maddening what the new evidence suggests.

      Delete
  4. Kinda one of those situations where the whole thing really goes beyond the realm of movies. Which is why - and you mention that - even if there are issues filmmaking-wise it's really meaningless. This was literally life and death.

    Although, that said, I heard an interview on NPR with the filmmakers where it was posited that Mark Byers was kind of turning himself into the main character as filming progressed. An interesting notion, I thought.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yeah, absolutely. There aren't too many issues with the filmmaking, except maybe the objectivity of Revelations, but that wasn't the filmmakers fault. I can totally see Byers turning himself into the main character. He has a lot of screen time. So much so, that he became a strong suspect for a while.

      Delete
  5. I was actually just searching for these docs on youtube to see if they were available. I caught Purgatory on HBO earlier this year, but have never seen the first two in full.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You should check them out. The Child Murders of Robin Hood Hills is especially groundbreaking. In my opinion it is the best because of the privileged access the filmmakers had to the courts.

      Delete